By Brent Bullard
Protestant congregations share core theological beliefs, but that’s not all we share. Our memberships are similarly comprised of at least five categories of church people. Whether you share coffee next week with a pastor from a different denomination or gather for an associational fellowship, you’ll find these five categories in each of our churches.
1. Generational — “I’ll be here forever”
According to a 2017 Lifeway Research study, 27% of Protestant churchgoers have been with their congregation for 25 years or more.27% of Protestant churchgoers have been with their congregation for 25 years or more. Click To Tweet
A sweet neighbor of mine falls into this category. His congregation, he felt, had “fallen into serious compromise over the past 20 years.” You read that right—20 years of compromise and this brother remains steadfast. When I asked why he was so committed, he traced his family lineage in that church back to the 1850s. Regardless of the changes, he’s not going anywhere. He’s a generational member.
2. Confrontational — “I’ll be back once you’re gone”
Whether the confrontation is between pastor and member or member and another member, most congregations bear the scars of relational conflict. Many of these are personal rather than theological.
According to another study from Lifeway Research, fewer pastors experience conflict in their churches over doctrinal differences (12%) than issues such as proposed changes (39%), personal attacks (39%), or leadership style (27%). A change or lack of change was made. A comment or lack of comment was given. A personal preference was violated. The layer of unhealthy conflict has moved to bitterness.Pastors are more likely to experience conflict in their churches over proposed changes (39%) or leadership style (27%) than doctrinal differences (12%). Click To Tweet
In the congregant’s mind, a person has now become the problem. Short of Spirit-led repentance, a physical return to church will not occur until another’s departure. Sadly, the two are unlikely to coexist in the sanctuary.
3. Recreational — “I’ll be here when I want”
The power of preference is the spirit of the western age. Lifeway Research found most Americans (58%) believe worshipping alone or at home with family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when a noticeable portion of our members take on this casual, American mindset of coming and going as they please. Whether it’s competing with the outdoors, the youth sports leagues, or the “Sunday Funday” mindset, many members will attend church as a fallback option rather than a vital component of healthy discipleship.Many members attend church as a fallback option rather than a vital component of healthy discipleship. — @Brent_Bullard Click To Tweet
Preachers ought to feel emboldened to address this from the pulpit, but many who need to hear it will likely be at the beach. When 68% of Southern Baptist members aren’t in the pews on any given week, it’s reasonable to suspect that most are pursuing what they believe is a better option. A personal, loving conversation over coffee or lunch may be most effective for shepherding our recreational members.
4. Relational — “I’ll be here as long as they are”
Relationships are invaluable. Friend to friend, pastor to member, or small group leader to member—relationships matter. Some say it doesn’t matter if you have a clique as long as everyone in the church has one. The problem with this comes when a key member of the clique leaves. The entire clique may soon follow.Some say it doesn’t matter if you have a clique as long as everyone in the church has one. The problem with this comes when a key member of the clique leaves. The entire clique may soon follow. — @Brent_Bullard Click To Tweet
For some who say their local church is their family, they may only be referring to a handful of people. They’ve not embraced the entire body, just a limb. Every pastor has had this painful phone call: “Pastor, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Johnsons are leaving … and to be honest I’m not sure if we are going to stay either if they go.”
Ironically, these phone calls are rarely personal. The pastoral staff can’t do anything to encourage them to stay because they didn’t do anything to influence them to leave. To the pastor in this position, I’d encourage you to err on grace. Pursue the “Johnsons” and the wavering member. Make peace with them. Share your love for them and your sadness of their departure. Shepherd them one last time, and if they’re departing to a sound church, call the pastor and bless their way.
5. Devotional — “I’ll be here because He’s honored“
The first generation of Christians were marked by a devotion to God’s Word and the gathering together with the local church. Much can be argued about the early church, but their devotion is uncontested. Luke describes the church this way: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer” (Acts 2:42, CSB).
Every congregation has at least a handful of members who gather for God. They aren’t ignorant of the other members. Quite the opposite. They gather because the Word is rightly divided, His praises are faithfully sung, His ordinances are administered, and they can’t wait to be stirred up and to “consider one another in order to provoke love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24, CSB). These are the members who will most pray for you in secret and season the congregation with the beautiful scent of the fruit of the Spirit. The discouraged pastor is wise to slow down and count these blessings. Talk to God about these members, and afterward, send them a hand-written note.There are five types of church members: generational, confrontational, recreational, relational, and devotional. Click To Tweet
The wise pastor loves each of these types of members. Doing their best to fulfill the call to “keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account [to God]” (Hebrews 13:17, CSB). I draw attention to these five common categories as a reminder to shepherd them all with grace. What a joy to have a hand on the plow in this season.
Yes, pastoring has its share of difficulties, but perhaps grasping these will help the pastor not take ministry departures or arrivals quite as personally. Instead, let us as ministers fall into that fifth category. Let’s devotionally shepherd those in our care for the glory of God and the good of the church.
Brent is the lead pastor of Grace Bible Church in Nacogdoches, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Sarah, for 14 years, and together, they have three sons, Uriah, Matthias, and Boaz. He enjoys coffee, just about any sport, and being with and pursuing people.