Sorry, I can’t promise it will be any different

There are times when people leave churches that you can credibly tell them that a move to your place would resolve their problem. If you have joined my church because yours has started denying the trinity or have decided that they want to be known as a local ‘affirming’ church, then sure, you’ll be able to join us and not find that to be a problem. If your issue is very specifically doctrinal, and you are genuinely happy with all other aspects of your church up until that point, then you may well be fine.

But nine times out of ten, that is not the reality. Most people are not looking to move churches because of a genuine gospel issue, but tend rather to have a fringe issue writ large. Even in cases where there are some doctrinal concerns, it is unusual for that to be their only issue. In jumping ship, they are often not leaving only over a doctrinal matter but find that is but one issue among a sea of others.

The problems is that, under those circumstances, I can’t promise things will be any different with us. I know what I like to believe about our church, but if it’s not an objective doctrinal issue (that your old church denies and we affirm or vice versa) it is a subjective matter. ‘My last minister wasn’t very pastoral’ is hard because, much as I’d love to believe our church would be better, fact is that ‘being pastoral’ is in the eye of the beholder. If you couldn’t stay because you just didn’t feel there was enough community, exactly how much community is acceptable and what ought that to look like in practice? We might believe, along with most of our church, our community is alright, but you might have different ideas altogether. The list of possibilities is endless.

The other problem we’ve got is that, even if the issue on which you are leaving is valid and we definitely wouldn’t cause you the same problem, we can’t guarantee that we line up with everything else you were cool with at your old church. So, whilst we may teach that particular doctrine your old church now denies, we can’t be sure that we will be as good at praying for you, or pastoral concern, or discipleship, or whatever else you may have liked. We might not do the one thing that exercised you before, but we probably will do a bunch of other stuff that you don’t like in altogether different areas of church life.

There are issues that are central gospel matters, that a church may insist it will not maintain, making it very difficult for us to stay put without being unfaithful ourselves. But when these are not the issues at stake, it is very hard for us to be sure that things will be any different. This is especially true when the discontent we are experiencing is – despite the way we feel about it – really more to do with ourselves than it is the church.

Often, we know that we are discontent and we are sure that the problem cannot be within ourselves so we look to hang the issue on the church. The thing is that you will still be there in whatever church you move to next. Your discontent will follow you and, such as you are discontent now, you will be so then. Sure, the specific point of tension might be different, but you can fairly well guarantee there will be other problems. If your discontent is driving you away from a church, and it is not an objective matter of gospel truth, it is necessarily a subjective matter related to your discontent. And if that is true, how can we have any great confidence we’ll be any different? Discontent is in the eye of the beholder.

I’ll be honest, I am immediately wary when people tell me they are moving from another church that I understand preaches and teaches the gospel. That’s not to say there aren’t ever legitimate reasons to leave such places. It’s just that, in my experience, those joining us complaining about their previous church rarely aren’t doing the same to us 6-months down the line. Our church will be no more perfect than your previous one – it might be different in some areas, but that will probably be a mix of both good and bad – and so, I’m sorry to say, I can’t guarantee things will be any different with us.