According to Merriam-Webster, a telltale (is that one word or two?) is an outward sign. Another way to say it is a telltale is a dead-giveaway. It’s an indicator of what’s about to happen. You definitely want to sit down at a poker table with people who have distinguished telltales about the kind of hand they're holding. We usually shorten the word to simply tell – i.e. “The player’s tell consisted of him touching the brim of his hat whenever he was bluffing.” – but I like the longer word.
Definitive telltales exist in the church that indicate when someone is about to leave. At times a job, a unique situation (like a child with special needs), or a call to support a church start-up may result in a move from one congregation to another. Most church-hopping, however, occurs for a myriad of unhealthy reasons: buzz at another church, personal offenses/grievances, programs, music, difficult truth, difficult circumstances, and the list goes on. Where these reasons apply and someone leaves a church they attended for 10 months or 10 years there are usually 1 of 3 telltale signs that their departure was coming.
The most notable telltales are serving, giving, and praying.
Our consumer culture does not check itself at the door of the church. Without challenging its tenants, consumerism in the body of Christ means I come not to serve but to be served. Consumerism takes the call of Christ – “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” – and translates it, “If anyone would come after me let him assert himself, demand his rights, sit back in his proverbial lounge chair, and be catered to by me.”
Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta, said, “When you read the Gospels, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Jesus attracted large crowds everywhere he went. He was constantly playing to the consumer instincts of his crowds. Let’s face it: It wasn’t the content of his messages that appealed to the masses. Most of the time they didn’t even understand what he was talking about … People flocked to Jesus because he fed them, healed them, comforted them, and promised them things.”
Beyond the fact that Stanley’s interpretation of Jesus’ ministry misses the reality of John 6 in which the crowds departed in the face of tough teaching (John 6:60-67), it assumes a motivation of “playing to the consumer” to draw a crowd instead of caring for people with needs. Those motivations are diametrically opposed.
When Christians choose and attend churches, primarily, to get their needs met, then as soon as their needs (which tend to shift with every passing fad and whim) are no longer met or may be met better elsewhere, they depart for greener pastures. Look at the people in their church who are serving and caring for the people around them. Watch the people who show up asking themselves “What can I do; who can I minister to? How can I be of service?” You likely will not find the loudest critics or the ticking time-bombs amongst them.
A correlation between giving and ownership always exists. Sociologists go so far to teach that, if only a dollar, making a child pay for the toy they want creates a sense of appreciation that would not exist if they were handed the toy.
Christians who invest their time and finances with their church have a greater sense of ownership and commitment to the people around them and the work of the ministry. In Philippians 1:5, 7, Paul commends the Philippian Christians for their partnership in the gospel. The Greek word, koinonia, is often translated fellowship, and for most people, evokes a scene of potlucks on a Sunday night. What Paul has in view when he thinks of their fellowship in the gospel, and thanks both God and the believers at Philippi for it, is their financial support (see Philippians 4:15) of his ministry.
If Christians in a local church really are gospel-partners, then that partnership necessitates financial giving. Often the people who give the least complain the most, and the people who give the most complain the least. Our commitment to God’s people and submission to the authorities God’s placed in our lives, for our good, through the local church means we should joyously, graciously give (2 Corinthians 9:6-15) – time, talent, and resources.
Someone once said that prayer does not change God, it changes us. I fully embrace the second premise. Prayer certainly changes us. Spouses at bitter odds with each other rarely remain there when they offer the other person to God in prayer (and not just those “God, give them what they deserve” kind of prayers). When a person seeks God in prayer on behalf of one who wronged them, they will soon find themselves genuinely caring for the person who previously held the position of enemy (Matthew 5:44).
Praying for our churches and fellow Christians makes it very difficult to dismiss our brothers and sisters in the Lord and move on to find others at the drop of the hat. Again, Paul’s pattern in Philippians 1:3-11 (and in Ephesians 1:15-23; Colossians 1:9-14; and 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12) of praying, with thanksgiving, for the church, would result in deep affection and steadfast commitment if applied by 21st century believers.
Are you lukewarm about your participation in your church? Can you look back over your Christian walk and see a pattern of flight from one congregation to the next? Do you want to best build up and love the people God’s placed in your life through His body, the church? If your answer is “yes” to those questions, then consider what your service in, giving to, and praying for your church looks like.