Thou shalt not steal church members

A Baptist pastor from New Jersey reveals how low some will go in the Christian turf wars over worshippers.

William Whitehead

Topics Politics

Here’s a question I’m sure you never thought to ask. Do churches steal members from other churches? You bet your great Aunt Sadie’s gotchies they do. Here are a few stories about how low people will go to increase their membership, to kickstart their mission or to just survive this year’s budget crunch. Friends, I am here to help you understand a sad truth: churches are businesses as well as ministries. And the business side of the ministry can be just as ugly as anything you will find on Wall Street.

I was first introduced to this weird reality by a pastor friend in Pennsylvania. He told me that people from a neighbouring church had come to his church to encourage people to switch their allegiance. This went on during coffee hour right after the service, and right under the pastor’s nose. They talked about how their pastor really preached the Word of God, strongly suggesting that my friend preached something else. Maybe they thought he was ordained in the Church of Oprah. My friend was outraged but really couldn’t do anything about it. After all, everyone is welcome in church, including enemy agents.

The worst offenders are churches just starting up. New church plants are so desperate to grow that some of them send out salespeople to steal customers from their competitors. A new church headed by a full-time pastor usually has three years of funding from a national organisation to make a go of it. After the three-year window closes they are on their own. As a result, they have to grow fast. And they have to grow with members who are willing to give a lot of money right away. People who are new to the faith usually don’t give a lot at first. But people who have been believers for a long time have already budgeted a regular amount for the church. Therefore, new churches need mature Christians to join and give, or else they will not survive the long term. The result is a sense of desperation that leads ministers to engage in ruthless survival strategies. Not everyone employs this behaviour, but it happens more often than you might think.

I’ve had firsthand experience when this scenario was played out in my own ministry. I host an emigrant worship service on Sunday afternoons. One of my parishioners started it and was always looking for help leading it. A clergyman offered to help out and spent six months supporting the ministry. Then he disappeared. My leader called him to see how he was, only to be informed that the man had started a new service geared towards the same emigrant community in a church only a few miles away, and at the same time as our service. He also took a bunch of people with him on his way out the door. It was as if his six months with us was training for the opening of a competing store. He was an apprentice but instead of Donald Trump or Alan Sugar saying ‘You’re fired!’, he fired us. I never thought of church as a business. I do now.

I get flooded with mailings from businesses offering their services every week. I get flooded with mailings from churches offering their services every week, too. It is one of the great mysteries of the ministry but the church around the corner wants to advertise in my church. They want to advertise services that conflict with my church services. Why would I agree to this? Does Home Depot advertise the low prices at Lowes? Does United Airlines tell people to fly Continental? Why would I advertise a service at another church that meets at the same time as mine? It’s maddening. I can’t imagine why someone thinks this strategy works. But they are spending a lot of money on these mailings, and I am not exaggerating when I say that my mailbox is clogged with them. I have this to say to my mass-mailing friends: let me borrow some of your people first, and then we’ll talk.

Just when I thought the mail couldn’t get weirder, it has. Every month I receive an envelope from a supporter/parishioner/fanatic of a Korean pastor who takes out a full-page ad in the New York Times. The ad is a copy of one of his sermons that has been cut out and mailed to me. Please God, have mercy. I have no connection to this man at all, so why am I the unfortunate recipient of this gift? Maybe he is hoping that I will read the sermon and that I will join his church/cult/whatever. ‘A snowball’s chance in hell’ is the answer. Maybe it’s a carefully constructed strategy to annoy me enough into giving up my ministry, which is far more likely than me reading this drivel. When the day comes that I am digging through all of the church-related junk mail with a snow shovel, I might just do that.

The scariest attempt to steal members came from a dear friend of mine. He tried to steal me. He invited me on a free trip to the Holy Land paid for by the Unification Church. Yes, Sun Myung Moon wanted me to visit Jerusalem on his dime, no strings attached – except for the meeting I had to attend to get to know people in the organisation. Just spend some time in fellowship and friendship with fellow believers in Jesus.…

Which Jesus we believe in is a good question. I believe in the man who walked the earth 2,000 years ago and is alive today in my heart. My friend buys into the claims of a guy from Korea who marries thousands of people at Madison Square Garden. It’s a coin flip, isn’t it? Here is the sad part of this story. This is a very close friend of mine and he is trying to recruit me into this highly suspect organisation. It absolutely broke my heart. Afterwards I read a story in Christianity Today that confirmed that this was happening frequently. My professors never told me that when I entered the ministry I had to watch my back.

In seminary, we were such dreamers. We pledged that we would be honourable when dealing with people from other churches. If they crossed our doorway we would talk to them and try to convince them to return to their home church. But once I entered the real world, with budgets and volunteer needs, I forgot all about honour among thieves. When someone walks into my church and says ‘I am unhappy with my home church’, I sign them right up. I draw the line at going out and stealing people right out of the pews, but encouraging them to check out what we have to offer isn’t totally out of the question. Thank God I have a modicum of integrity left.

I learned a long time ago when walking in New York City to keep my hands in my pockets and never make eye contact. That counsel goes for the church business as well. My friends, there are always people who want what you have. So hold on to your gotchies, it’s a tough world out there.

Reverend William Whitehead is a writer and the pastor of First Baptist Church of Rahway, New Jersey. Be warned, he jealously guards his parishioners.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport asked: is religion the root of all evil?. Dolan Cummings went to the 2006 Edinburgh Festival, where religion was all the rage. Frank Furedi looked at the curious rise of anti-religious hysteria. Or read more at spiked issue Religion.

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Topics Politics


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