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Free to leave?

The message arrived shortly after I wrote an editorial, titled "Podcasts, preaching and pornography," that compared porn-powered unrealistic expectations in a marriage to podcast-propelled unrealistic expectations in churches. The editorial touched a nerve, judging by the private emails and other comments I received.

My friend asked some great, hard questions. And certainly-but-unfortunately, there are no easy answers.

I tend to tilt away from agreeing that "not being fed" is sufficient reason for leaving a church. But then again, I'm pretty sympathetic to preachers, since I'm (a) a "preacher's kid," (b) a preacher's brother, (c) a preacher's father-in-law and (d) good friends with tons of preachers, and I (e) know from experience how hard it is to preach.

The research shows ...

My assumption is supported, at least to some extent, by research conducted by Willow Creek Community Church in 2007 and published in a book titled Reveal: Where Are You?  (If you follow this link, scroll down to the review.) Specifically, the research—conducted nationwide among 500 churches—shows the two most spiritually mature groups, the "Close to Christ" and "Christ Followers," included a significant percentage of church members who were dissatisfied with their congregations and said they weren't being "fed." 

Willow Creek's critics and supporters have debated whether this is an indictment of the "seeker sensitive" churches. However, given the breadth of the survey and the presence of disappointed "Close to Christ" members and "Christ Followers"  in all the congregations, the survey data point to a persistent problem that transcends church style and focus.

Feed yourself

Willow Creek Pastor Bill Hybels' takeaway from the research concludes churches need to do a better job of teaching members to feed themselves. This includes teaching them how to study their Bibles, encouraging them to practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer and meditation, involving them in vibrant small groups, and  engaging them in ministry and outreach to others.

A church cannot be all things to all people. So, the Reveal survey indicates stronger members should take responsibility for their own spiritual growth while they help and encourage the church and its ministers to provide what might, in other segments, be called remedial support for less-mature members.

Preachers still responsible

Still, that doesn't give pastors a pass on  preaching. Even though they deal with myriad responsibilities during the week, the worship service is most Christians' strongest connection to their church and, often, the primary source of their spiritual grounding. Preachers should do everything they can to make sure they're prepared to preach inspired, helpful, practical, interesting sermons.

To accomplish this, they must exercise discipline. If they don't spend enough time in prayer, Bible study and sermon planning, their shortcomings will show. And given the richness, depth and texture of the Bible, the complexity of our world and the challenge of living authentic Christian lives, no pastor should deliver shallow, dull sermons.

Reasons to leave

About good reasons to leave a church: I lean the other way.

People go through seasons in their lives, and sometimes it's probably best for them to move on to another church, whatever the background reasons. Life's too short—or too long, depending on how you look at it—to be unhappy and to make other people unhappy.

So, if folks can't get reconciled and be joyful and productive in Church A, then I'm in favor of them moving on to Church B. But they also should practice selective amnesia. When they make the move, they need to forget the frustration, anger, resentment or whatever emotions they associated with the previous church, or else they'll just carry toxic feelings into their new church.

This is serious, complicated stuff. Christians of goodwill can, and do, disagree. But we should be honest with ourselves and each other as we deal with vital church issues.

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