It’s that time of year, when transitions happen: seasons close and new seasons begin. Maybe you’re a student who just headed off to college. Maybe you got a new job. Maybe your employer transitioned you. Those are some of the many natural reasons that you might have just left or might be leaving your church in the coming weeks.
Maybe you’ve left or are planning on leaving your church for entirely different reasons, though. Maybe your pastor is in a rut. Maybe the worship grates on you. Maybe you feel like you just don’t know anyone there any longer. Maybe you were injured by someone at the church and you tense up at the awkwardness of returning. Maybe you feel like you’re not getting spiritually fed there any longer. Maybe you are frustrated with how your church has handled Covid-19.
In this five-part series we will explore appropriate reasons for leaving a church, how to leave a church, how to choose a church, and how to join a church.
Let’s explore some of the most common reasons[i] people leave the church and reflect whether they are appropriate or not.
1) I feel disconnected
“The church doesn’t feel like home any longer. My friends have left and I feel like I’m at someone else’s church when I arrive.”
It’s not appropriate to leave: losing friends is hard, but we shouldn’t leave a church because our friends have left. Part of the joy of the church is that God brings together strangers into community. Do the hard work of starting a new small group or serving in a new ministry and God will surely bring about new relationships.
2) They got rid of an important program
“I poured my heart and soul into AWANA and the pastor just canceled it.” “Our Sunday School class was family, and after ten years they said we can’t have our Sunday School class any longer.” “I’ve served with the Gideons for fifteen years, and our church has always supported it. But this past year they stopped providing financial support.”
It’s not appropriate to leave: what a beautiful thing to pour yourself out in service! And how appropriate that we become so connected to the vision of those programs that we serve! But while the mission of God (“go therefore and make disciples of all nations” Mt 28:19) remains the same, the methods of accomplishing that mission change. And so our grip on any particular program ought to be loose.
3) The church just started a building campaign
“Our church is gearing up for relocation. I’ve gone through a relocation before, and I don’t want to hear the constant drumbeat of financial and service demands that are going to come because of a relocation.”
It’s not appropriate to leave: the gospel isn’t an easy thing. Jesus calls us to pick up our cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24). He calls some to sell everything and follow him (Matthew 19:21). He calls all to use their gifts for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7). Church ought to make us uncomfortable, and God can use relocation for the sanctification of his people.
4) I disagree with the pastor’s politics
“I can’t believe the church doesn’t require masks.” “I am so frustrated the pastor hasn’t denounced vaccination mandates from the pulpit.” “I am so angry that our pastor said what he said about President Biden’s handling of Afghanistan.” “I’m angry our pastor didn’t support President Trump during this past election.” “I’m sick and tired of our pastor assuming that you have to be a Republican to be a Christian. He never comes out and says it, but he makes dozens of little comments that disparage Democrats.”
It’s probably not appropriate to leave: the idea that politics and religion should be separated is a secular, not a Christian idea. If Christianity is God’s truth, Christianity has plenty to say about politics. But Christianity is not a sub-category of either political party and ought to speak truth to both parties. If your pastor appears to place his nationality or political affiliation above the gospel or to reduce the gospel’s reach to politics, then it may be time to leave. But Christians ought to be able to have civil and respectful disagreement about the political implications of the gospel.
5) They changed a good thing
“This used to be my church. But they have lost their way.” “The new pastor doesn’t preach like our former pastor. He’s dry and I can’t follow his sermons.” “We used to sing hymns and choruses, but we only sing choruses now, and the drummer is too loud.” “We used to be a family, but we’re so big now, it’s like a mob.”
It’s probably not appropriate to leave: change is hard. Change stretches and challenges us. And the changes your church is making may not even be wise. Maybe the change in worship style will empty out the sanctuary. Maybe they hired a pastor who isn’t as dynamic as your former pastor. But whether you preferred the music before or your former pastor or singing from a hymnal, usually these changes reflect our preferences. Unless the changes reflect a fundamental abandonment of the gospel or foundational theological doctrines, you should probably stay.
6) No one there is authentic
“Everyone here seems so fake.” “I like the pastor’s preaching, but everyone in my small group seems allergic to being really honest and transparent.”
