“Musical Pews”: The Concept of Lateral Church Movement

As my older brother Jim says, the Lord literally “tapped me on the shoulder” this week to interrupt my regular blogs with another very pertinent topic. It is in regard to a very serious subject that has surfaced in the evangelical Christian church.

My wife Janet and I have been talking about this problem issue for several years now.

Back in the day, when I has a small fry attending birthday parties, “musical chairs” was musical-chairs-1always one of the main games that we played.  Everyone knows about the game, and my guess is that you have played it.  Now, “musical pews” has become the rave.

And just what is “Musical Pews”?   How does it apply to the sideways (lateral)  movements of some Christians between churches?

I have observed this discouraging phenomenon for years, but especially lately. The facts are these: Christians leave their home church (sometimes having been attenders or members for decades) and run to other churches for the wrong reasons.  We’ll  use every excuse in the book, and we will discuss many of these excuses later in this blog. Don’t misunderstand me, I think there are grounds for leaving the local church body that one attends and is a member, but they are few and far between. These include “Biblical infidelity” of the church, or wandering from founded Biblical doctrine.  And obviously, sometimes  people have no control of their jobs moving them somewhere else geographically. When you and your family move into a new community, it’s certainly prudent to check out different evangelical churches.  But often, many “church changes” are sideways-lateral, just down the street or in the next suburb, for a “fresh start”.  I call this “church lateralism”.

Many of us are guilty of this sideways movement and perhaps haven’t thought through the full ramifications of our church moves.

What is really behind this movement in our churches today? Ultimately, I think it’s about the lack of commitment of believers to their local church body (this certainly doesn’t mean that they aren’t 100% committed to the Lord), and unresolved conflict between Christians at the local church. Leaving when things “aren’t up to par for us”.   Or when we have had a struggle of some kind with leadership. Whatever.   Have we forgotten the purpose of the F2F33E97-51BD-4094-9EFB-478E6A9581B0church, the “bride of Christ”?  Many of us Christians are “majoring on the minors”.  And it’s not a matter of how mature in our walk we are.   It’s that simple.

You will tell me that there is nothing in the Bible sliding stopabout Christians leaving churches.  But whoa, hold your horses for a minute, I think there is. More on that later.

You say that we serve a big God, and He doesn’t care where we worship and go to church, as long as we are going. I beg to differ. Christians minimize lateralist church moves. We endeavor to rationalize and justify our moves by making it a “spiritual journey”. Is there guilt? Maybe.  It might be called the seven year, 14, or 21 year itch.

What is going on is a lack of understanding of the purpose of the church. Christians can be become over-focused on what they are “getting out of their home church”, as opposed to how they can help and share and practice gifts of the Spirit there. “What am I receiving/getting, rather than what am I giving” is the theme. Submission to the leadership? “No way, unless it fits to what we  think leadership should be doing”.  And of course, conflicts are not being Biblically resolved. Unresolved conflict breeds hostility.

You see, it seems like sometimes Christians move to other churches like they’re buying a 301762new pair of shoes. A new pair of shoes is initially a little stiff, but with time, that pair of shoes aligns with the contours of our feet and becomes a favorite pair of shoes.  We love wearing them because we don’t even know they are on.  But then something happens.  “My old pair has worn out, it’s time for a fresh pair”.  The same can be said about a “church move”.   Christians actually spiritualize this. We think that we  will be spiritually stymied if we stay “stuck” in our home church. “I’m not being spiritually fed enough”. “It’s getting stale here”.   But is that the wrong attitude?  This opinion is especially prevalent when church leadership and pastors change.

I remember an old friend of mine who had been at our church for over twenty years. He left the church with his wife when there was a pastor change. “I don’t feel the Holy Spirit is as present here as it was in the past”.  Funny.  I didn’t agree with him one bit.  I thought the Spirit was thriving!  Years later, he and his wife are back in the same pew.

