How do church leaders deal with members who have not returned since the Covid lockdowns?
I have heard various responses over the past few months. As churches opened up more and more over the past year, there was the hope that the people would return in droves. Rather, as feared by some, many have remained aloof from the church.
A common suggestion is that leaders “remind members of their vows” when they came into membership. After all, members have promised to serve the church and submit to the elders.
But this response strikes me as a bit cold.
In part, because I have watched with great disappointment as the church did all it could to tear itself apart during these two to five horribly polarizing years. Where the church should have raised up to help those who were being devastated by both the pandemic and the economic results of the shutdown, instead it was going to battle with governments (local and federal) and with one another.
The church seemed to become more concerned about its own belly button than for its mission to God’s world. It became all the more “musk ox,” as Dick Keyes describes in “Chameleon Christianity,” than a missional body seeking to bring hope and healing to the lost.
So, as members of Christ’s family have become disheartened by the actions and hurtful words of God’s people, I have stopped short of blaming them for their reticense to come back into worship services. Though I believe Scripture teaches that the church is God’s design and He is ever building it in His ways and according to His desires, I also empathize with these folks.
I believe that we need to listen to these people and seek to understand their difficulties. Then we can determine if we can love one another in better ways in order that they may want to hold to their vows.
We need to remember that a church member’s vows were to the church that Jesus has built under leaders that are following Him. . . not the leaders’ political party or other man-made rules. [Believe it or not, Scripture does not teach on our political party registration]. It seems that when all else fails for leaders to retain power and authority, they require submission to them as their fall-back position.
Look to Jesus
Rather, we should look to Jesus, the Shepherd of our souls, for the kind of leadership He demands of His elders and pastors.
And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”Mark 9:33-37 (ESV)
Jesus used receiving a child as an example for their leadership model.
What does that say to church leaders? At the very least, it suggests humility. Particularly, in the New Testament society, children were the humblest of all. They had NO authority. Who would listen (or receive) a child as important?
Rather than playing the authority trump card (no pun intended), consider asking these questions of those who are struggling to re-engage with the church:
- Are there ways the church leaders, or members of the church, have made it difficult for you to return?
- Are there ways the church leaders have failed to be Christ-like in their leadership?
- Are there ways we have added to Scripture or subtracted such that you do not trust our leadership?
- How can we serve you as shepherds?
But, you must not stop there.
Many leaders will ask these questions and then show their toxic leadership by then telling members what’s what. The leaders will defend and justify themselves and their congregations rather than humbly respond in empathy (even when the member is wrong). . . hearing the hearts of their sheep and recognizing that they have their reasons for being hurt.
Nearly every individual I know, who is failing to return to church at this time, has good reasons. Those reasons are because they feel beat up after every service by well-meaning, but Pharisaical leaders. . . leaders who have added to Scripture their own ethical and political standards.
Leaders, turn your eyes upon Jesus and turn away from holding your authority tightly. Seek to be last rather than first. Serve, rather than be served. Defend the sheep rather than self.