Churches are often faced with a revolving door respecting the membership. The transient lifestyle of many makes settling into a church long-term challenging, and perhaps this reflects why many churches do not exercise a formal visible membership. Families do come and go, and there are many legitimate reasons for such this. Though we may be sad to see them leave, we understand why.
But then there are those painful experiences of watching a family leave, and you do not know why. Concern can be met with speculation as to why, but it can feel like losing your right arm, and having to learn to write and do everything with your left. And there is that awkwardness of seeing them in the store, viewing their Facebook page and seeing them in a new church setting, and the pain hits you. WHY? Because in the church, true membership has a spiritual component: For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and have been made to drink into one Spirit [1Cor.12:13]; and Paul was addressing the local church here, as the following verses note. It would be far more tragic if you were not painfully impacted by the sudden loss of a member or family from your church. The Holy Spirit makes us feel the break in communion.
Where the pain can increase is when their side of the story is heard, and their reason for leaving is not overly kind: “The church wasn’t meeting our needs.” “The leadership offended us.” “The church has become legalistic.” Or the generic “We need something different in our life.” All of these comments resonate emotionally and, again, painfully impact the body. It is difficult not to take such comments personally. It may even be hard to keep such comments from affecting your own view of the church and leadership. Their departure, in many ways, seems so wrong, and you feel it.
May I offer some perspective for you as a member to consider:
1) A believer or family that has left making these kind of excuses just may be experiencing sin in their life or household, and this is their way of dealing with it. To leave a church in an un-biblical manner is often a sign that some sin is at work. Sadly, many allow sin to rule in this way.
2) The leadership is labouring in ways you may not see. Often such Christians or families are leaving the very place that can help them the most, but they do not want that help, or think they can handle things on their own. But the Lord Jesus Christ has given the “keys of the kingdom” [ministry of the gospel and Word, Sacraments, disciplines, etc] to the church for the purpose of saving, nurturing and guarding his people. It is no small effort to exercise these keys faithfully, prayerfully, tirelessly, and gently upon those who have left.
3) To see people leave when they need help the most, is heart-wrenching; and particularly for the elders, there are many exhausting evenings of labour and prayer in exercising that “shepherd’s heart” for the sheep.
What can you do as a member?
Pray: this is no small task. Pray for your leaders burdened for the souls they have been entrusted with by Christ. Pray for the member or family that has left in such a manner. Pray they may be humbled to work through sin in a biblical and mortifying way, and see that the church is their family, strength and help; not an enemy. Pray until the Lord has responded either through their return or closure to their leaving has happened. May I urge you to listen to the sermon "Providence and Changed Hearts" for encouragement in the long task of repentance.
Be wise: do not allow Satan to draw your thoughts into despising your church or leaders. The sowing of discord is the work of the evil one, and all must guard against it. As well, be wise when you meet this member to express concern, prayers and counsel that directs them back to the church leadership.
Do not ignore the situation: if such a person was your fellow-member, then you are hurting as they are. Acting like there is nothing wrong when you see them never works. Ask your elders what you can do to help. Join the effort to seek their reconciliation. Speak to them as a fellow believer and friend.
Watch your own soul: heed the warning of 1Corinthians 10:12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall; and exercise Galatians 6:1 you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. These points ought to guide your own thoughts and actions. All too often we can sit in condemnation of one another, or of the leadership, and literally do nothing. That is sin too.
Look to Christ: what a comfort to know the Lord Jesus is King and Head of his church. Remember, this is his church. He is at work; he is interceding; he is the one who walks among the "candlesticks" and has given the Spirit to do the work we cannot - convict and humble the mind and heart of everyone involved.
The Church, like a family, has its good and hard days. But if your child wandered away, you would not join them in their wandering, nor would you listlessly stand by unconcerned about their absence. You would make every effort to contact them and help them return home.