One of the main reasons for what I call “lateral church movement” is cultural consumerism.  It’s all about ME (or my spouse or kids or both).  It’s as if leaving Christians say, “I’m leaving the church to improve MY (with their family’) spiritual position!” And this of course, we will tell other believers, has been bathed in prayer. “I was called away from this church to another one.”  How can one argue against a God-ordained appointment?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Truthfully, this is just the opposite of what God intended for his church. In fact, can’t God use stressful church problems as part of His process of making us more like Him ?  The consumerism attitude of church attenders has worsened in the last three decades, much to the delight of Satan.


“I’m not being spiritually fed anymore”. Really?


R.C. Sproul

R.C. Sproul, noted American theologian, author, and pastor says it best in Tabletalk. “In a culture of consumerist expectations and values, even people in strong, Word-centered, gospel-proclaiming churches can think of church loyalty in terms of payment and receipt. “We pay our dues and expect a certain return” is the unspoken mindset. So, when things get difficult, reasons to leave begin multiplying: “I’m not being fed here.” “I’m not on the same page with the leadership right now.” “I’m not being useful here. Perhaps I could serve better if I were somewhere else.”

He goes on to say, “There are pastors who abuse their authority or lead poorly. There are churches that implement changes quickly, without the consent of key leaders, which then breeds disunity and quarrels. Leadership fumbles, personality conflicts, relationship breeches — they all exist in the church. That’s why, for many churchgoers, the temptation is strong to seek refuge and peace in another church across town.”

Is there  growing up to do in the American Christian church?  I didn’t see this “church hopping” mentality nearly as much thirty and forty years ago. I have been around long enough now to see both sides of the equation. People laterally coming to my church, and laterally moving away from my church.   A lot of reasons for Christians leaving their church after decades of attendance may be disguised in legalism. Often times, when people leave a church, I observe a critical, biting, judgmental attitude rather than a loving and forgiving viewpoint.

I talk to a lot of Christians.  Here’s what I hear “in between the pews” as to the reasons 7474262774_e4c9a5cd63_bthat we Christians leave a church.  I’m certainly not proud of the list.  The truth hurts.  Probably the most popular excuse is the worship experience, but there are many others. Check these out.

“The worship music is too loud”.  Have we forgotten about the Israelites in Nehemiah 12:42, and Psalm 98:4  who were encouraged to praise God with loud instruments and loud singing voices?

“There’s no choir anymore”.  Since the choir was disbanded, and I am an important part of it, I am leaving to go to another church where they have a choir”.  Is a choir mandatory in order for wonderful praise of our Lord?

“The worship music is too modern.   I don’t like the beat of the worship music and the drums are too loud”.  The Israelites in 2 Chronicles 30:21 disagreed with this heartily.  They were resoundingly loud and loved those percussion instruments!

“I don’t like the way the worship leaders dress. Worship leaders shouldn’t wear jeans (and the pastors shouldn’t either). That’s just not right, because I like a shirt and tie”.   Aren’t we supposed to not judge people on outward appearance? God discerns the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)

In all of these, is God perhaps challenging us with all of our individual preferences?

Don’t forget about these:

The leadership “let me go” as a worship musician and that “hurt me deeply”.

“There are too many new songs all the time that I don’t know and that’s irritating”.  In Psalms 33:3, God tells us to “Sing a new song”!  He loves freshness in our worship. He is aware of the danger of people getting lost in repetition.

And  there are other reasons that Christians leave their churches:

“I don’t like the new pastor as much as our old pastor. He’s not as friendly”.  Well perhaps he is more Type B than Type A, and more introverted. Shouldn’t we give him a break, or the benefit of the doubt?

“The new pastor is too young and inexperienced”.  Let’s not forget that Jeremiah was likely a teenager when he started his ministry, and prophecized for 40 years between 627 and 586 BC.

