Surviving an American Church Split

In his book entitled “Exit Interviews,” William D. Hendricks writes something astonishing: “Almost all growth reported by North American living church ministries today is the result of church switching and birthrate within the churches rather than conversion growth.”

He’s referring to transfer growth rather than new converts. In other words, it’s easier to go to a restaurant and order baked fish than to catch and clean our own.

Over 3800 American churches close their doors annually throughout the USA. The reasons for these closures run the gamut: real or perceived pastoral incompetency, strife, infidelity in leadership marriages, lack of financial integrity, doctrinal discrepancies, power struggles, persecution, congregational distrust or dissatisfaction (only 43% of Christians surveyed say they fully trust their church), choosing sides on any issue, and more. It’s no secret that church splits inflict damage upon the army of God. Things like divorce, death or sickness of a beloved leader, job transfers, college relocation, military reassignment and the like, wreak havoc upon the rank and file Believer. All of these situations leave the average Christian scratching his or her head in bewilderment as their brothers and sisters in Christ leave their fellowship, never to return.

Is it a “bad” thing for the members of a church congregation to scatter like this? At first glance, yes. But it depends on one’s perspective. Sure, it hurts, causing great emotional pain. Though it’s true, in accordance with Scripture, that if one smites the shepherd, the sheep will scatter, the “scattering of the sheep” has been happening since the early days of the church, often without any shepherd-smiting at all. Whether it was through the influential confusion brought upon the Church by the Judaizers (Galatians 1:7; 2:14; 3:1) or the persecution and subsequent scattering of the Church at the hands of the Romans under Nero’s reign during which Peter was martyred, God was never left wringing His hands, anxiously trying to figure out what His next move was going to be. The Jewish-Roman wars of A.D. 66-70 also contributed to the scattering of the saints.

For the first two centuries of the Church, the Apostle Paul and others journeyed forth across the known world to spread the Gospel. As a result of previous scatterings, while remaining true to their faith in Christ, scattered believers had been divinely positioned, ready to receive these traveling evangelists into their homes and give them provisions for their journey as they went forth preaching the Gospel and as the Kingdom of God continued to advance. Again, notice how the Church had been strategically placed, through persecution, to disciple new converts as they came into being. These people would not have been there to receive the evangelists, had they not been scattered by persecution or any other outside influence that had caused their once-cozy groups to split up. God is always in control.

For starters, there’s the shipwrecked faith of the weaker Christians that so often occurs. Sadly, many Christians will abandon the faith altogether in the face of a Church split, disillusioned as they observe those whom they saw as “solid” Christian leaders suddenly picking up stakes and walking out the door. For anyone with shallow roots, Satan can use a church split to spiritually destroy the most vulnerable. For babes in Christ, seeing the world through rose-colored eyes, nothing on Earth can compare to the sweet fellowship from which they’ve found nourishment. Suddenly, boundaries become obscured. Friends become enemies. Brothers become adversaries. And another church-attender goes down with the ship.

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