Why do you shop where you shop? Why do you work out at the gym you use? Why do you hire a certain plumber? For most of us, these days, the questions I’ve just asked can be answered in a few different ways. Many of us choose to shop where we do because of the prices the store offers, or the selection, or the convenience. Sometimes we choose to shop somewhere for ideological reasons: the store sells local products or organic foods, or we prefer to support local businesses instead of large multi-nationals.
More rarely, I think, we do business with certain places out of a sense of customer loyalty. We’ve done business with them for what feels like a billion years, and we know the people who work there and the owners, and we choose to work with them because we are loyal to them — it has very little to do with their prices, or their ideology (though those things might have brought us there in the first place). When we do business with a company out of a sense of loyalty, our relationship changes with that company.
I believe this is true about our congregations, too. We tend to think about churches as “service organizations.” Many people go to a particular church because they have the best programs, or the most dynamic (or traditional) worship, or the best preaching. Many of us also go to a particular church for ideological reasons: the church’s theology lines up best with mine, or their community involvement falls along the same lines as my values. But whichever of these reasons is valid for us, our perspective on the church is that it is an organization designed to meet needs, and we are among those who are to be served by the church — hence, the church is perceived as a service organization.
One symptom of this kind of thinking, I believe, is the disappearing member. You know the one I mean: the person who attends the church, and may even be a seemingly vibrant contributor to the life of the church, but then, one day, this person (or family) disappears. A few weeks go by, and the leadership notices the absence, but chalks it up to vacation. But then a few more weeks go by, and the leadership starts to be concerned. They don’t say anything then, though, because they don’t want to come across as “checking up” on people in the way that one might be “called in to the principal’s office”. Unfortunately more time passes, and the person/family still doesn’t show up. Some individuals from the church may have connected with the “missing” family, but no one “official” has connected with them. Nor have they connected “officially” with the church’s leadership.
Finally, “official” leaders connect with the family in question, amidst mounting concern. The connection is made, and the Elder says, “We’ve missed you for a while.” And the family member responds, “Yeah, for 6 months!”
Do you see what’s happened here? The members see the church as a service organization — one that should be “serving” them. Why, in that case, should the family be obligated to say anything to the church about their absence? It’s the institution’s obligation to chase down the people that they are to serve, right? And if they don’t? Well, they’re clearly not a very good church, right?
But is that really what the church is to be? I would say no. The church is a missionary family, not a service organization. It would be incredibly rude to just stop talking to your family without at least informing them why you’re not going to talk to them anymore. In the same way, it is wrong for people to just disappear from their church family in the same way. But what do you think? Do you have experiences like this at church? How can we change this part of the culture we have?