By George Bullard
A ministry acquaintance of mine, Larry Osborne of North Coast Church, an Evangelical Free Church in Vista, Calif., wrote a book several years ago called Sticky Church. The book makes the case that closing the back door of a congregation is more important than opening the front door wider. Once people connect with a congregation, the congregation thrives if a high percentage of them stick.
He is right. If people are meaningfully involved in worship, connect with a small group such as a Sunday school class, develop personal friendships, and have a volunteer role in the congregation, they are more likely to stick. If we are passive about helping people stick, then they are likely to go out the back door within six months to a year.
Thriving congregations strive to create sticky relationships. They get people engaged in the congregation deeply and meaningfully so they stick. But is it possible some people move from stick to stuck? They are so deep into the congregation that they cannot leave if they had to without great effort. Yet by staying they are causing deep pain for the congregation because they are unhappy.
Sticky church gone bad
There are times where long-term stickiness actually becomes entanglement. People get stuck when they actually need to find or be shown a back door to become unstuck from their congregation. They are in so deep into the way the congregation once was that they lose their perspective. They go through a season of dysfunction in their lives and vow subconsciously to make their whole congregation dysfunctional.
They say, “If I cannot be happy, then they cannot be happy. If I cannot control my life outside the church, I can certainly control my life inside the church.”
Some members who become sticky regarding their congregation, and have now become stuck, need to either leave or make major changes in their attitudes and behaviors. Yet they cannot extract themselves because their relationships are so entangled with the congregation. They are stuck. This is stickiness gone bad. It is dysfunctional.
For any variety of reasons, when a member’s personal views or expectations begin to deviate significantly from the prevailing view of their congregation, being stuck keeps them attached to the church despite all rational evidence saying they should part ways. The result is an unhealthy pressure, a stretching of the stickiness almost to the breaking point.
Why don’t people leave their stuck church?
First, they do not leave because they believe this is their church. They own preferred stock in the congregation. They declare, “The current situation is wrong, and the church will return to its senses again. I can wait it out. I was here before these people, and I will be here after these people. I’ve invested so many years here. I cannot leave now, even though I disagree with the current direction of the church.”
Second, is their financial investment in the church. They have stored up treasures on earth, and they are willing to tell anyone about it with words like these: “I’ve given so much money to this church I cannot walk away even though I am very unhappy. I need to remind people regularly of the financial sacrifices that I and others have made over the years to build these buildings, to pay the pastor during lean years, and to give to missions.”
Personal relationships are a third thing that often keeps people stuck in a place they do not want to be. They say, “All my friends are at this church, so I need to stay here even though I am angry. I actually consider my anger righteous indignation. I am needed to turn over a few tables in the temple of our church from time-to-time. My friends keep urging me to stand up to the changes in our church.”
Fourth, emotionally they are afraid to leave their congregation. When people have been in a congregation most or all of their lives, they are afraid to leave this comfort zone. It is not that they do not want to go anywhere else. They are afraid to leave where they are comfortable and have a close set of friends who accept them. “Where would I go?” they wonder. “As off-the-rails as our church is right now, there is no other place I can go. My family has had many significant spiritual experiences in this church. My parents were buried here. My children were married here.”
They are stuck. And, you as church leaders are also stuck with them. It got too sticky.