“I have a hang-up with one of the leaders of the church, so I’m leaving”.   Here, maybe God is teaching us about true forgiveness.

“The preaching doesn’t do it for me anymore”. “The sermons are too intellectual”, or “the sermons are too much like milk. I need meat”, or “the Pastor is too monotone”, or “the Pastor is too emotional”.  Maybe God is calling us  to focus on His word that is being preached and NOT the method or the style.

“I don’t think our new leadership will be able to guide our church into the future.” Here, maybe God is teaching us about submission, when we don’t want to submit.

“The new pastor doesn’t have as much integrity as he should.  Our old pastor was close to perfect”.  I guess that we have a short memory that the psalmist King David committed captioned-King-David-Seduces-Bathshebaadultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah so he could greedily have her. (2 Samuel 12)  Let’s not forget about the apostle Paul, who near the later part of ministry said, “….sinners…and I am the worst of them all.” (1 Timothy 1:15) Did these men struggle with integrity in their lives, as well as character?  Of course they did!

“The leadership of the church didn’t visit me in the hospital.”  Has pride surfaced in the illness?

“The church is too big; I get lost in it” Church growth can be good.  Get plugged in!

“The church is too small; I have to do too much volunteering.”  Maybe God wants us to stand back and get more connected with Him, rather than with volunteering.

“My kids don’t like it here.  The youth program isn’t strong enough.”  Maybe us parents could actually do some teaching and model for our kids!

“They don’t care about the elderly here as much anymore. I’m over 65 now, and they need more programs.”

“They aren’t asking me to teach, and I love to teach Bible Studies. I’m going to attend somewhere where they’ll beg me to teach.”  Here, maybe God is telling us to focus on His Word, not teaching HIS Word.

I remember years ago when a single individual in our church left after years of membership and involvement. “There just isn’t enough involvement of post-college young people here”.  And after being gone for months, they  remarked ”And no one has even called me to wonder where I was”.  (the attitude:  I deserve better)

The list doesn’t end here. It goes on and on and on as to the multitude of reasons that imagesindividuals, couples, and families leave their home church.

To me, on the whole, in the end it is disappointing.  A potentially poor witness to a secular society.

What is your goal in your Christian life?  My guess, if we are believers, is to live our lives more like Jesus!  Many “mature” Christians think their church’s problems are an obstacle standing in the way of their spiritual development.  Regarding this, R.C. Sproul says, “The opposite is likely true. It’s the believer’s commitment to their home church, in spite of its problems, that is making them more like Jesus” What looks like Jesus? To play musical pews to a new “easier” church situation for a “fresh start” or being committed to your local church body through some tumultuous times?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       When God says in Malachi 2:16, “I hate divorce”, He means it!  Though the term, “the church is the bride of Christ”, is not in the Bible, Ephesians 5:25 is.  “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”.  Would you think of divorcing your spouse over some minor conflicts? “I don’t like how my wife sings, so I’m leaving her”, or “I don’t like how my husband dresses, so I am leaving him.” Or I don’t like some of the comments my spouse makes about me, so I am leaving the marriage”. “My spouse was abused as a child, and now she is acting out as an adult. I can’t handle it. I’m leaving. She doesn’t give me enough respect. I deserve more.  She can deal with the problem herself.”  “My spouse is immature in some ways, so forget it, I’m divorcing.”  Makes no sense, correct?

Can you imagine if Christ gave up on us, like how we can give up on our home church? Can bad47088b30a9ac003bbc3fdbcc955edyou imagine Jesus saying, “I don’t like the gossip, lust, lying, pride, arrogance, controlling attitude, coveting, and greedy issues you had yesterday, so I’m through with you!?”  The hope of our salvation would be lost, and we would be doomed to hell. Of course He would never do that!  He shows us mercy, forgiveness, persistent commitment,  love, and “sees our sins no more”. Thanks be to Him who covers our sins with His blood.  So I ask again, are we really modeling Jesus more closely when we leave a church?  Absolutely not.

