In ministry, we are guided, in part, by the Great Commission— to share our faith in season and out of season. And often, this drive to share our faith can often be conflated with a drive to grow our church. I have had this happen to me as well. I have had people share the Christian gospel with me, and I let them do it even though I am already a Christian. But as they shared the faith, it really quickly drifted into “their form of faith” and they seemed genuinely bothered that I was a fellow Christian but not switching to their own specific church, or sect, or theological perspective.
This seems pretty messed up to me, but what about the opposite. Is it okay to be a bit discouraging of people switching to one’s own church? I recall a story of a man who sought to convert to Judaism. Talking to a rabbi, he was shooshed away. It was only with the man’s third attempt to have the rabbi oversee his conversion that the rabbi relented and guided him through the process. As a Christian, this seems weird. While the US Marine Corp has long utilized the slogan “The Few, the Proud, the Marines” to suggest their elite status, Christian churches tend to follow a slogan more akin to, “Come on in, we will take anyone.” And in some ways, that is good. God loves and accepts anyone, so how could we do less?
However, while there is no excuse (that I know of) to discourage someone from following Christ, there can be reasons to discourage someone from switching to one’s own church. Some churches can be toxic and perhaps one doesn’t want to have a young believer thrown into such toxicity. Some churches are not a good fit for someone (this may not be a good reason to reject someone, but it may point to the need of informed decision-making on the part of the person). However, I will give a couple of examples from my setting in missions.
- Shortly after arriving in the Philippines, I became a member of a church that organized medical missions. My wife joined that group. Even though it was officially a local church ministry, in practice well over half of those who joined were from other churches. We certainly welcomed our medical team members to visit our church. However, we did not encourage them to change church. Medical missions is based on partnership. When we encourage volunteers to leave their own church and come to ours, it sabotages those partnerships making it difficult to work. If we do a medical mission near our church, if we want to partner with other churches, we really can’t prioritize our church over other churches when it comes to new believers. If we in a distant location we have to partner with another church, we really limit ourselves if we only work with churches that are part of our same association or theology. We need to show these other churches respect if we hope to continue to work with them.
- A few years later, we were part of a different ministry… one we started. It was a counseling center where we also taught Clinical Pastoral Education (we are still part of that organization). We were working with a local pastor. Our group was ecumenical, but that particular pastor kept putting pressure on the volunteers as well as the trainees to join his church. That did cause problems. It is hard to get trainees to come if their church or denomination know that we are working in some way to undermine them. In fact, after we had resolved that issue, I had ended up telling more than one person when they were talking about denominations and churches, “Please don’t leave your church (or denomination). We are hoping to continue to work with your church (or denomination), so we hope you will continue to still attend there and serve there.”
If one accepts the catholicity (mystical union) of the Body of Christ, and sees that as preeminent over a particular theological novelty, or a specific sect, I believe one can serve far more effectively in missions. Perhaps a third story would suggest this.
3. My wife led a friend to Christ. Although, we did not pressure her to join our church, she chose to, and, in fact, her family and our family worked together in church for several years. However, soon my wife’s friend had a concern. One daughter was very active in a church that was of a very faith tradition. My wife’s friend wondered what she could do to get her daughter to switch churches. My wife’s suggestion was to not discourage her in any way as to the church she is presently attending. She is not only attending but also involved in ministry there. It is not a cult… let her be. The daughter ended up staying in that church for another year or two. Eventually, she did switch churches. However, she did not join our church or denomination. She actually joined a different denomination and eventually became a missionary. It is my view, at least, that her decision to follow God in missions comes, in part, by not embracing a church wars. (I do remember one time saying something to her disparaging of one aspect of her new denominations’s theology. It did no long-term harm. However, it came from a bad place, not an edifying place.)
I do believe that one problem this competition for church membership can also show itself in confusion as to what the gospel is. As I noted at the start, it seems like for some, sharing the gospel is, for them, getting someone to become an attending and tithing member of their church and the actual message of the gospel is an inadequate and unsatisfying part of the presentation for them.