I ardently avoided Facebook for many years until an old high school buddy contacted a bunch of us and suggested we all sign up. He said it would be a great way to keep track of each other.
I reluctantly acquiesced, and within a few weeks, I was hooked. I was so because I was able to connect with people I hadn’t seen in twenty or thirty years. It was a Godsend. It didn’t hurt that it turned out to be a great ego booster as well. Some people who I didn’t even remember looked me up to tell me what a wonderful effect I had on their lives in my early years as a pastor. Who knew?
One of the people with whom I reconnected was an old clergy friend of mine from back in the day. We hadn’t seen or spoken to each other for over twenty years. It was a joy to get back in the saddle with him along with all my other old acquaintances.
One day, he posted an article that grabbed my attention. It dealt with the reasons people leave their church. Being a pastor of some thirty-five years, this naturally piqued my interest.
I checked it out, read it, and was impressed by what the author said. I wish I had copied it and squirreled it away somewhere. It would have fit in well with this book. The real fallout from the article, however, was its source. When I traced it back, it had been “shared” from a Facebook page entitled “Local Church Escapees.” It was a private group, so I asked them to let me join.
The name of the group had really grabbed my attention. I’m not sure I had ever considered the possibility that some folks thought of themselves in those terms. When I perused the page, I discovered the interesting truth that most of these escapees were still die-hard Christians. They were, however, done with the institutional church (the IC as they called it over and over again).
I had previously assumed that those wanting to leave the local church were fringe people—people that are often referred to as “pew warmers.” The term, pew warmers, usually denotes people who sort of hang around but never really get involved. They are folks who are looking for fire insurance but not discipleship—people who want to be called Christian but don’t want to make the commitment. I was apparently wrong. You know what happens when we assume.
I became a member of this group in order to find out what made them tick. It seemed to me that we of the IC should learn why such committed Christians would flee (escape as it were).
What I found were people with legitimate complaints. I found folks who loved the Lord but could no longer hack the church. I must admit, I was a bit flabbergasted. More importantly, I related to many of their complaints (but, of course, I had never escaped—or even tried).
I didn’t last very long as a member of that group. I think they got tired of me posting my repressive propaganda amid their stream of freedom. I guess I can’t blame them, but I felt bad that I lost their input. More importantly for me, however, was the nagging feeling that we of the IC were missing something.
If there are people who feel the need to escape, what does that make the institution from which they are escaping? The immediate thought was this—it makes us a prison. Is the church a prison from which people need to escape? That’s apparently true for some at least.
What about those of us who are left behind? Does that make us prisoners? This thought began to haunt me, and I meditated on that question for a long time. I finally began to explore it through a series of sermons entitled “Local Church Prisoners.”
It took me about eight months to wade through that topic. If we were indeed prisoners, by what were we bound. What held us in our chains? What were our bars? What cells did we occupy?
As I took up this theme, I began to see there were definite areas of our church lives that imprisoned us. Furthermore, we had only ourselves to blame. We had become prisoners of our own little traditions, our own petty rules, our own prejudicial biases, and our own way of viewing Scripture. It wasn’t pretty.
What’s worse, the bars we had erected were not merely keeping us locked inside. They were keeping others out. The very things we usually struggle to attain (new visitors and more members) were being blocked at the entryway by our attitudes and practices.
Being what I like to call a Biblical Christian, I felt the need to go back to the Scriptures for answers to my questions. If committed Christians were leaving the IC and their complaints were legitimate (and definitely ones with which I could empathize), we were doing something wrong.
What we were doing wrong was avoiding the call of God on our lives. To make matters worse, we were propping up the status quo to justify it. We were building prisons and becoming comfortable in them. We were avoiding some of the basic teachings of Jesus to be what we wanted to be—what we felt like being. In doing so, we became lazy, weak, and ineffective. No wonder people sensed the need to escape. We were dragging them down.
In the pages that follow, I will flesh out that sermon series and attempt to explore my conclusions with you. You will not find all the answers here, but I promise you’ll be challenged to become a disciple rather than a prisoner.
By the way—the Local Church Escapees eventually let me back into their group. I promised to be good (plus I think they felt sorry for me).
Author, Preacher, Teacher
Local Church Prisoners
Dave is working on the final draft of his second book.
He's currently using the working title of "Local Church Prisoners." Here's the preface which explains the premise of his theme.