How to Keep People from Leaving in a Crisis
“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16).
We can’t say the Lord didn’t warn us. Although, clearly, some did not get the word.
In Matthew 10:16-42 our Lord is preparing His people for their future ministry with its pressures, persecutions, betrayals, and conflicts. He tells us how things will be, what to expect, and what actions we should take when bad things occur. To our shame, our people are rarely taught this, and thus are blindsided when turmoil erupts in a congregation.
And so, when the enemy attacks the church, God’s people panic and flee like chickens in the barnyard when a hostile dog arrives.
We all pay a big price for our failure to prepare the people.
It’s a familiar story, one which I heard again today. When the pastor resigned suddenly due to his own foolish behavior, many in the congregation panicked and went into a tailspin. The leadership wants to carry on the program, but people are leaving the church in droves. What to do? Can anything be done at this late hour to keep members from jumping ship?
The best time to act is two years ago. (“Oh, thanks a lot, wise one. You’re a big help!”)
Paul was doing this very thing–preparing God’s people for future turbulence–when he told the elders/pastors of Ephesus: “Take heed to yourselves to shepherd the church of God... After my departure, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also, from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:28ff).
Forewarned is fore-armed, as the saying goes.
We who are charged with leading the Lord’s flock have to prepare our people for upheavals and turbulence. The disciples of Jesus must be taught to keep their eyes on the Lord and not on man (or woman). In addition to the basic discipleship skills of daily time in the word, regular prayer, fellowship with God’s people, generous giving, ministry of serving, and such, they will need something more in order to be locked in/belted-in for whatever the future holds.
Here’s the text…
“A rope of three cords is not easily broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
We will need our people to be strong in three areas in order to withstand future upheavals.
Interestingly, this line from Scripture–about a three-corded rope–almost seems out of place in context. The passage is talking about the advantages of two-person teams: they have a good return for their labor, they can lift each other up, each can warm up the other, and they can resist an attacker more easily. And then, inexplicably, we read: “A threefold cord is not easily broken.”
Most preachers I know take that as meaning that God Himself should be a part of the relationship, whether we’re talking about marriage or friendship or a partnership. We cite this verse in weddings to make the very point.
I’d like to apply it in another sense, somewhat out of context, but still in a valid way.
The three-fold rope which will tie people in to the church is this: Pulpit, Peers, and Purpose.
1. We need a relationship with the pulpit. We need to believe in and support the pastor.
No one would want to unite with a church where they had little confidence in the minister. And yet, we take this to the polar extreme when we make that the only reason we attend a place of worship. If the preacher leaves, our sole reason for being there evaporates, so we leave.
Confidence in what is preached and the pastor’s leadership should be only one reason we are in a church.
2. We need peers. Good friends in the congregation.
As we serve God through our church, we form friendships. Anyone who reads the last chapters of Romans and 1 Corinthians will come away knowing that not only are these people Paul’s co-workers, but they are his friends.
Fellowship was a big deal in the early church. (See Acts 2:42). People got together and worked/worshiped together in order to bond. They needed one another.
When a deacon asked me where the Scripture teaches our responsibility to other Christians–he was skeptical–I referred him to the hundred or so “one anothers” found in our Lord’s teaching and throughout the epistles. Al Meredith and Dan Crawford found 31 separate commands of this type, and gave us a chapter on each in their book One Anothering. I recommend it highly.
The Lord clearly did not intend His people to try to live the Christian life in isolation. The first thing He does when He saves us is put us in a congregation of like-minded people. We need each other.
3. We need a purpose. We need to find our ministry.
Each church member should have a place to make a difference for the Lord, whether it is on the church grounds–teaching, cleaning, encouraging, praying, singing, etc.–or in the community as a part of the church’s outreach (which might include clothing or meals ministries, backyard Bible clubs, witnessing, etc.).
Why? When one cord breaks, the other two are still intact and strong.
When the pastor (pulpit) self-destructs, the congregation does not leave because they still have their friends and their personal ministries. When some friend turns against them, they still have their pastor and their ministry. If that ministry ceases to exist or is taken from them, they still have the pastor and their friends.
A rope of two cords will still hold the people in.
–A church I know was built around a strong pulpit. The minister attracted great crowds by his preaching. However, most were not tied to the church with friends and a ministry of some kind. So, when the next pastor was found to be an adulterer, hundreds bailed out, leaving the remnant of the congregation to deal with the millions owed for the sanctuary built by the popular pastor.
–A staff member was telling some of us about her apartment ministry in a big Texas city. “When our church went through a crisis,” she said, “a lot of people left. But not a single person who was involved in our ministry left the church.”
–In one church I pastored, a young couple with great leadership skills and a heart for ministry was displeased with me. I hardly knew it because it was not something they ever came and talked to me about. But I found out later that they gave serious thought to leaving us for another church. So, why didn’t they? Because even though they might not have respected the pastor very much (to this day, that grieves me), they still had all their friends in our church and a Sunday School class they were leading effectively.
They were locked in by a rope of three cords.
What to Do in the Middle of the Crisis
So, what should the leadership do now if the people were blindsided by the turmoil and are leaving? There are no quick, easy answers. The primary one involves a lot of hard work: Get your team together and make home visits to everyone you even hear may be thinking of leaving. And then, during those visits…
–Listen to their hearts.
–Pray with them for the Lord to bless them, to bless His church, and to show them what to do now.
–Encourage them. Even if they leave and join another church, they’re not bailing out on the Lord. So, affirm them as much as you’re able.
–Then, at some point when the meeting has accomplished about all it can, ask if you can share a Scripture. Read Matthew 10:16-42, all of it, aloud, with them. Make the point that Jesus clearly knew trouble of various kinds lay just ahead, and He wanted them to be prepared. (Or, you could read selected verses from the Upper Room Discourse–chapters 13-16 of the Gospel of John–which were given for the same reason, to prepare the disciples for the rocky days awaiting them.)
–Write them a note when you get home, and mail it the next day. Thank them and encourage them, and assure them of your friendship in the Lord regardless of what they do.
Whatever else, you must never let church members leave your church without a word from the leadership. They need to know you care, that they matter, that you take seriously what is happening.
Don’t be panicked if they attend another church. Many of them will be back if you and the leadership will handle this crisis inside the church well and the work goes forward.