Don’t you see that we as believers are getting this all wrong?

Whether we like it or not, God works through conflict and sometimes turmoil. He has for thousands of years. And his church is loaded with problems because of sin. We are saints in the church but sometimes allow our old nature to get the best of us. And that’s at every level. People need to know that “everybody is normal until you get to know them”.  There are issues to deal with constantly. We are all ear-marked with sin.  Do we think that by leaving our local church and going to one across town will solve our problems?  I don’t think so. No way. Seven years from now, we’ll be looking for the next church.

Do you want growth in your Christian life?  Then think about what R.C. Sproul says.  “Discipleship is like a rock in a rock tumbler. The rock is shined the more it bumps up against all the other rocks and water. Over time, the process turns a rock into a gem. It’s easy to want out of a “rocky” church situation. The process of refinement is never pleasant, after all. But it is in our bumping up against the difficult trials in a church body that we are refined into beautiful gems that reflect the glory of our King.”

In the end, when the chips are down, do you run, or stay and deal with the conflict(s)? God honors a persistent commitment to his local church body, through thick and thin. It’s learning to love, no matter what, and forgive, no matter what, showing mercy, and staying persistently committed.  That’s one main reason why God has us in the church.

Those of us who move away from their home church to a “lateral one” need to think more deeply about the hurt that we may  inflict into the body of Christ.   I doubt if we have, because we are likely dealing in “hurt feelings” or “suppressed anger”, and maybe we’re too busy licking our wounds. We may have unfinished business of unresolved conflict with a brother or sister in Christ.  And it may not be them, it might just be our spouse who has the hang-up.  We are potentially blinded because of one thing and here is the conclusion:

Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, God tells His people, “Remember ME”, not “Remember YOU”.  When we leave your local church body that we have been committed to for years, it may be about US.  Let’s check our heart pulse and see.

If you are in a church capitalizing on sideways movements of believers (church lateralization), then don’t get too excited about your church growth. Isn’t true church growth about the influx of new believers, rather than old believers, who have made the “sideways” move?

Let’s please learn to be content with our home church in which God has us planted. After all, resentment comes from looking at others; contentment comes from looking at God. (Psalm 46:10)


About Dr. Robert

I am married to Janet and we have four children. I am active in Grace church in Racine, Wisconsin and serve there in leadership and teaching . I have been an internist for 30 years and keep busy by taking care of a full load of patients. On the side, I like to write, coach, mentor, spend time with my family just hangin' out, and help take care of our two dogs; a rusty colored Golden Retriever named Finley and a Bernese named Sadie'.
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8 Responses to “Musical Pews”: The Concept of Lateral Church Movement

  1. Bonny Andersen says:

    Thanks for posting this message! Yes, we can see these problems arise over the last few years. What a difference over 30-40 years ago. We have already passed this to family.

  2. Jon Hilker says:

    Very much spot on. I also have passed this on to many in my Email list plus Face Book. Thanks Bob.

  3. Laurie Stecher says:

    Our ADD culture certainly facilitates our general lack of contentment, commitment, and perseverance in our culture. We have increasingly become consumers (takers) versus life givers. We’re meant to plant and reproduce, allowing the Lord to prune us in order to grow and help grow up others.But you have to stay the course, and most are just unwilling to handle the “pain”.

