There are times when it becomes necessary to move from one church to another, this might be because a church has departed from what the Bible teaches on primary issues touching on the Gospel or because you have changed your own position on some thing important and central to the beliefs and practices of that specific church. Sadly where there has been abusive behaviour, this cn lead to people in effect being driven from a church in search of safety too.
There are times when it may be beneficial to receive new people into your church from other churches. Transfer growth where a family moves into your area or where, in agreement with the elders at their previous church, someone commits to join with you in mission can be a good thing, especially for churches in hard places with a desperate need for mature Christians to take a lead in ministries and to be a stable, loving, support to new Christians.
However, in general, we don’t want to be encouraging people to be moving churches, we want to encourage them to commit and be faithful to a church family. Certainly, it is not a great look when church leaders themselves begin to target the members of other churches. We have a term for that “sheep stealing”.
I wanted to draw attention to this because COVID-19 has created a level of uncertainty and unsettlement and this may well lead to some movement between churches. As we begin to see greater levels of re-opening over the next few months, we need to think about how to handle that. The pandemic created situations where churches had to make judgement calls that were not popular with everyone. Leaders were in the absolute opposite of a win-win situation. If you chose to remain physically closed and continue online after July 2020, then there were members who were frustrated because they were desperately wanting to meet face to face again. If you did re-open physically, even if you were extremely cautious and careful with safety measures, then you were likely to get it in the neck from some who thought it wasn’t safe yet and that you were being reckless.
Indeed, there was a point where some churches chose to open even though the Government had instructed temporary closure again for the second lockdown in England (and for the third one in Scotland). And in some cases churches took a stand because they considered some of the other measures to be unnecessary too. What concerned me at that point was that I heard some church leaders talking about how they were getting new people coming and that among them were Christians from other churches. They were providing something that believers were hungry for and that other churches were failing to provide.
It is worth observing here that when we start to positively encourage people to leave their church to join ours that what we often have to do is to take a secondary issue and escalate it so that it becomes of first importance. I wouldn’t want to push people to leave their church over a COVID-19 compliance matter unless I in effect considered the other church’s decisions to be apostate.
Another factor is that it has been suggested that around about 20% of any church’s attendees will not return after the pandemic. This adds two further factors. First, this may lead to pressure to replace them quickly. Secondly, I believe that this figure is predicted to include both people who leave church altogether and those who choose to use this time to move on to another church.
So, as we approach the end of the pandemic and things begin to return to normal, I’d like to encourage church leaders to think carefully about this. First of all, I believe that churches should have a clear commitment not to sheep steal. Leaders and staff should give an undertaking that this is something they will not do and that it goes against their values. This should also be in the standards expected of pastors that networks like the FIEC have .
Secondly, we need to think ahead to how we will respond to someone coming through our doors at the end of the pandemic who we know or find out to be from another church. Actually, we should not need to create new policies because healthy policies should already be in place. Where someone comes from another church we should do two things.
- Talk with them to find out why they have left. If there are issues unresolved with the other church and it is possible for the person to take ownership of seeking resolution, we should encourage them to return and put things right.
- Talk to the church that they person has come from and ask them the same things.
Overall, our aim should be to encourage people to return/ remain at their home church and to be happy and fruitful there. Sometimes the right thing to do will be to welcome them into fellowship with you but those decisions should be handled carefully so that God’s name is honoured and the kingdom benefits.