I called two of my people in one week, several years ago, to see how they were doing. I’m a pastor; a shepherd of the flock and I try to keep my finger on the pulse of as many folks as I can. We had pleasant conversations, information was exchanged, and we hung up. I never saw them again in church.
It turns out that, without mentioning it to me, they had already movedon. There was, as far as I know, no particular conflict, or significant theological issues dividing us. For some reason, though, they thought it was time to go. So they did. No big deal was made. It was as if they were merely slipping off one pair of shoes and putting on another. Nor were these one or two time visitors. Both had attended on and off for years. And both left without even saying thank you or good-bye.
I can’t count how many people have come in our church’s front door over the years and then gone out the back door never to return. They’ve departed in a variety of ways, some openly, others surreptitiously, some with a smile and handshake, others with a scowl, some, because they had to move away due to jobs or school, and others because they simply chose to move on.
This has become a familiar phenomenon, especially in smaller churches; many of which are shrinking and, eventually closing. What are we to make of it?
To be candid, this question is complicated. Sometimes, leaving a particular local church is a good decision. At other times, it’s a questionable or even a poor decision. There are a number of variables and they must be weighed on a case by case basis. In the end, it’s between God and you. Let me suggest some of the variables that I believe it is helpful to weigh before leaving a church.
1. Have I entered fully into the church experience or remained on the fringe?
Every church has a number of people who dive right in, get to know others, build relationships, and get involved in giving as well as taking. These are usually the minority. A larger number of folks circle the fringe. They come at their convenience, keep relationships superficial, and are reluctant to join groups or volunteer for service. There’s a world of difference in how these two groups experience the church. The first group is experiencing the real church – participating as family members in a healthy family where there’s commitment, love, give and take. The second group is not experiencing the real church since they choose to remain at a distance with only superficial commitment. Their dissatisfaction with the church is often largely their own doing. They’re trying to get maximal benefit with minimal effort or risk. This leads to a second, somewhat parallel point:
2. Have I related to the church primarily as a giver or as a taker?
What is your main goal in being part of a church? Is it to get your needs and the needs of your family met or is it to serve the Body of Christ? Getting our needs met is certainly part of being in the church. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul makes it clear that we need one another. And there may be seasons where we’re on “life support” spiritually and need extra attention.
But if this is a pattern, interacting with the church primarily as a consumer, it’s a selfish one; like children who only call Dad or Mom when they need something. Odd as it may seem, “what’s in it for me and mine?” is a loss for both sides. The church loses, since it needs what you have to give – your spiritual gifts and resources and you lose, since, as Jesus said: “It is better to give than to receive”. Church is much more satisfying when we’ve taken some ownership and given substantially of ourselves. We’re less likely to focus on its flaws and more on the needs of others. And God blesses us when we serve in ways that He will not bless those who merely take.
3. Have I been willing to pay the price of building close relationships?
Most of us, at least unconsciously, want the church to become a place of real friendships; a close spiritual family. It’s critical, however, to recognize that closeness always comes with a cost. It’s one thing to shake hands in the lobby and exchange cautiousbanter, and another altogether to really get to know each other. The former is safe, but superficial. The latter is more costly. It takes time to get past the surface and get to know one another at a deeper level. It’s more painful too, since as we become more open, our flaws are also more apparent, conflicts emerge, and we invariably disappoint one another at times. Sometimes, these realities cause fellow congregants to reject us or to pull back. On the plus side, as we build deeper relationships, the fellowship grows sweeter. To be known and still accepted and loved is healing and bonding.
4. Have I come to realize that problems in the church are part of the benefit it bestows on me?
The positives in our church are attractive and it’s easy to see their benefits. We love the music. The youth leader is dynamic. There are a few wise and winsome believers we enjoy associating with. But it’s also helpful to keep in mind that the negative aspects of being in a local body also are part of the benefit as well. Approached humbly, with the help of the Spirit, they allow us to grow up into spiritual adults. We learn to forgive, to accept, to put others first, to be more flexible, and so on. Those who flee from church to church often lose these benefits and discover, to their chagrin, that a lot of the problems they encountered in the last church, have followed them to the new one. That’s because, often, at least part of the problem is us. God is using other believers as sandpaper to smooth off our rough spots.
5. Do I see church commitment as more like marriage than like dating?
A marriage commitment, at least one properly made, is a long-term commitment. We enter it with a strong bias toward staying together if at all possible. A dating commitment, on the other hand, is much looser. We feel more freedom to leave it if the hassle factor exceeds the fun factor. We enter marriage with a commitment to growing together and working things out, knowing that it won’t always be easy or fun, but that, in the end, an intimate marriage is worth the cost. While a church commitment is not as serious as a marriage commitment, having a bias toward staying long-term makes all the difference in how we will relate to our church through all the ups and downs. Too many in the modern church are unwilling to move past the dating mentality and risk long-term commitment.
And so the church merry go round continues. This can include pastors too, by the way. Is there a time when it makes godly sense to leave a local church? Tune in next time when we consider this question.