Why It’s Okay to Let People Go (Life Along the “River” Called Church)

Sometimes God speaks to me in pictures. I guess a few might call them visions, but that sounds a bit too grandiose for me.

When you’re teaching a child to read, you show a picture of a dog and say (very slowly) daawwwggg. D-O-G spells dog. Do you see the dog named Spot?

We start that way because we’re speaking to a child and not some fully grown, mature adult. So, when God speaks to me in pictures, I feel like He’s saying (very slowly), “Do you see? Do you understand? This is Gaawwddd.”

He shows me things in images from time to time because I’m simple—not super-spiritual.

Now that we’ve got that settled, let me tell you about a picture I saw and something God is teaching me through it.

Here’s the context: I was thinking about a couple who had recently left our church. The details of departure are often different from person to person or family to family, but the stories are generally the same.

  • A couple comes to the church excited.

  • The couple gets involved.

  • The couple begins to have unmet expectations. (This usually takes a couple of years or so.)

  • The couple “hears from God” and they’re mystically called to another church down the street.

A familiar and uncomfortable saga for most pastors.

So, like I said, I’m thinking (which is a nice way of saying complaining to myself) about a couple who had just pulled the God card to leave.

I’m frustrated.

I’m disappointed.

I’m irritated with myself (wondering why I can’t be a better leader/pastor).

Then it happened, and it was incredible. I clearly “saw” in my mind’s eye a picture of a river. I could tell it was wide in places and narrow in others. At times, it was deep, and in other spots quite shallow.

The river moved at a steady pace, and yet it wasn’t very clean. In fact, there was a good deal of debris in the water. Then I saw people—lots of people—floating down the river. They came into my view, seemed to slow for a bit near me, and then they moved on.

Some of the people seemed happy and content, but some of them looked either bored or apathetic. I couldn’t tell for sure.

All I know is that I was on the shore watching these people, and I felt uncertain regarding how I should view this movement of people floating down the river.

Suddenly, in my “vision” I was no longer along the river, but I was standing on the shore of the Dead Sea. In fact, I recognized it because I stood on that very shore about four years ago when I visited Israel.

It’s desolate.

Nothing grows in the Dead Sea. No plants. No fish. Nada. It’s weird to look at something so large and realize it’s so . . . well, dead.

In the next 2.2 nanoseconds, the Holy Spirit whispered to my heart, “It’s better to be a flowing river than a dead sea.”

Really, God? Duh.

But then it hit me (context is everything), it’s better for the church I pastor to be a river where people flow in and out than a dead place without movement.

In other words, it’s better for individuals to move in and out of our community of faith than it is for me to hold on to them with a death-grip.

As a pastor, my natural inclination is to gather and to care for those who come to our church. But as a broken man, my unholy impulse is to hoard people like they belong to me. I want more people; not fewer. I like bigger and better, and I think bigger and better comes when people arrive and stay put.

Apparently, however, God wants me to see that it’s better to hold loosely and to embrace the reality that folks come and go. They always have; they always will.

As a pastor friend and mentor once told me, “Everybody is leaving.”

Sometimes they come for right or wrong reasons. Sometimes they leave for right or wrong reasons. But their coming and going create movement, and movement means you ain’t dead!

Yes, we want to build a healthy church.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with staying for the long haul at the same church.

No, I’m not rationalizing the unholy mobility of fickle Christians.

But I am addressing a reality: people come and go. They just do.

I can fight it.

I can complain.

I can resist it.

Or . . .

I can embrace the potentially life-giving flow.

And here’s what I came to realize: a change in my perspective was freeing for me. Today, I have far more peace and a much better attitude.

Now, I’m more focused on discipling those along my bank of the river for whatever season they are there with me.

I realize that every departure is an opportunity for someone new to get engaged.

I’m still treating people like they may be around forever, but I’ve let go of my need to dam up the river so no one ever leaves.

They don’t belong to me. They’re not mine. I don’t own them.

He does.

And though a flowing river is challenging at times, it’s still always better than the Dead Sea.

Rather than taking it personally when someone leaves your church, see it as an honor to pastor them for the period they are with you, however long that is.

By the way, I’m not talking about lost sheep who wander. Of course, we go after those people with a passion. I’m referring to those who share life with us for a season until they move on to share life with another pastor and another church.

I can almost hear the “yeah, but” from a few of you.

  • “Yeah, but, shouldn’t I stand against the flow of our uncommitted and unfaithful church culture?”

  • “Yeah, but, I’m pouring my life into these people just to see them move on? How is that okay?”\

  • “Yeah, but, how am I ever going to build a strong and impacting church with a constant stream of newbies?”

I know the arguments. I’ve used most of them to justify my need to stockpile saints.

There is, however, a better way.

  • Selflessly pour your gifts into others for their sake and the Kingdom’s sake, not yours.

  • Choose to bless those in your sphere of influence without any strings attached.

  • Trust Jesus to build His Church despite the reality of shifting saints.

  • Alter your expectations, and see the flow for what it can be—a river of life.

Without question, this is hard. It will cost you. It will be terribly painful at times. I know.

Nonetheless, we follow One who modeled a way of life that should and must affect the way we pastor people and care for His Church. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” Mark 10:45 (NIV).

We pastors love to use that verse to challenge our people to sacrificial service. Perhaps, it’s again time to apply it to our ministry.

We serve.

We give our lives away.

We die.

Just like Jesus.

Welcome to the river called the Church.

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