Are we acting like pioneers or refugees?

A friend of mine recently sent me some observations from one of his friends about people who are currently leaving church as we have always known it. These observations are not original with me, but they are insightful and I thought I’d share them.

In the entire Western world people are leaving Christianity as we have always known it. Call it what you will, congregational church, institutional church or legacy church. Whatever it is called, this expression of Christianity in the West is hemorrhaging. But why are so many folks leaving?


The first type of people who are leaving are refugees. Just like folks crossing the border into Turkey from Syria; these people are leaving an unsafe environment. They are seeking to preserve their spiritual life from a hostile situation. This could be from abusive leadership, lack of ability to participate and be respected, lack of deep relationships or a sense of a spiritually stifling environment. Their motivation is avoidance of threat.

While they are seeking safety, they aren’t necessarily seeking something new and better. They don’t have a vision for making the Church better as much as they just don’t want to get hurt anymore. For such people, if the situation changed, a new leader or more exciting worship for example, they just might go back. And, because they have no vision for the future, they have a low tolerance for the difficulties and trials that come with building something new. This category comprises the vast majority of people leaving institutional Christianity today.


But there is also a different kind of person leaving church as we have known it. These are folks with a vision of the future. They have an agenda to make something new and better. Such folks have an entrepreneurial drive to work with God to build the Kingdom of God. They long to see the Church become effective again in advancing into new and even hostile territory. They long to move forward to a way of doing church that builds true community and where everyone can participate based on their unique God given design.

While they can see the problems with what they left, their focus is on the good that can be instead of the bad that was. Therefore they can still be gracious to what they left. Such people are patient with the numerous difficulties of building something new. They are not put off by the mistakes others make or they themselves make. They assume that part of building something no one has seen before is false starts, risks and failure. They see such things as an opportunity to learn, not a difficulty to complain about. These folks are not Lot’s family fleeing the burning cities; they are Abraham seeking the Promised Land.

Let’s Be Pioneers, Not Mere Refugees

While we can and should be compassionate for the pain and struggle of refugees, we need to realize there is a Promised Land. The current struggles and difficulties of the institutional church are not merely a difficulty to tolerate or flee; they are an opportunity for the Kingdom. Instead of looking backwards in anger, we need to look forwards toward the promise. God is doing something new in our time through organic church. We are in the very beginning phases in the West.[1] We are making mistakes, but we are learning from our mistakes and the Kingdom goes forward. My message to my refugee brethren is this. We know you are hurt and we long to see Jesus heal your wounds. But there is a Promised Land. Come be pioneers with us. We should have the same attitude Paul had towards the ongoing development of his life:

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:12-14 NASB).

Pick a question and respond:

  • Is it easy to discern a refugee from a Pioneer? How would you do that?
  • How can pioneers be helpful in healing the wounds of refugees?
  • What would be your suggestions on how to transform from a refugee to a pioneer?
  • As pioneers, what should our attitude be towards the churches we left? How can we have constructive relationships with them to work towards the building of God’s Kingdom?

[1] Places like China and India are far ahead of us. We need to be humble and learn from them.

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