Many Leave. This is Why We Stay.
Mark and I have been members of our congregation for over 27 years. We’ve seen some stuff, okay? Great stuff, bad stuff and everything in between. Over the years we have known a large number of military families, students, and soon-to-be doctors.
The location of our congregation makes for a lot of coming and going. Military families bless you for a few years, then move on as they are reassigned to a new base. Students graduate and move on. Doctors finish those last years of medical school and then get jobs in other cities.
People leave because their work calls them away.
New people come in. Every Sunday there are new faces. It’s a bit rough because we really treasure friendship. You make a connection with people. Their kids and your kids become good friends. You love each other through a few of life’s storms, and then they’re gone. Thank goodness for phones and the internet! It’s so much easier to stay in touch with all the new technology.
Being part of a congregation with a lot of short-term members has its challenges. Saying goodbye to dear friends after a few short years tops my list. But as I get older and look back, this overturn in membership has presented some unique challenges to our leadership. Challenges that most churches probably don’t face.
Because of the universities and wonderful military presence and in our city, people come to us, literally, from all over the world. When they arrive, they all have a lifetime of experiences and expectations. If you haven’t traveled much and if you’ve lived in the same place for a long time, you may not be aware of the fact that faith is expressed differently in other parts of the nation and the world. Churches differ in their expressions of worship depending on where you live.
If I were to move to the east coast of the U.S. and visit a church, I would bring my decades of southern Bible-belt experience with me. Worship would no doubt look and sound a bit different.
If I went overseas and looked for a church family, it might resemble what I’ve always known in many ways, but there would also be some glaring differences. Some things might seem down-right odd. And I would no doubt seem odd to those believers.
I say all of this to lay a foundation. Our congregation and our leaders often have to deal with somewhat unique situations.
When you consider how different we are as individuals, different upbringings, different educations, different training it’s an absolute miracle that anyone gets along at all. To think that a congregation of over 400 can gather and worship as one body is miraculous! God must be at work.
Recently, our congregation has been experiencing a loss of membership.
It’s not the first time this has happened and it probably won’t be the last. Congregations have their ‘seasons’ of growth and loss. But an alarming number of my brothers and sisters have decided to worship with other congregations. Their reasons for leaving are perhaps as unique as the people themselves. I haven’t asked them, so I don’t know.
Here is what I do know.
I know that I miss them.
I miss seeing their smiles, getting hugs and hearing the singing of individual voices.
I miss praying with them.
I actually ache a bit, you know?
Imagine a family reunion where your favorite aunt can’t attend. She’s not there to hug your neck and share a laugh. Her tasty ‘signature dish’ is noticeably missing from the table at mealtime. She’s missed.
A few people have asked my husband and me why we’re still there. That’s what the subject of this post is supposed to be about, why we stay.
We stay because there are older Christians involved.
Many of them have loved us through some tough times. They stayed and loved us when we were a mess. It’s such an effort for them just to show up on Sunday.
I know this because I cared for my parents in their last nine years of life. They were two of those precious, older members.
Unless you’ve seen it, you have no idea what it takes for them to attend services. But they do it anyway. They put in the effort. They feel a need and a call to worship.
And I have a firm conviction that someone who knows and loves them needs to be there to hug their necks, smile at them and ask them how their week went. These older saints need to know that they still matter. That’s why we stay.
We stay because of the young people.
There are sweet, precious, young people that grew up with my own two. Some of these young adults have temporarily lost their way. In those years where they were transitioning from their parents’ home and faith to a faith of their own, they got off track.
They’re out there wandering in this world with no compass.
Our congregation is located in a very visible, prominent area. There’s no telling how many of these young adults pass by each week. I often wonder what goes through their minds as they drive by. Do they remember a time at camp? A youth minister? Retreats with mom’s who cooked and played practical jokes? Do they remember messages and teachers who touched their hearts?
They will mature.
They will feel a hunger for the faith they once knew.
They will hear the call of their hearts for home and the familiar.
Life will beat them up and send them searching for new faith and support.
Chances are, they’ll return to the congregation where they grew up. One day they will come through those doors. I know this because I and several friends are praying for it.
We’re asking God to touch the hearts of our children and countless others to return to the God of their youth. I believe God will answer this prayer. And when these young adults show up, they need to see familiar faces.
They need to be warmly greeted by someone who not only knows their name but is thrilled to see them.
They need to be embraced and loved.
They need to be invited to lunch and ‘fussed over’.
If you have ever returned after a long absence, you KNOW the joy of being remembered! That is why we stay.
Yes, our leaders make decisions I disagree with. Yes, some changes make me a bit uncomfortable. My husband and I have each held positions of leadership over the years, and one thing is for sure, you cannot please all the people all the time. Sometimes the right choice is the unpopular choice.
As leaders, you are often aware of situations most people don’t know about, and these situations will influence a course of action. It is not easy being a leader. And it’s downright hard to be a good one!
But I’m not playing a game of ‘follow the leader’. If that were the case, we would have left years ago. This approach would lead us from one congregation to another every few years.
We are worshiping God. We are serving God. He is our leader. We are following His Son. And when his older children take great pains to show up, and his younger children come home after being away, they need to see familiar faces. They need to be wrapped in hugs and loved on.
That is why we stay.
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