Time to Say Goodbye? How to Know When to Leave a Church

May 7, 2015 8:18 pm

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People leave churches. It happens. Sometimes that’s a great thing too, because God is directing their steps to do so. There are also times when it’s not the right thing to do. How do you know if its time to make a move?

Five Good Reasons to Go

1. “My Beliefs Changed”: Growing in grace means we also grow in our understanding of God’s word. Every church believes that its theology is consistent with Scripture, but unless its a sect or cult must surely also know that it doesn’t have the corner on all truth. Some church members come to believe that what their current church confesses as truth just isn’t what they can say ‘Amen’ to anymore. Even so, leaving over a theological change should only be over a MAJOR issue, and should NEVER be done without prayer and some meetings with elders and Pastors to discuss the issues in question. Still, if major beliefs have shifted it might be time to go to a new congregation that’s closer in its beliefs and practice to the views of the member in question.

2. “I’m moving”: Well that seems obvious enough. The real problem is that sometimes people move and never inform their current church leaders. Please don’t just simply disappear. Let pastors know when you’re going – and to where! Many may even be able to help you find a new church in your new location.

3. “The Church Changed”: This is the opposite of number one (above). In this scenario the Church moves away from what it confessed, the values it cherished and embodied, and becomes something else entirely. It isn’t a case of a member’s beliefs changing but rather the beliefs and practice of the church shifting in such a way that a member who’d felt right at home for years can no longer recognize the teaching the church professes as consistent with what it always taught. When a church moves away from the faith it confesses or introduces novel practices that undermine its unity and mission, then it can be time to move on.

4. “I can’t say”: This is a tough one, but I’ve lived with it over the years. Its all about confidentiality, and though very rare its real. There are things that have happened in people’s lives which have affected them in ways that make it impossible for them to remain in a particular community, and saying what their particular issue is and staying would involve either trying to worship with a heart trapped in sorrow and pain, or exposing someone else in such a way that the fragile relationships are only more badly broken and deeper misunderstanding occurs. Past affairs, divorces, and the like can  be such factors. Yes, we believe the Gospel is more than a match for any aspect of our vandalized human hearts, but we also have to admit that sometimes people just can’t get around or through the pain and into the promise. There are some things only eternity can heal. This isn’t about covering up abuse or predatory leaders, but it can be about past events that cast long shadows. Sometimes its better to find a place where the sun’s brightness shines in a more unobstructed way.

5. “I can’t invite my friends or anyone I know.” So this needs some deep exploration, but the bottom line is if you’re in a church that you know is so toxic that you wouldn’t bring the people you love into its fellowship, then why are you there? If its ministry is so misguided, ineffective, or dangerous, why are you there? There’s only one good reason to be there – you’re the answer to the toxicity. That’s a rare bird. Hey, maybe you’re just the person to sort it all out, but if not you have to at least do this: one, tell it like it is to the people in charge; and two, before totally backing out, seek shelter and counsel from others while the church is given some time to work out the problems. If they refuse to do so or just can’t, then move on.

Nine Really Bad Reasons to Leave

1. “I’m offended”: Welcome to the club. Of course you are! In fact, Jesus arranged the Church in such a way that one or more of our members will offend you. Repeatedly. Why? So you learn the art of forgiveness, mercy, and love. If you leave because something someone said or did got under your skin, you’ll just keep running into that problem at the next place. And the place after that. Here’s the funny part – you’ve already offended others and they’ve forgiven you! Don’t leave! Join the Forgiveness Party. Seriously. Local churches are designed to mature us and that can mean some tough sledding and pointed conversations to go along with the hugs and hymns. That’s the way it is.

2. “That other church has a gym.” I think its totally great if churches have fitness areas, coffee bars, and all kinds of fellowship inspiring, neighbor welcoming facilities. BUT, don’t choose a church based on facilities that will eventually wear out instead of the eternal truths and relationships that never die. This is true even in regard to a church’s perceived effectiveness at reaching youth (through gyms, bands, or whatever). Don’t compare your existing church of many years with a church with more bells and whistles: sometimes God gives churches the resources to have those things and sometimes he directs them to prioritize those limited resources in other ways. There’s nothing wrong with a gym or cool youth groups (or very uncool youth groups), but never forget its the parents job to disciple their children. Don’t switch churches to the church of your children’s preference, but instead raise them in the Faith you hold. You can certainly allow them the joy of hanging with their friends at other church’s special events and programs, and you should go along too! We need to let all congregations serve one another in this way. I am so glad for some churches in this area that do so well what this one can’t! Lets partner together, sharing in and honoring each congregation’s gracious contribution. That said, your family’s church is your children’s church. They can always get a new one after they graduate from college!

