Transitions are hard. We’re sending our second daughter off to college this week, our son to his last year of high school, and our youngest daughter to a new school. There’s a lot of change happening around here. And there’s also a lot of stress surrounding all the unknowns like new relationships and friend groups. Helping our children make healthy transitions is vital to our role as parents.
Similarly, as pastors, pastors’ wives, and ministry leaders, we have a responsibility to assist our members when they transition to a new community. But it’s rarely a streamlined process.
For those members who’ve invested deeply in the life of their local body, the transition is painful as the roots are deep and the ties that bind them are strong. Some may need extra care to transfer their commitments to a new church family. They may be tempted to just stay connected to their old church family, continuing to depend and lean on us in ways that prohibit them from investing in a new body.
How can we help these brothers and sisters make the transition into a new family of Christ?
1. Cherish the beauty of God’s design.
A local church is a gathered body of believers where the Word is preached and where the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are practiced. It’s the family we belong to where we live out all the “one anothers” that we read in Scripture (e.g., Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12; Gal. 5–6; Eph. 4–5; Col. 3; 1 Thess. 5; Heb. 3; 10; James 5; 1 Pet. 4–5). It’s how we encourage one another daily and even more as we see the Day approaching (Heb. 10:25). God’s design for his church is life-on-life, face-to-face ministry.
God’s design for his church is life-on-life, face-to-face ministry.
A lot of spiritual good can be had through the internet and social media, books and webinars. We can also bless absent members over FaceTime or Zoom Bible studies, but nothing replaces God’s structure of life together as believers in local churches.
Our job as ministry leaders is to help brothers and sisters see God’s plan for his church while they are making hard transitions. Teaching about the importance of the local church ought to begin in the front door of our membership classes. It ought to be reinforced in our church covenants, as in my local church where we promise, “If we leave this church, we will join another gospel-preaching church as soon as possible where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s Word.” That way when they head out the back door, they’ve been biblically catechized in their responsibility as Christians.
2. Challenge them to commit.
Building new relationships is exhausting both physically and mentally. When members who leave a local body struggle to connect with a new congregation, they may be tempted to go back to old relationships. The problem is that virtual connections don’t offer the kind of interactions necessary to grow spiritually.
Addressing the local churches in Rome, Paul wrote about his longing to “see” them (Rom. 1:11). In 1 Thessalonians 3:10, he notes his desire to “see [them] face to face and supply what is lacking in [their] faith.” We might see one another on a digital screen, but Paul had in-person interaction in mind here. No matter how good the digital world gets, there’s simply no substitute for flesh-and-blood relationships.
My dear friend lives miles away. We use various social media and communication apps to stay in touch, but there’s nothing like when she gets off a plane and I get to just sit with her in person and talk (usually for hours). The digital platforms are great, but they pale in comparison to being in her presence.
It’s through human interactions that we really get to know one another and grow with one another. Paul exhorts the Philippians to imitate him (Phil. 3:17). How can you fully imitate someone if you’re never with them? For a young mom, nothing can replace sitting in the kitchen with a mother of teens and watching how she interacts and functions as a Christian in that environment. You can read a book on parenting teens or watch a reel on Instagram, but I assure you, it won’t help you imitate in nearly the same way. In-person relationships take time and sacrifice, but they’re so worth it for our souls’ sake.
3. Check your temptation to play God.
Ministry leaders have a caregiving tendency that can lend itself to “playing God.” We might believe the lie that if we don’t keep Zooming or praying with absent members over the phone, they’ll suffer and we might lose them. Or if we push them too hard toward another church, they may become disillusioned and it’ll be our fault.
How can you fully imitate someone if you’re never with them?
But in 1 Peter 5:2, Peter exhorts the elders of that local church, “Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight.” Peter intends the elders to be looking out over the people entrusted to that local body. The image is one of a shepherd with his hand on his brow surveying the flock. How can he exercise oversight without being among them?
The best way we love absent members is by making sure they’re present in another body—all the while recognizing God is the ultimate Shepherd who knows each of his sheep, and they cannot be lost from his grip.