|Photo: flickr/Thomas Leth-Olsen|
They walk into your church; they are nicely dressed; they are carrying well-thumbed Bibles. You talk to them a little.
You find out they have been members of five different churches in as many years. You hear that each of their previous churches had major flaws—heretical worship practices, weak or foolish leadership, apathetic congregation members—and they are now seeking a “more biblical church.”
They look around your church. They tell you they think this might be it, that your church might be The One. They smile.
Oh, yes, you have met this family.
These people have very specific (and often extra-biblical) ideas of what the church should be and do, and they have left collateral damage in the churches of your community as each one failed to measure up. In a lifetime of Sundays, this family has never been happy in any church. And today they have come to yours.
1. Don’t Commiserate
This family has a long and sad story to tell. They believe that all their previous churches have been wrong in serious ways: theology, leadership, ministry, family life. And they are looking for someone who will hear their complaint and validate their response. Don’t do it.
While it is true that every church fails to live up to its high calling as the spotless bride of Christ, it is unlikely to be true that all other churches in a one-hundred-mile radius are fatally flawed. Nor is it likely that this family is totally blameless.
Encouraging tales of woe about other churches serves to crack our bonds of Christian unity with believers in other places, and it fosters bitterness in the heart of this disgruntled family. Instead, urge them to take their concerns to the church leaders, to reconcile their past conflicts whenever possible, and to pray faithfully for the beloved bride of Christ wherever she gathers.
2. Don’t Swoon
This family will also—and usually by contrast—say flattering things about you and your church. While they think previous churches have been sloppy about their practices or their priorities, they think your church is doing everything right. This family will tell you they are so happy to find a place where—finally!—their own convictions and the convictions of the church align perfectly.
It can be tempting, especially for a small church in need of new families, to swoon. From the first time this family entered your meeting room, everyone has been excited about their arrival: They have five young children! They can quote the book of Leviticus! They have gifts of hospitality/teaching/organization/evangelism! They sing harmony!
We can be thankful for new families, while not placing our ultimate hope on them. No one family, no matter how orthodox or gifted, is the answer to our church’s every need. Instead, we entrust our church to the God who “arranged the members in the body each one of them as he chose” (1 Cor. 12:18) and who promised a kingdom whose increase will never end (Isa. 9:7).
It can also be tempting to hear this family’s words of praise and become puffed up. After all their bad experiences, they think they’ve finally found a perfect church. We’d like to think it is, too, and pride and self-righteousness are not far behind. But this church, like every other church, is comprised of sinners. This church, like every other church, desperately needs her Savior. And we would be arrogant and foolish not to admit it.
We’re glad you visited, we say. We hope you saw something of Christ here, we say. We know God will place you where he wants you, we say. And then we leave them with the Lord.
3. Don’t Change
Inevitably, this family will discover that something is wrong with your church. Maybe the members don’t all educate their children in the way this family believes is best, maybe the church leaders don’t always choose the type of worship music this family prefers, maybe the pastor preaches a certain text with a different application than they would like to hear.
And whether it’s communion or the children’s ministry, this family will probably ask the church to change.
We must always be reforming—always seeking to bring our practice and our priorities into line with the Scripture. But we also need to have confidence in the prayerful decisions our church has made. If we worship or serve or fellowship in a certain way, it is with biblical reason. Probably it is also the way hundreds of God’s people over multiple generations have sought to faithfully practice holiness. We do not have to be uncertain or apologetic—we do not have to change—simply because this family stridently demands it.
4. Don’t Despair
After a lifetime in ministry, when that family walks into my church, I can catch myself humming “I Know a Heartache When I See One.” But the ability to predict trouble (I can) and to reflexively shield myself from it (I do) is not the way of Christ either.
This family might be trouble, but they might also be fellow sinners saved by grace, on the road to the heavenly Jerusalem, and growing in Christ day-by-day. The Lord may yet soften and mature them, and he may do it in the very pews of your church. God is still turning the pages on their story, just as each of us has seen him turn many in our own. Pray for this family.
And even if the worst happens, even if this family comes and goes in a whirlwind of hurt, we can have assurance that our Jesus will carry it all. He tenderly cares for his blood-bought church at every moment. And the One who shouldered all our griefs will someday wipe all our tears.
Here comes trouble. Cast them on Christ.