“Can you give me a few reasons why I shouldn’t join your church?”

If I had one question that I wished every well-meaning Christian who wanted to join my church or church plant would ask, it would be that one.

Surprised? Let me explain.

I’ve done two church plants and have seen my fair share of gains and losses from transfers both into and out of the churches I’ve led. In the suburban Sydney context in which I minister, transfer growth is just a part of church life. Sometimes it’s for good reasons. Other times, for not very good reasons. Sometimes it’s an unfortunate consequence of living in a fallen world where relationships break down. Sometimes it’s just a reflection the culture we live in, where consumerism and choice reign supreme. 

Transfer growth is just a part of church life. Sometimes it’s for good reasons. Other times, for not very good reasons

It’s easy when you’re small and struggling (especially when gathering a core group for a church plant) to want any and every kind of transfer growth. Desperation can breed carelessness. And, as much as there are short-term gains from some of these transfers, the long-term losses are almost always greater.

Church planters will know from first-hand experience how core group members can—within a few years (or even months) from the initial plant—become disillusioned, frustrated, and even embittered because the church plant experience didn’t meet their expectations. Of course that may be due to the fault of the planting team or pastor(s). But from my experience, it’s often due to false expectations and unexamined “baggage” that core team members have brought to the plant.

This isn’t unique to church plants either. It also happens with transfers to existing churches and congregations. Someone who seemed so keen to move churches and join can so easily, later down the track, find their expectations unmet; changes hard to cope with. Disappointments and frustrations rise, and then they decide to move on. Once again, the loss to the church is usually greater than what’s been gained from their arrival in the first place.

So here’s my suggestion (from the 20/20 vision that we call hindsight):

Pastors and church planters:

The obvious question you should be asking a Christian who wants to move to your church or church plant “Why do you want to join?” Now I’m sure you’re asking it already, but please don’t leave it at that. 

Follow it up by inviting them to ask you the question: ‘Give me some reasons not to join your church.’ (Incidentally, if you’re thinking of moving churches or joining a church plant, then you’d be wise to initiate this question!)

Then—based on what they tell you about their reasons to join—tell them, as openly and honestly as you can, why some (if not all) of their expectations / reasons might not be realised.

For example:

  • If they want to join because they appreciate your pastoral care, they need to know that if the church grows, your role in their life will change. They may not have much contact with you in any meaningful and personal way in a few year’s time.
  • If they love your preaching, they need to know that you might be preaching less as you add staff and trainees in order to grow gospel preachers. They also need to know that church is much more than your leadership and your preaching gifts. What happens if and when you leave? Do you really want them to pack up and leave with you?
  • If they’re keen on being part of a small, tight-knit community, you need to inform them that small could mean a non-existent or struggling kids ministry for their children (or children to come). Small means not every need and every age and stage of life can be catered for. Small means all-hands-on-deck and no one can afford just to be a passenger. 
  • If they want to be given opportunities to preach and teach the Bible, are they ready and willing to also do the work of frontline evangelists?
  • Conversely, if they can’t wait to get out there and do evangelism, do they know that they need to work in a team and potentially be frustrated by decisions and strategies that prioritise some other aspect of church life rather than mission?
  • And the list goes on…

Whatever the reason for them wanting to come to your church, give them short and long term reasons why these expectations might be unmet or frustrated. Do this with the person you’re not so sure about. Do this especially with the person you’re super impressed with and whom you really want to join your church or plant.

It sounds counter-intuitive. But if you bite the bullet and tell them as openly and honestly as you can the reasons they shouldn’t join your church, and they—having gone away to prayerfully digest what you’ve said—and still want to join (!!), then welcome them with open arms.

Trust me, both you and your church will be much better off both in the short and long term.