Every Sunday afternoon in Christian homes across the globe a game is played. I call it, “What ever happened to the Smiths?” This of course is a light take on an issue that frequently becomes agenda item #1 for church board meetings. Why is it that at times there is a surge in a local church’s growth, and attendance numbers seem to double and triple almost overnight; then for a time things seem to level off and, while new people continue to come in and join themselves to that local body, an equal number (or perhaps even a greater number) of others move on and out?
I think there’s a tendency for those in church governance to inaccurately attribute every surge in “attractiveness” to the local community as a sign of God’s affirmation that we and our leaders are doing the right thing. In contrast, many tend to interpret every “no growth period” or falling off of the numbers of congregants as an indication that we must be out of the will of God and need to take dramatic action to reverse the trend. Neither of these assessments need necessarily be true.
There are many reasons for people coming and going in a local church
There are both natural and spiritual reasons that account for changes in the body of believers that make up a local congregation. Among them are the following:
- Jesus tells us that the Gospel by its very nature is an offense to some. So when the leadership preach truth it will drive some away who refuse to receive it or comply with the message.
- Every pastor will occasionally say something that others find offensive or disagree with – just because both the preacher and the hearer are human. Sometimes the pastor is at fault – exposing his personal or political biases about issues in lieu of focusing on what God wants to deal with or reveal to the people. Other times the hearer misinterprets what they hear, because of their own predispositions. Still other times, neither is “in the wrong” – they just arrive at opposing understandings of a doctrinal position or a key area of scripture.
- There is also a natural movement in and out of a church congregation as people mature and are called to other ministries, in other locations. God put them in your local church just for a season: to grow, to be trained, to learn to pray or worship, or some other valid purpose.
- The natural order of change in employment and family situations often necessitates relocations as well.
- Some people just weren’t supposed to be there in the first place. Perhaps they were initially drawn by outward appearances: the attractiveness of the building, the music or the friendliness of the people. But if it’s not where God wants them to be planted, they will eventually come to realize that your local body does not provide what they and their family need at this time in their life.
Pruning of the Body and the Soul of a Church
I’m convinced though that much of the comings and goings of people is because God is cleansing His Church Body and Soul. Every gardener understands the benefits of lopping off superfluous branches. This is done to make the tree or bush bear better fruit, grow stronger and to give it a more handsome appearance. This process is called pruning, and it’s also one of the tools God uses to perfect His Kingdom.
Spiritual pruning effects changes in Christians individually and as an entire local church body, and the Father expects His kids to submit to it. As individuals, we’re either going to allow our character, our attitudes, our behavior, and our thoughts to be pruned – or, if we’re rebellious and don’t submit to this transformative tool, we might find ourselves being lopped right off the vine. Each local church body is likewise defined by its own character, attitudes, behaviors and thought patterns. These generally are representative of the Pastor; but also to some extent of the entire active congregation. And if this body of believers refuses to submit to the pruning process, it too risks dying a slow death and remaining fruitless for the rest of its struggling life.
And who does the pruning?
The focus in this writing is on the pruning of the local church more-so than the individual congregant, though the response of each individual contributes to the whole. So it’s critical to understand who does the pruning? A lot of times the local church leadership thinks it is the pruner – cutting a program here and there, when things don’t seem to be going right based on the numbers. Slow down! Take a breath! You may be cutting the wrong things and failing to graft in the right things. Jesus says that “I am the true vine and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” So Father God does the pruning – if we allow Him. And the Holy Spirit is His intermediary (the voice between you and the Father) that enables your leadership to serve as His pruning instrument.
While no two natural trees or bushes are the same, and each requires study before proceeding to lop off twigs and branches, every gardener knows there are pruning guidelines (standards). You never want to remove extremities that are critical for the lifeflow of the plant, destroying it in the process of trying to improve it. The same is true for spiritual pruning. Leadership, in concert with the Spirit of God, must first study the heart of its church to know how to proceed.
No two local churches on this earth have exactly the same mission. Just like each human being is uniquely designed by the Creator, so each local church has a specific purpose and mission crafted by God. Yet His standards for measuring how closely each is fulfilling that purpose and mission are revealed in His written Word. Answers to the following questions will go a long way toward revealing the heart of a church:
- How involved is your church in reaching the local community for Christ?
- How involved is your church in ministering God’s compassion to your community and would they miss you if you were not there?
- How much does the local community learn about Jesus and Father God based on the actions, words and attitudes of members of your congregation?
- How much does your congregation look first to God’s solution to every situation in their personal lives?
- How much does your congregation give glory to God for their material blessings and successes?
- How much does your congregation expect the supernatural intervention of God to meet their personal needs?
- How involved is your church in helping believers of all ages and maturity levels to grow spiritually – then free them to carry on their purpose as God directs?
If the leadership of a local church with its congregation feel dissatisfied with their answers to the above questions, that is a good sign. For then they are more likely to submit completely to the cleansing process of God – which the purpose is to draw their congregation individually and corporately closer to the perfect will of God.