5 Ways to Thrive in a Transient Church
June 20, 2018
by Jamie Dunlop
How many people in your congregation will still be at your church in three years? Ten years? Some congregations are fairly static, but for those that aren’t, transience poses some unique opportunities and difficulties. In my own congregation, 20 percent of us left in the last year, and half of us are new in the last three years. I know several churches near me with a “churn rate” nearly twice as high.
That transience can be good! Because of transience, there’s special urgency to get into relationships quickly. Because of transience, there’s always room for new friendships. Because of transience, my church is constantly equipping people and sending them out.
Yet with churn comes challenge. As one longtime member at my church expressed, it can feel like hugging a parade. People leave to take a job, to care for family, to help with a new church—people leave all the time—and it gets tiring. How many times can you explain to your 6-year-old why her best friend moved away? Beyond that, the need to start new friendships doesn’t slacken as you move from your 20s to your 30s to your 40s and beyond—but during those years, time can feel progressively tighter.
Engaging a transient church can be demanding, but as Paul writes, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).
How can we not grow wearing of doing good in a transient church? Here are five strategies I’ve learned from others in my church.
1. Treat Your Church Culture Like a Trust Fall
Perhaps you remember the game: you stand on the edge of a table with people behind you. Then you close your eyes and fall backward—and ideally they catch you. The culture God has built into many churches is like that: it allows you to take relational risks. We commit to each other not because we’re comfortable yet but because Jesus instructs us to love one another (John 13:34). And within those safe walls of commitment, relationships flourish. It’s a bit like marriage, where you make huge promises of commitment to someone you don’t actually know as well as you think you do. Then, inside the safe walls of those promises is a relationship unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
In a church, you can tell someone you’ve only known for a few weeks about your struggle with doubt, or your sin of pride, or your conflict with your roommate. That’s your trust fall. And because this is a church and not just a social club, that person will “catch” you. You took a risk, placing trust in a nascent friendship. Because of the commitment already made to you as a fellow church member, that risk worked out. Sometimes you’ll experience the relational equivalent of getting “dropped,” but more often than not, you’ll be okay. So don’t become weary of taking these risks.
2. Live Near Others in Your Church
Especially in a church like mine that describes itself as “organic/relational” instead of “program-driven,” proximity is a significant asset in building relationships. When I joined my church 20 years ago, just a handful of people lived near the church building; the rest were scattered across the metro area. Today, half of us live within walking distance. How did that happen? Bit by bit, more people saw the benefits of living near others in their church and made the move.
That geographical “centeredness” has great benefits for our congregation: it lowers the barrier to spend time with others at church (say, for new moms trying to fit in fellowship between nap times); it increases the likelihood that the neighbor you’re sharing the gospel with already knows someone else in your church; it facilitates a ministry of hospitality among our members. This may not be an option for your church, but for many it is, and someone needs to start the trend. Why not you?
3. Learn to Build Friendships Based on Christ Alone
Before you became a Christian, you sought out relationships where you felt comfortable because you shared a great deal in common. Now that you’re a Christian, you value Christ more than comfort. You’re learning a new skill: building friendships with people where all you share in common is the love of Christ.
Not all of your relationships will be that way—some will certainly have a degree of worldly affinity. But if you really act like Christ is worth more than comfort, some of your friendships at church will be with people whom you don’t share anything in common—except Jesus. Those relationships will require more patience and more charity, but over time they might become some of your best friendships. After all, what’s a better foundation for friendship: your shared love of cooking, or your shared love of Christ?
4. Befriend Those Who Are Not Transient
While my church is transient at one level, many people have been here for decades and will likely remain for decades more. While it’s important to build friendships with those who are new, it’s also important to befriend the “stayers.” In my church, I find that after roughly three years, many reach a transition in their friendships. Initially, you’d found it easy to build friendships, but many of those people are now gone. As it turns out, friendships came easily, because other new people were also looking for friendships.
But now you need to have more relationships with those who aren’t going to leave. Building into the solid core of the church will require extra patience, because that core comprises people who are more likely to be relationally full. God calls those in the stable core to always have space for new relationships (to be hospitable, Rom. 12:13), and he calls on those trying to make their way in to be patient in that process.
5. Find Your Zeal to Love in the Love of Christ
Everything I’ve described here takes effort, and weary people can’t simply manufacture effort. When you’re feeling burned out in your church (which for some of us can happen fairly often), find zeal in the riches of who Christ is and what he has done for you. Discover the immensity of how much you’ve been forgiven and at what cost to Jesus. And as that gratitude gives way to love for him, remember that he has called you to love these dear saints around you.
I hope those five strategies are as useful for you as they’ve been for me. And I pray that the transience of your church, in a world that’s passing away, will stir your affection for the kingdom that is eternal.