  4. Jerry worsham says:

    Hi Dr. Bob – Here are some thoughts about life in the Church,the body of Christ,the bride of Christ. #1 We need to learn more and more about living in the tension of Grace and Truth. Randy Alcorn’s small book The Grace and Truth Paradox (one of the best books I have ever read) says- “Grace and truth are spiritual DNA, the building blocks of Christ-centered living. These complementary strands create flawless spiritual balance and stability”. “A good church will teach you biblical truth and will also provide you with grace,acceptance (forgiveness),and support”. “Grace and truth are both necessary. Neither is sufficient”. Only Jesus was perfect in living in the balance of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). We however struggle with the perfect balance. It’s an ongoing tension in our own lives, in our marriage/parenting, and in the life of the church. #2 We all have a flesh nature as believers that is in conflict/war with the Spirit within us (Galt 5:13,16,17). So no one is perfect this side of heaven:Abraham-lieing (Gen 12:18,19),Moses-anger (Numb 20:10-12;Ps 106:33 ESV),Elijah-depression(1Kings 19: 3-5),David -adultery and murder(2Sam 11-12),Jonah-anger(Jonah 4:9),Disciples-fear(Jn 20:19),Thomas-doubt(Jn20,25),Paul-intolerance and strife(Acts15:37-40),Peter-hypocricy(Galt 2:11-13). Indeed,we as believers have a moral and character standard of holiness to live by(1Pt 1: 14,15;Eph 4:22-5:21). What a calling! O God help. Only by the Spirit with in us (Galt 5:16,25). Also, leaders are to live at a higher standard (Jam 3:1). “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ:(1 Cor 11:1). But, we all struggle and fall short at time even leaders. #3 Repentance (Truth). We turn away from where we fall short,our sin which the truth of God’s word reveals to us.We do this at our salvation and continue repentance in our walk with the Lord (Acts 2:37,38;2 Cor 7:9,Ps 51:3,4). Sometimes we need the church to confront us and even discipline us (Mt 18:15-17,Galt 6:1,2). When there is repentance then there is the wonder of #3 Restoration (Grace) in our individual walk with the Lord and our body life of the church (Ps 51:7-12,1Jn1;8,9,2Cor 2:7,Col 3;12-15). Where would we be with out Grace (2Cor 12:9).#4 Sanctification. Please note that this is a process in which we are becoming more Christ like.It takes time. In the church let’s support encourage and pray for our brothers and sisters in sanctification as they are refined and grow in the Lord (please see Eph 4:15,16). Does God use uncomfortable church situations as part of sanctifying us? No church is exempt of issues because our flesh nature still resides in us. ONE DAY WE WILL BE MADE PERFECT. I look forward to that day. In the mean time we go forward in sanctification. Blessings – Pastor Jerry

  5. eileen reilly hoey says:

    Thank you all for putting into words, what I have been feeling at church. i think the home church is like our family, and when things are not going quite right in a family, we work through the problems to correct it. We dont abandon our family. Personally, I feel I have been planted to bloom and grow, if I am not blooming and growing then I need to fertilize!!!

  6. Paul Durbin says:

    Bob, thank you for writing this wonderful article. There are so many great points you make. It is interesting for me to see as I grew up in the Catholic Church where a person NEVER leaves their home church unless they move. So this lateral church movement was not familiar to me. My and family and I have been so blessed by staying at our current church. God uses struggles in the church to grow us in our sanctification. We need to share our spiritual gifts with others to edify the church body. And we benefit from the gifts of others in the body. That takes time to develop and requires a consistent presence at your home church. Peace.

  7. Martha Hawes says:

    Hi Dr. Bob,
    I agree with your article. My belief ,and I believe I hold a God honoring belief ,is that the church body is to be united. We all as saved believers strive for sanctification. My belief is church is not about us : we all have differences, there is not a perfect church. Church is for God: hearing what
    the Bible tells us about Jesus unconditional love, forgiveness., how to witness to the unsaved. It’s about our journey together:
    our support of each other and growing in the love and wisdom of our LORD and Savior , all to GOD’S glory!

  8. Kari DeBerg says:

    I love this. Thank you for writing what I have been feeling for years. It breaks my heart… it DOES feel like a divorce! We are all fallen sinners…. none of us can boast except in Christ. When you change churches, you just trade one set of difficulties for another. My aim is to love my brothers and sisters well, and to pray fervently for them and for my pastors.

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