It’s quite a challenge to be a youth pastor in any era, but it was particularly difficult in the late 1970’s. I served in a church that was about ten miles from Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, and many of our people were drawn to the verse-by-verse teaching of Pastor Chuck Smith as well as the praise choruses emanating from that body. (Contemporary Christian music originated at Calvary.) Some people would attend the Sunday morning service at our church but then sneak over to Calvary for the evening service – and then they would come back to our church and want it to be like Calvary, which it was never going to be.
Our church had a piano, an organ, and a choir (with robes), but Calvary had guitars at several of their evening services during the week and rock bands at their Saturday night concerts. It wasn’t long before that influence crept into our youth group, a development I welcomed. We sang a lot of praise songs – with acoustic guitar accompaniment – but that was as far as we could go.
Until one day, a young man in the church decided to put on a youth musical written by John Fischer. The musical required drums.
One Saturday afternoon, before or after practice (I forget), as the youth were banging on drums and other instruments in the worship center, two retired men walked into the sanctuary and threw everyone out. These men especially expressed their disdain for drums. (Hadn’t they read Psalm 150? Guess not.)
I liked these men personally and always counted them as friends and supporters. But without warning, they assigned themselves the unofficial role of church police.
Suddenly, they were wreaking havoc everywhere they went. They would drive by the church at different hours of the day. If the pastor’s car was missing from its customary space, they assumed he was at home napping or watching television. If my car was missing, they assumed I was out goofing around someplace. The pastor preferred being away from the church building because he liked to visit people in hospitals and their homes. Because I was attending seminary in the mornings, I didn’t arrive at the church until 10:30 am, but even then, my ministry wasn’t confined to the church campus.
Before long, the church police began making all kinds of wild accusations, mostly against the pastor. They believed that because they didn’t see his car parked outside his office all the time, he wasn’t working hard enough for them. They successfully began to find allies who agreed with them. A man walked up to me after a Sunday evening service and told me that if the pastor didn’t start working harder, ten percent of the church was going to leave.
I loved my pastor and tried to do everything I could to defend him against the attacks that were building against him. I went to the governing board and pleaded with them to stand behind their pastor, but they chose to do nothing. Frustrated, I then took a friend with me and we visited the most powerful layman in the church, but only because we knew he supported the pastor whole-heartedly. As we recounted the onslaughts against our pastor, we tried to protect the identity of the troublemakers, but this wise man told us, “Gentlemen, when Paul talked about those who caused him trouble in his ministry, he used names. Who are these people you’re talking about?” Reluctantly, we told him.
As far as I could tell, no action was ever taken against the Destructive Duo.
Then one day, when the pastor was on vacation, I received a phone call. One of the two “church policemen” dropped dead of a heart attack. He was in the process of moving to another state when he collapsed and immediately expired. Since I was the only other pastor on staff, I went to this man’s home to console his shocked widow. His funeral was held a few days later, and I’ll never forget it, because our pastor had to come home from vacation to conduct the service – and he wasn’t very happy about it.
After that pastor retired, another pastor came to the church. After a short while, he was tired of the antics of the second retired guy who complained about everything. After several warnings, this pastor told the complainer to leave the church campus and never come back. It didn’t matter that his wife was a sweet woman, or that they had friends in the church, or that they had been there longer than the pastor. The pastor had had enough, and since nobody was willing to take any action concerning the griper, he took matters into his own hands – and it worked. The church was able to get on with its mission because an internal dissenter had left.
Hear me loud and clear: when people cause trouble in a church – whether they are charter members or have many friends or are politically connected – they need to be informally or officially confronted and warned to stop their complaining, because complaining has a way of growing into church cancer. If they won’t stop, then there are at least four possible scenarios:
First, their complaints spread while more people take up their cause. This is a recipe for a church splinter, split, or coup. Believe me, you do not want this to happen.
Second, their complaints spread and eventually focus on the pastor, who becomes the scapegoat for all that is wrong in the church. These kinds of complaints can easily lead to the pastor’s forced exit and throw the church into chaos.
Third, the official leaders of the church gain some God-given courage and confront the complainers, telling them that they have three choices: (a) come to a board meeting and lay all your complaints out there, (b) then stop the complaining altogether and let the board handle matters, or (c) leave the church without taking anyone with you. Unfortunately, many boards back down at this point because some of the complainers are their friends, and after all, they reason, it’s easier to get a new pastor than it is new friends.
Finally, God strikes somebody dead. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:26).
One of the constant themes of this blog is that the people of the church – not just the pastors and the governing board – have the power to stop troublemakers dead in their tracks. Complainers are only permitted to operate because the people of the church listen to their gripes or look the other way even when they are aware that divisive actions are happening all around them.
If you attend a church and know that certain people are engaged in divisive activities, what could you do about it? I’d love to hear your responses.