First, why does one leave a church? I suppose when it comes down to it, there are many reasons:
- Environmental (too dark, too loud, don't like the music, too long)
- Theological (too much topical preaching, inaccurate interpretation of scripture)
- Social (not connecting with the community, too many cliques, judgmental culture)
- Cultural (too focused on attraction and not enough on the building up of the body, too charismatic, not charismatic enough, too emotional, not balanced)
- Personal (He/she did/didn't do/not do something).
Lifers are the exception to the rule. Church lifers will stay at a church, believing that they will either make a difference in that church (despite all evidence and experience to the contrary), or that they will outlast whatever leadership or cultural shift has occurred or is occurring. They just have to endure, because it's their church.
Ultimately, the only reason people ever leave a church is because of the leadership – including pastors, teachers, elders, deacons – or whatever post-modern leadership structure the executive management of the church has decided to setup. Leaders create the culture, make the decisions, and affect the relationship their congregation has with them is so many ways. It's unavoidable.
Even Jesus did not tolerate the leadership of the Jewish church (let's not assume that the church of Jesus' day was the same as ours – it was strictly Jewish). The Pharisees had their own ideas of morality, religiosity and faith – and expected their followers to adhere to that vision. There was no room for an individual relationship and support of that personal relationship from the leadership.
It's not so different in many churches today. Would Jesus tolerate the behavior and attitude of your church leadership (or you, if you're a church leader reading this?). It is an inescapable fact that the culture of a church is an expression of its pastor, pastoral staff and in some instances, its congregational leadership. It's leadership that influences the factors in the list at the beginning of this article.
Second, why do we think that other people are validated in their faith, only if they are serving in a manner we judge to be worthy?
Some will claim they must serve because "Jesus said they must," or that it's out of obedience, or that they are guilty.
We're called to serve out of love. Not love of serving, but love for God through Christ. We should obey because we love, not obey to prove our love. A legalistic, law-driven approach to service (I scored points today because I served!) is completely contrary to grace – expressed in a relationship where I love and serve as an expression of that relationship with Christ and love for Christ. It's the truest form of worship – our spiritual service – because I am responding to who God is and what he's done in my life through Jesus Christ.
Some people love to serve in ways that affect individuals on a one-to-one basis. Others choose to serve in ways that have greater impact that is just as valid. The key is, not everybody serves in the same way, and not every individual is gifted for every service opportunity, and that's OK. Don't forget, we are one body, made up of many parts.
If church leadership neglects to encourage people to serve outside of the church and its chosen programs, then the leadership (and the congregation) have completely missed the point of the gospel. We are to be salt and light in the world. There are many organizations that provide opportunities to serve, but since we can't get past the fact that they aren't called ministries, we don't consider them valid. In fact, I think Jesus would say "You know, the gospel is just part of the story. There's a lot of history about my Father and his love for humanity, his relationship with Israel, the glory of creation, the beauty of relationship. If you're only concerned with sharing the gospel, you're missing the point. I want you to be an ambassador for me wherever you go, wherever you serve. Represent me. While you're at it, mention that I came to reconcile people to myself, and you want to share this message of reconciliation." (2 Cor 5:17-20).
If a church's leadership does not value the service of an individual, and by extension the members of its congregation – especially if the service is outside of the officially endorsed church service opportunities – then the congregation will carry that same attitude in their relationships with others in the faith. This is how Pharisees are created.
Church leaders have a solemn obligation to create a culture where service flows from relationship with the Savior; from grace and not guilt. Equipping your congregation to serve and be examples of service means that you will embrace and encourage opportunities for service – especially outside of your church.
Church leaders need to recognize and support those who take personal risk and initiative to volunteer for leadership positions. Do not fail by assuming that you as a pastor are the only one who knows how to be a leader. Don't play favorites, and don't set your congregation up for failure.
Don't make Pharisees. Teach people to be ambassadors. Then, by God's grace, they will make disciples.