Have you ever sat at a table with a group of people and NOT felt like you were a part of the group? Have you ever sat there and felt like you had so much to offer but no one seemed interested? For many years, I have served in churches and worked in jobs where it felt just like that. Occasionally, a small church might recognize some benefits of keeping me around, but they asked me to serve out of the goodness of my heart with little or nothing to provide monetarily. My first church paid me $25 per sermon which equated to three sermons and $75 each week. The second church I served at offered me the church apartment on the church property as long as I also performed maintenance and janitorial work. Neither of those tenures ended especially well. At any rate, I have continued to serve in churches where I agreed doctrinally and I was allowed to serve in some fashion. I began preaching more than 35 years ago. I have served as a church planter, senior pastor, associate pastor, youth pastor, traveling youth evangelist, founder of a four-year discipleship program, and sundry other positions within the local church. I have a BA in Religion and Ministry and a MA in Biblical Counseling. Despite all of my experience and education, my offers to help churches – even as a lay person – have gone without response in most cases.
At first, this sounds like there must be something terribly wrong with me as a person or with my theology. I bought into this for quite a while until the Lord corrected me. You see, I’m not the only one who has felt this way or had this experience. You can serve faithfully in one church and then be deemed doctrinally deviant when you pray for God’s leading and vote against a leader’s family member to be approved for particular position. Or you are suddenly unfit for ministry when another leader wants your position or is jealous of you. Or you could go to the leaders of the church to share what God has laid upon your heart after multiple people have seen the same need, and you can be met with silence, a polite “thank you” and a “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” or “We just don’t have the resources for that” even after you’ve told them the Lord had already provided the resources. At the end of the day, one is tempted to feel rejected, invalidated, and disconnected.
Having both served in the pulpit and sat in the pew for so many years, my perspective may seem a little different than some. When I thought I was doing well in leadership, I may not have actually been doing well as a true pastor: a true shepherd. One of the greatest unmet needs I have seen in churches today is the provision of what is known as “secure attachment.” The renowned researcher John Bowby defined the concept of attachment as “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” If people feel rejected, invalidated, or disconnected, chances are they do not have a secure attachment with that local church body. Part of the evidence for this point is the high rate of loss we have in our college and career age groups. This seems to be the smallest age group in our churches. Some pastors have justified this by claiming that there aren’t any colleges in the vicinity of the church, and their college kids and singles simply attend a church closer to their college. That might be true, but I’m not convinced that that many of their kids are away at college. If these young people have a secure attachment, I believe they will have a greater likelihood of maintaining their values and remaining in their church – or any church of like faith.
Another evidence for this lack of secure attachment I believe is the lack of personal investment in the local church. I’ve heard and even said, “My people are totally devoted! They are simply not able to give or serve any more than they already do.” I have been part of two churches in my life where secure attachments were provided, and those churches “gave until it hurt” and served with all their hearts. These were not wealthy congregations by any stretch of the imagination either. To encourage this, some pastors have created three to five points that accurately represent the purpose of their local body and encouraged virtually any member in good standing to serve in any manner as the Lord led them as long as it met with all of their purpose points and did not counter their doctrinal statement. In those churches, members served and seemed to feel very secure in their church. They were faithful!
I’m wondering if our commercialization of the local church and our attempt to not offend people’s personal emotional space has also led us into the era of disconnected churches. As long as you are on the board, one of the leaders’ close friends, or a family member, your church provides secure attachment, and your pastor feels like they are doing a great job. If you are a pastor, may I recommend that you step out of your pulpit and find out why people have left your church? May I recommend that you explore changing the relationship climate of the local flock to match that of the secure attachments of the early church? Finally, may I recommend that you have others (not necessarily your family or cronies) help you evaluate your personal life and your attachment styles to see if you might not be leading the church in secure attachments because you do not have them yourself?
If you are a church member or regular attender where you feel rejected, invalidated, or disconnected, may I recommend that you try something unusual before you move on to the next church body? Try finding anyone in that church to try connecting with. Try this with multiple people over the span of a few months. Try seeking them out each week specifically to greet them, ask about their health and activities, find common interests, ask how you can pray for them, and then find ways to meet outside of church – possibly to eat since people tend to relax and bond over food most easily. In a church where you don’t feel like secure attachments are common, this may take a few weeks. Don’t give up too quickly. If, however, after several months of serious attempts you have not been able to develop healthy attachments (healthy vs. unhealthy is an entirely different conversation), then feel confident in moving on and asking the Lord where He would like you to go. In the next church, don’t wait for others to approach you. Instead, immediately try the aforementioned suggestions and see if things don’t work out differently. Who knows! Maybe there is a church that needs you to teach the members and the leaders what true, healthy secure attachments look like in the church body.
For another post… How do secure attachments affect our theology?