The Pain of Church Shopping


Not long ago a new family showed up at Haven.  I was really excited to meet them.  They were at Haven because they didn’t like the direction of their former church.  I sent them packing.  I asked them to clean up any messes at their former church before settling on a new church home.  I haven’t seen them since.

Recently a family left our church. One of their members was hurt by another in the congregation. It wasn’t a superficial bumping against one another, but a deep hurt. The kind of wound that creates shame and the distance that accompanies it.

After several weeks I noticed their absence and reached out to them. I was told, “We’re church shopping. It isn’t you, we love Haven. But we believe we need to find another church home.” And quietly they slipped away.

I would be lying if I said the conversation didn’t hurt. It did. In some ways, it still does. Sometimes church people can be really mean to each other and that hurts my heart. More so, however, it hurts because I miss people I love.

I pastor a congregation that often sees many people come and go. There are valid reasons for leaving a congregation; and there are some pretty superficial ones. But we’ve all done it. Even pastors do it.

It’s called Church Shopping.

Fast forward. Several months. Almost a year. I am approached by a dedicated servant in the congregation, “Hey, have you seen so-and-so? I haven’t seen them recently and we were supposed to lead this ministry together.”

Feeling a little defensive, but not wanting to gossip, I am left with, “they have been looking for another church” as my response. The person I am talking to experiences some shock which transitions into sadness as well.

And here is where leaving where you are planted and shopping for a new church hurts so many.

We tend to do life from a perspective that puts us in the middle of the universe. Our comfort and/or desires become the end goal. So when we leave one church for another, we are usually only thinking about ourselves and not the people who will be hurt. Usually. There are always the exceptions.

Most of us think about our relationships with a congregation as a one-on-one relationship: me-to-church (the staff and attenders are all put into the church category) and the church-to-me. And when we leave, we typically think only about what we experience – which is valid to be sure! But, it isn’t the whole.

Our relationships within a congregation are not merely one-on-one, but they are multiplicative (a new word I learned from our children’s pastor).

Let’s say a family of 4 (and a dog) leaves a congregation. It isn’t just four people leaving a church. It is four people leaving a number of relationships. Let’s say the family knows another 40 families of 4. But that’s too big a number for me to work with – I don’t do math!

Let’s say each member of the family is close with 20 different individuals. According to my old math, that represents 80 direct relationships. That’s a lot! But let’s keep going. Let’s assume that each of those relationships takes place within a sub-system of other relationships.

To keep our math simple, let’s say there are 6 people in each subsystem and that there is an overlap of 50% in each subsystem. That means each individual relationship with one other person is actually a relationship with 4 people. In simple math that means each relationship is like this (1 + 1) x 3 = 6. Six relationships are changed or broken when one person leaves. So if each member of a family of 4 is close to 20 other individuals and that family leaves a congregation, the math looks like this (1 + 20) x 3 x 4 = 252.

252 significant relationships severed, broken or damaged when one family of 4 leaves a congregation.

Last year a woman came to me in tears following an exchange from another woman in the congregation who is in a leadership role. She wanted to let me know she would be leaving Haven. I encouraged her to stay. To work through it.

Both of them took on the difficult work of reconciliation and repaired the relationship. Both of them shared with me they grew more spiritually in that time than they can ever remember. The whole church, without knowing it, has been blessed by their growing love.

What is the Holy Spirit saying to you?

3 responses to “The Pain of Church Shopping

  • George Lawton

    The enemy prayer (“God, bless my enemy with every blessing you have for them”)(period, no giving advise about how those blessings should be worked out) is a very real way to allow the Holy Spirit into both the relationship and the individuals involved. It seems so easy but has un-foretold potential for great Kingdom growth.

  • brokeninside

    A re-orientation of thinking about the true nature of the Church is necessary. If we are merely a voluntary organisation of human origin, then it is perfectly acceptable for people to come and go as they please. And, whether or not that is the case, they will do so anyway.

    However, what if the Church is actually not a voluntary organisation? Those of us most familiar with her processes may well laugh out loud at the mere suggestion that we are an organisation of any kind, since organisation may not be our strongest suit! And what if we are not of human, but divine, origin? How often do we hear Jesus’ words recounted, “Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst”? I won’t go into all of the countless times this is misused, but it should get us thinking that we are divinely “called out” (since that is the very meaning of “church”), and the community meal that we share is one of the Covenant. Who is the Actor, and who are the “acted upon,” in God’s covenant? Surely, if we begin to comprehend that the Lord, because of His wonderful grace alone, has condescended to us purely because He chooses to do so, then we should also move towards understanding that we are also covenanted together in the same way as the Church. It is inevitable that we may have clashes of personality, polity and (dare I say it?) theology in Christ’s body, but, if we actually understand that we are His body, then we may become much more hesitant about “jumping ship” at the first sign of any of these.

    Either way, since we are all Christ’s, we will have to spend eternity with each other, whether we choose to make peace with one another before we reach heaven! Apparently getting used to that idea is more than some of us can handle…

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