It’s probably not appropriate to leave: we all seek authenticity, but we tend to reduce what authenticity looks like to what we think it ought to look like. It is likely that those at the church think they’re being authentic. The best way to open the door to authenticity is to lead the way. It is a rare small group that will respond to your authenticity with inauthenticity. Transparency leads to trust which leads to transparency. There are rare situations where churches have structures that actually disallow authenticity; that may be an appropriate reason to leave.
7) I was hurt by someone at the church
“The Children’s Ministry Director won’t confront the family who keeps bringing their kids to Sunday School sick and got my kids sick.” “I found out that my connection group leader gossiped about me.” “I’ve complained multiple times to the Senior Pastor about the temperature of the sanctuary and he never fixes it.” “They asked me to step down from the worship team because they don’t think I’m good enough.”
It’s probably not appropriate to leave: the burden of peacemaking in the Bible falls on us. On me. On you. Have you been a peacemaker? Have you examined your own heart and confessed any sin to the one who hurt you? Have you confronted the one who injured you in love? If that was rebuffed, have you brought in others? Have you given the process time to work through? There are only a very few situations where leaving is appropriate before we engage in proactive biblical peacemaking.[ii] We’re called to do the hard thing and get messy.
8) The church makes me feel guilty
“Every sermon is a reminder of how much I’ve failed.” “Everyone at church has it together and seeing them reminds me what a sinner I am.” “All I hear is ‘do, do, do’ from the pastor.”
It may be appropriate to leave: this one really depends on whether you’re really feeling guilt or shame. If you are running from your church because you don’t want to hear about your sin and you want good news without the bad news, then you are running from the very thing that will save you. We need to be convicted and challenged and repent and turn to truth and righteousness. If, however, what you are experiencing is shame or false guilt rooted in a call to earn your salvation, then you are in a church that has twisted the good news of Jesus Christ into legalism and you not only can, but you should leave.
9) The church doesn’t teach the truth any longer
“The pastor doesn’t preach from the Bible any longer, he is preaching the gospel of self-help.” “The new pastor made it clear in his candidating process that he doesn’t hold to core biblical truths.” “The pastor preached on the book of Revelation and I realized he holds a view of the end times that I strongly disagree with.”
It may be appropriate to leave: if the church has truly abandoned the gospel and/or core historic theological tenants, then you can and should leave the church. However, be careful what you consider to be “core historic theological tenants.” Each of those words is important. Just because the pastor has a different interpretation of the end times, or of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or of the creation account doesn’t necessarily mean that the church has abandoned the gospel. Ask your pastor to meet with you to discuss your concerns and listen charitably about beliefs that you may be uncomfortable with. Recognize, though, that the conflicting beliefs may be well within the bounds of biblical Christianity.
10) I’m moving
“I appreciate my church, but I just accepted a promotion and am moving to another town.”
It’s probably appropriate to leave: even here, I’m going to suggest that it still might not be appropriate to leave your church. Don’t assume that your vocational calling trumps your calling to your church. It might, but this should be an open question for you (and your family). God might be calling you to stay in your current job. He might not be releasing you from your workplace, your church, or your neighborhood. He might have a calling for you there that is more important than your career advancement.
The Hard Work of Staying
My point in this post isn’t to give your church a blank check to do a poor job. Churches and leaders are called to a high level of responsibility to lead the church well and create vibrant, gospel-proclaiming communities to move outward with the life-changing hope of Jesus. They’re called to listen. They’re called to lead as peacemakers. But we become the problem when we are not engaged in being the church and participating in the transformation of the community for the glory of God.
If our churches are mere gatherings of shoppers, how can we expect God to build up vibrant communities of faith like we see in Acts where there was shared worship, life, meals, and even possessions? How can we be one body with many members that Paul envisions in 1 Corinthians 12 when members are moving from body to body without much more thought than changing our dentist?
You are the church. The people are the church. And transformation comes through you. Hope comes through you. Just as beautiful and meaningful seasons lie in front of the couple who is experiencing marital difficulty if they will do the hard work of reconciliation, so also fruitful times may lay in front of those in situations where they are contemplating leaving their church if they will stick it out and do the difficult work. I pray that God gives you the strength to take that risk, if that is what you ought to do.
In the coming weeks we will continue walking through what a healthy process of leaving and joining a church looks like.