3. The Church doesn’t have ____________, or _____________, or a very good __________________. We can all think of lots every church can do or do better, but churches are not religious malls catering to every need. Churches aren’t like a food court, catering to every taste. Remember what the Church MUST do – Show the Love of Jesus in its fellowship together and witness in the world, faithfully preach and teach God’s word, faithfully serve the sacraments, and faithfully administer discipline. No kidding, if those four things are happening, fall on your face and weep with a thankful heart that you have that kind of church to call home, whatever other failings it may possess. No, really. Look, there are many things a church might do but only a few it must do, and those are things that no other community can do. If those few are present and accounted for then rejoice, be content, and discover how to make that community even more joyful and fruitful in its shared life, worship, and work.

4. “Its a bunch of old people”: This is said by people who might be kind of young, and we all really do get how important it is for most people to look around any community and see other people they can relate to, people who look like them. Ah, but see here’s the thing: the church is God’s family, and families have old people, babies, middle age people, and adolescents too. You need those old people in your life and they need you too. Better get some hang time with them, learn their wisdom – and their recipes. Not kidding. There is a necessary diversity to the nature of the Church that the differences can be a cause for joy in our hearts. In short, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.”

5. “Its a bunch of young people”: OK, so you know who said that. See number 4 above, and just know that if you’re a bit older those young people need you and you need them. Get in the middle of it all and rock on.

6. “Its inconvenient”: So was the cross. Church is not supposed to be ‘convenient’, at all. It MIGHT meet and dwell in relative proximity to you and your life, and that’s ideal and wonderful if that’s so. Still, if it isn’t convenient to attend and participate it might be God’s providence asking a bit more of you in order to take some of our selfishness to the cross.

7. “The other members don’t agree with my politics”: Most churches are usually made up of people from all walks of life and all backgrounds in a culture. Church’s are likely to reflect that, especially in larger, more diverse and densely populated urban areas. Add in the flavor of many international members – who again typically move to larger cities and who certainly don’t have the same political persuasions many Americans want to fight about – and you will find some pretty wide diversity. You have to remember that God is neither a Republican or a Democrat, and he’s certainly not an American. Whatever your views, share them (if you must) humbly and warmly with the knowledge that they are NOT the Gospel and with a view to hearing well what those who disagree with you might believe. What’s on a person’s bumper sticker in an election year is not the sum total of their spirituality. Give grace to one another in love. That’s true for a sermon too. You might think a Pastor was speaking politically when in fact he was addressing an issue that’s been politicized. Our culture tends to think every issue can be solved by political means and so demands that everyone take sides, demonizing those who oppose them. That’s a tragedy and we can’t let that tendency disrupt and destroy our community. Pastors often raise issues, but do so pointing people to Christ as Savior and calling the Church to a godly response to the many crises arising in our day. Its OK to leave your party over politics, but not your church.

8. “The Music makes me crazy”: see number 3 above. Now if the music makes you crazy AND the church isn’t doing the stuff outlined in number three above then start looking. Otherwise, sing along.

9. “We’re changing Pastors”: That’s the worst possible time to go. First, your community is going through a big transition. Its not going to be the same and its an all hands on deck time for everyone. Far from going, GET IN the mix of making things as stable as possible during a testing period. Second, your new Pastor will need your help and its going to be a lot easier to do that if you’e there when he arrives. Hang in there through the transition unless you know the change means that the church is going in a radically different direction. If that happens, see number 3 under Good Reasons to Go.

I know how hard it can be for people who really care to say, “I am exploring some other options”, or “I need you to walk with me in this process of making a decision about changing”, or even saying, “That’s it, I need to move elsewhere”. Those aren’t easy conversations. In my experience though most church leaders know that this is part of the journey people make and will prayerfully partner with you in discovering some answers to the question of whether or not its time to go. Don’t be silent about this wrestling match, and do walk together with others in making this decision – even if its down the road to a different church.

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