Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pastoring a Church with a High People Turnover

Our  church  has always had a  high “people turnover“  in   its 26 years of existence. The church  is situated  in  a more affluent suburb of  the city Windhoek. The face of the church changes  substantially roughly every 5  years. There is a stable  core group of people  in the church   for which  we are  very thankful, but the yearly  losses  always gnaw away at the yearly gains   that are made. Thankfully, we are ‘edging forward’, but  we are not a  fast growing church.    There is one other church  in Namibia  with the same  tendency   -  the Swakopmund Baptist Church, where Francois Koch  has  been the pastor for the last  4 years.

Why  this high people   turnover? As  I have recently  reflected on this phenomenon, I wanted to share this with you  the causes  and the  positive and negative  experiences  one has in pastoring such a church.


Firstly, in the  early 90’s   we  had suffered heavy  membership losses  as  mainly  ‘white‘ South African   citizens  were being repatriated   back to South Africa  after Namibia became an independent nation  in 1990.  I remember that in the first two years of my ministry we may have  lost  as many as  50   percent of our membership.

The second reason  for membership attrition  was initially   a lack of doctrinal  clarity  among ourselves, and then  ironically,   it was  doctrinal clarity!  There were those who were not happy   when we   became  a  Confessional  Baptist Church in 2001. We  chose the  historic  1689 Baptist Confession of Faith  for this purpose.  The reason was simple. It is good to stand upon  sound historical precepts, and we did not want to reinvent the wheel.
This is something that Charles Haddon Spurgeon  also did  in 1855 after he had  been the minister  of New Park Street Chapel, London for a few months. He  was determined to strengthen the doctrinal  foundations of the church, and he was instrumental in  getting “the 1689”   re-published for this purpose.

I am  sorry that  we took so long to see this. Don’t get me wrong.  Having a confessional  basis in the church will not  usher in the Kingdom of God  on earth!  However   the  Confession  does  provide   a stable doctrinal platform  and a common basis  of theological understanding  from which we may operate. The Confession of Faith together with our membership classes  serve to provide as a solid   foundation  upon which new members enter into the church fellowship.  Christ  the Saviour  is  proclaimed throughout; the authority of the Scriptures is upheld in our preaching; Grace alone  is the basis  upon which we  enter the Kingdom of God, by Faith alone.  The Confession  and the membership classes  exist  to bring glory to God.
Since we had instituted this rule  we have seen very little  doctrinal disagreement among ourselves. Those who do not agree  to submit  to our Confession will simply not join  the church.

The  third  reason for  membership attrition is church discipline. We have not had many instances  of this  over the years, but there   have been instances  where  people were removed  on the basis of Matthew 18:15-20.  We believe in church discipline, for that is what the Bible teaches. The church receives and if necessary,  dis-fellowships  members  who sin defiantly.  In some cases members have chosen to leave before church discipline could be applied.

The fourth reason  for membership attrition  constitutes by by far the  major factor in our community. People  leave the church  because their work contracts end.   A number of  our members  come from other countries  and therefore  they inevitably will move back to their home countries.  Namibia  has very stringent immigration  rules   and it is virtually impossible for anyone  from the outside to receive  permanent residence, let alone obtain citizenship in Namibia.

Over the   years we have learned  not to hold on to people. We are glad if we could have encouraged them on their pilgrimage to our heavenly city. We  are  encouraged  if they  have grown in the  knowledge of the Lord  Jesus Christ whilst sojourning with us for a little while.  So, in the course of the years  our  standard question   to  those coming and going  has been:  “Are you leaving in a better shape than  when you have arrived ?“

Our present elders and deacons have enjoyed a  stable tenure

Positively then it has been  a good experience to  meet so many interesting  people over  the years. Our church has always had an international flavour  and I  personally have learned  so much from this “confluence of the cultures”.

I believe that  the ideal of Pentecost (the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2)  is  often being seen in our congregation  when many nations are  present, and  living together  in harmony  and unity.  This is a true privilege to behold  and  is indeed  a little foretaste of heaven.
New people also sometimes bring  a  certain  ‘freshness’  with them. It is very hard  for our  church to become stale. At times it is a challenge  to help newcomers  not to be too enthusiastic  in terms of  wanting to bring  their previous church experience  into our situation.

Negatively, we have found it difficult to say goodbye  to so many people over  the years. It is difficult to make close friends when you  have to part  yet again.  I   generally  struggle to get close  to people  that I know will leave again  in a short while. It takes a lot of energy to invest in friendships.

Continuous turnover also means that  you have to  constantly re-teach  foundational principles.

Moreover, people  who  come on short term assignments, tend to be  reluctant to get involved.  Happily,  they  begin to think  otherwise  when the logic of Scripture is pressed upon them. Many ‘short termers’ have thus had a  good  and fruitful ministry among us.

We have also found it difficult to  build a leadership in a constantly changing environment. When people  come and go in such a rapid fashion   you are barely able to train leaders before they must leave again. The same is true for gifted people in various areas of the church. They normally leave a big gap in the ministry.

Lastly …
Having said all this  we are grateful that the Lord  continually adds people to the church. In the last few years I have been pleased to observe that we have  had a good number of conversions from among   our  local  people. We are currently praying for  the suburb in which we  have been planted as a church, and  are eagerly looking out  for those who are willing to hear  the gospel message.

In the  meantime Eastside  Baptist Church shall continue  to reach the nations on our doorstep whilst also  praying that many of our nation will come to  the knowledge of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.


Conrad Mbewe said...

One of my reasons for choosing to pastor Kabwata Baptist Church so many years ago was that I wanted a church with a high turnover of students. At that time, I figured it was the best way to establish churches in other towns. My thinking was that most students who come to study in Lusaka only stick around for about four to five years and then go back to their towns of origin. If during their stay in Lusaka, we could impact them with the gospel and introduce them to the Reformed Faith, they could easily be our tent-making "missionaries" when they return to their towns of origin.

We lose about 15 to 20 people every year and about half of those would be students going back home. Like yourselves, it has been good to see the impact that the ministry of KBC has had on their lives. Many of them are now part of new church plants where they are. They are serving as church officers, ministry leaders, and even preaching when the missionary pastor is not there. When they were at KBC we did not know they could preach!

So, there is something positive to be said for these "losses". We spread the gospel and the Reformed Faith each time we lose these members. Hence, our losses are our gains!

Buks said...

Dear Pastor Rieck, I write as an elder from Bethany Baptist Church in Centurion, Gauteng, South Africa. I see on your blog front page that you have membership classes on Wednesdays and I was wondering if you could perhaps let us know what your approach is in these classes and what kind of material you cover. We are beginning to realize the importance of such classes and would like to try to implement a regular membership class. Any info and advice will be deeply appreciated. Thanks for your blog - it is greatly appreciated.

Buks van Ellewee
buksve (at) gmail.com

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