Scripture speaks about our going out and our coming in, and experienced pastors have seen a great deal of it. There is, of course, the ordinary going out and coming in, but we also have to take account of the traffic patterns established by those who come in enthusiastic and leave disgruntled.
There are of course many causes of this kind of thing, and wise elders will want to sort through it carefully. The first question should be “is it us?” and not “what’s wrong with them?” The basic Christian reflex should always be to consider yourself (Gal. 6:1). Have we lost something we used to have, or is this just another instance of the “fellowship of the grievance” (FOG)?
Fortunately, these are real questions, which means that answers are possible. Doubts don’t have answers by their very nature. “What if it is my preaching?” doesn’t have an answer because that can always be countered with “what if it isn’t my preaching?” Speculating vaguely is not the same thing as asking questions. Questions have answers. And if those answers are close to home, it is the responsibility of the church leadership to find those answers.
But suppose it isn’t that. One of the easiest ways to tell if the departures are FOG motivated is by looking to see if there are any radical contradictions involved in it. I used the phrase fellowship of the grievance carefully, because if the fact of having a grievance against the church is the tie that binds, you will find people on opposite sides of whatever the ostensible “issue” was teaming up after the fact.
In other words, suppose you have Murphy leave because of his dislike of Smith and all his ways. The elders refuse to deal with Smith and so they lose Murphy. Later on, if Smith gets unhappy with the church (because the elders won’t deal with Hanson) and he leaves also, what should you look for? Right. If Murphy and Smith promptly become fast friends over at the Other Church, this tells you that the separations were not based on an objective grievance, but were rather driven by the perennial need that striving and ambitious human beings have to have a grievance. Just as clouds build up an electrical charge and become thunderheads, so also congregations build up a mimetic and envious charge. When a pastor sees this developing beforehand, his only recourse is to make sure he preaches the vicarious and substitutionary death of Christ on the cross — the only lightning rod God has given us.
In other words, what you have to do is tell the difference between those times when the issue is the issue and when the issue isn’t the issue at all. When the issue is the issue, deal with the issue. When it isn’t, pastoral leadership is still necessary.
When the issue isn’t the issue, what is? It is the desire for differentiation, and it doesn’t much matter how that differentiation is displayed, just so long as it is maintained. When uber-homeschoolers in your church strive for years to not be compromised by your “compromised” Christian day school system, and then collapse one day, leave the church and enroll their kids in the public school, the one thing you can be sure of is that education is not the issue — and never was. When someone departs from his Puritan heritage in order to throw himself into high church fineries for a spell, and then one day chucks it all for the mega-shallow experience, the one thing you can be sure of is that liturgical conviction is not the issue — and never was.
In short, to take yet another example, if you leave a church because of “inadequate discipline” in situations x,y,z and you go to a church where discipline is non-existent, then it is fairly certain that the only discipline you care about is the kind you are trying to avoid personally.
If you quit going to Lloyd’s Famous Steak House because you grew weary of their Famous Burger failing to meet your exacting standards one time too many, but we then see you the very next week on your anniversary date taking your wife to Burger King, we may be justified — and this is just a suggestion — in thinking that something else is going on.