It’s a temptation probably every pastor faces: “What happens if people start to leave?”
On a crass level, it can be a matter of pride – it hurts when people reject you. No one brags at the next conference or denominational meeting over a declining number of attendees.
Even for those concerned with honoring the Lord and not numbers, it is painful on a number of levels. When you believe you are doing faithful ministry and people can be helped by it, watching them wander away is difficult. It is difficult personally, as people become friends, even when they have been there for a very short time, and you become attached to them (1 Thessalonians 3:8). Additionally, people sometimes leave because they do not want restoration from their sin or change (Gal. 6:1), resulting in grief from us who care about their souls.
Whatever the reason, people leave. It’s just how it goes. There is always room for self-evaluation, examining if there are any flaws of faithfulness or character. But, assuming there is honest striving to grow in those areas, what are we to think? What do we do about it?
There’s plenty in the way of positive biblical instruction, but one negative example warns us how we should not respond when your flock starts to abandon you: King Saul’s disobedience in 1 Samuel 13.
During Saul’s reign as king over Israel, Jonathan, his son, defeated some Philistines (as he was wont to do) and made them really angry (1 Samuel 13:2-4). They assembled in large numbers against Israel to fight, and the people were hiding, running away, and trembling (13:5-7).
Then Saul acted,
1 Samuel 13:8 Now he waited seven days, according to the appointed time set by Samuel, but Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattering from him.
The people were scattering from him!
What would Saul do? Pray that Samuel would come? Keep waiting? Just go into battle? No – he took action, but the wrong kind:
1 Samuel 13:9 – So Saul said, “Bring to me the burnt offering and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering.
Samuel commanded him to wait at Gilgal for 7 days until he came to give Saul his next instructions (1 Sam. 10:8). Instead, he disobeyed:
1 Samuel 13:10 – As soon as he finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him and to greet him.
The result of Saul’s disobedience? Removal of his kingdom – the very thing he was trying to preserve (1 Sam. 13:11-14).
But why did Saul act this way? Why was his action a problem? What lessons can modern pastors learn from Saul’s wrong actions when the people were leaving him?
- Saul trusted in his own ideas rather than submitting to God’s commands. Saul, as a non-priest, was specifically forbidden from offering these sacrifices (Numbers 3:10). More than this, God’s command through the prophet Samuel was ignored: He was to, “Wait seven days until I come and show you what you should do.” (1 Samuel 10:8).
Samuel gave specific instructions to Saul, but for a number of pragmatic reasons, he treated God’s commands as negotiable. “The people were scattering,” he said. We won’t have an army, he thought – or maybe even a nation! The desired outcome became more important to Saul than humble obedience to God.
Pastors are subject to countless options for disobedience in order to keep people from leaving the church, but they all boil down to thinking we have better ideas than God in order to accomplish ministry.
- Saul refused to trust God’s design for leadership. God had split the offices of king and priest; Saul violated that division. Instead of trusting God’s wisdom and waiting for Samuel, he entered into pragmatism: the only way I won’t lose these people and this battle is a seizure of power. To get the desired results, he had to violate the divine design.
Similarly, pastors can take too much power to themselves. They get impatient of letting other people in the body of Christ develop their gifts and begin to do everything themselves. They don’t like the deference and self-denial required of a plurality of elders, so they refuse to make the effort to implement one, or they begin to squeeze out the influence and opportunities for existing elders.
- Saul thought he could manipulate the work of God. What did he think he was accomplishing? He assumed his sacrifice would have some effect, not directly on the people, but on GOD. Saul would force God to work.
Likewise, church leaders today may think if they just pray, preach, evangelize, and do ministry, God will be forced to work. But this is not true! No one can force his hand or manipulate him by any tactic, program, or formula. We utterly depend upon his favor to work through us, which demands our holiness and faithfulness (2 Timothy 2:21).
- Saul overvalued his own importance. In 1 Samuel 4, God had refused to give Israel victory over the Philistines. But when “He” (represented by the Ark of the Covenant) was captured by the Philistines, he went on a solo demolition tour against them, humbling their so-called god Dagon into Yahweh-worship (1 Samuel 5:1-5), and then leaving a trail of destruction upon them from Ashdod to Ekron (1 Samuel 5:6-12). After they sent the ark back (1 Samuel 6), God “thundered with a great thunder” against the Philistines and gave Israel a rousing victory (1 Samuel 7:10-11). Saul should have known God didn’t need his help.
However, Saul acted as if HE was the necessary instrument to save the people, ‘How will God save the people if not by me?’ He was the king, appointed for this specific role, but was he so indispensable that God couldn’t save another way? Certainly not – in fact, who ends up leading the victory over the Philistines? Not Saul, but his faithful son, Jonathan (1 Samuel 14).
Modern pastors can make this same mistake on many levels. They compromise on “minor” issues, downplaying to not create a stumbling block for the “major issues.” They ignore Paul’s example in Acts 20:20, 27, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable… I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.” But pastors often act like God’s purpose of building the church won’t happen unless they feature their particular “giftedness.” “The ends justifies the means.”
Sometimes, pastors think the results are more important than their character and their position is more important than obedience. But God doesn’t think so. He rejected Saul and his pragmatic ways for David, “a man after His own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).
- Saul refused to trust the divine outcome. So what if the Philistines came and killed Saul? Was God unable to produce good from this? Was his own self-preservation more important than God’s honor?
Many church leaders compromise in ministry because they do not trust God to bring the results. They do not think God will bring enough people or that those who are there will “scatter.” They don’t think the kind of ministry prescribed in the Bible (ministry of the word) will sufficiently win people. This doubt takes place, not only on a macro level in the most pragmatic of so-called ministries, but also on the micro level every time a faithful leader starts to doubt he is “doing enough” when faithfully sticking to God’s will.
So what does Saul teach us?
What if the answer to the question “What do we do about people leaving?” has nothing to do with stopping people from leaving and everything to do with faithfulness to the Lord? We can’t make people follow God’s word, but we can faithfully work exactly as God instructs us (1 Corinthians 3:5-15).
The next time people start scattering from His church, let your mantra be: “Wait for the appointed time set by Samuel.” Whatever happens in the church, you can trust it is God’s work, done through the leadership of those whom he approves. This is more valuable than any amount of success we ourselves can produce.