Among the different types of people you will encounter throughout your pastorate are those who have just moved into town and are looking for a new church home. This is a very common scenario given our ever-transient culture in which we now live. The idea of someone being born, living, working, and ultimately dying in the same town is a thing of the past. Hence, having new people seeking to join the church as a result of being relocated is a common phenomenon. As much as a blessing it can be to have new families join the church, there is some baggage that these new members might bring.
I particularly have in mind the family that wants to find an exact copy of their previous church. It’s only natural that we will seek what is familiar—if we’ve had a positive experience, then we will usually make this a benchmark for future experiences. If we liked the preaching of our old pastor, then he will become the benchmark for the new pastor’s preaching. The same goes for other dimensions of church life. On numerous occasions I had people tell me, “At our old church . . .,” or, “Or former pastor used to . . .” In many respects this is perfectly natural and understandable. However, it sometimes became a problem when the family wanted me or the church to conform completely to their old church’s ways. I had people flat-out tell me, “You need to do things like our former pastor.”
What people don’t realize is that there is a lot of truth to the cliché, “You can’t go home again.” We build up ideals in our minds and augment memories with impressions and emotions that do not accurately reflect reality. When we leave a church, for example, we might quickly forget all of our former pastor’s foibles and shortcomings, idealize him in our minds, and build him up as being perfect. When we compare him to the new pastor, we’re not making a true comparison based in reality but one fabricated in our minds. Even if we were to return to our old church, chances are, it wouldn’t be the same because reality would come crashing in again and we would quickly rediscover all of the shortcomings we ignored when we moved away.
So, then, how are we to proceed, whether as the newly arrived family or as the one under the microscope of scrutiny? The answer lies in ensuring that Christ and the word of God are our index for what constitutes a faithful church. Does the new church bear the three marks of the church: the faithful preaching of the word, administration of the sacraments, and church discipline? If these three marks are present, then we should not expect any two churches to be alike. Yes, churches can adhere to the same doctrinal and confessional standards, but like people, they can all have different personalities. All churches have varying strengths and weaknesses—where some excel others will fall short, and vice versa. Remember that since we are all redeemed sinners, we all have shortcomings. Every pastor has his flaws, and even if we tend to forget them, we should not set any one pastor up as the index by which all other pastors are measured. Christ alone is our standard.
If you find yourself as the target of unfair comparisons, you’ll simply have to exercise patience. Gently remind newcomers that no two churches are alike and that we should all strive to seek Christ rather than hold up superficial standards by which we measure fidelity and success. In the end, there will be some who will learn these truths but there will always be those who will move from church to church on the fool’s errand trying to go home again and never realize that it simply doesn’t exist. Don’t take such criticism personally and recognize that these types of critical words often reveal more about the one making the complaint than the one who is the target of the harsh words.