The family walked out of their current church and travelled into our front door. The last situation, they explained, had been unsatisfactory. In our group they seemed quite content; as if they’d found a home. They got involved. We really enjoyed them – until they were no longer there to enjoy. They left abruptly, a few years later, for reasons largely undisclosed. I heard that they loved their new pastor’s preaching. Until they were no longer there to hear it. They are now at yet another church.
There’s a lot of this going on today in churches – folks moving in and then moving on. With the pool of active church attenders shrinking in general, lots of churches are shrinking as well; struggling to survive. As I discussed last week, this is mostly negative; based on a lack of commitment and a consumer mentality. Too many people treat church as a sort of spiritual Wal-Mart rather than as an opportunity to serve Christ and His Body.
To be fair, however, there are times when it makes sense to at least seriously consider leaving your current church. Let consider a few of them today.
When might you want to consider leaving your current church?
1. I might want to consider leaving when there are significant doctrinal differences between my church and myself
Please note the word “significant”. You’re never going to agree with everyone in your church on every biblical subject; including the pastor. And that’s not all bad. If we have an open mind we can learn from each other. Furthermore, many doctrinal differences are relatively minor and don’t change the big picture. If you’re looking for 100% agreement you’ll have to attend a church of one. But some theological differences do matter. These would include major doctrinal foundations, like salvation by faith through Jesus alone, Heaven and hell, the Trinity, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and so on; in other words, what’s been considered orthodox doctrine throughout most of Church history. Some of you will choose to stay; to try and make a difference. But it’s rough, especially for a lay person if the pastor and leaders are teaching unorthodox doctrine. It generates a lot of frustration and conflict. It’s often better to leave.
2. I might want to consider leaving when my denomination is abandoning orthodoxy
This is a similar dilemma to the last point. Do you want to send money to, or be identified with a denomination which has a low view of biblical authority, which promotes or condones unbiblical sexuality, or which questions cardinal biblical doctrines such as salvation through Jesus alone? Like the pastor mentioned above, you might choose to stay and try to make a difference. Many have, especially if their local church is still orthodox. If you do this prayerfully and courageously, God’s blessings on your efforts. For others, it’s just too hard to be part of a denomination that they believe is undermining what is Scriptural. So they choose to leave and find a more compatible denomination or non-denominational church.
3. I might want to consider leavingwhen my church is unwilling to deal with sin
Every church is full of sinners—including you and me. This is unavoidable, given our current stage in spiritual history. We’re all in the process of being sanctified and this happens slowly. What I’m talking about here is blatant sin especially among fellow-believers, which the church is unwilling to confront. The pastor is having an affair with the secretary. A deacon is abusive to his wife and no one’s willing to challenge these things.
This can be delicate. Obviously, we can’t confront every sin. Usually, we pray for the person and let them and God handle it. And a lot of sin can be tackled through good teaching or loving conversations between friends. But blatant sin, ignored, will ruin a church. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 5, speaking of unconfronted sin in Corinth, “don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?” In our society, which exalts so-called “tolerance”, and given the risk of losing even more people, churches today are hesitant to exercise church discipline. If your church is too hesitant to deal with sin, you may choose to leave.
4. I might want to consider leaving when my church is spiritually stagnant and is unwilling to change
Sometimes a church goes stale. It’s become mostly superficial religious ritual, or a social club, with little sign of spiritual vitality. People aren’t eagerly digging into their Bibles. There’s not much concern for spiritual transformation or holiness, either personally or for others. And little interest in reaching unbelievers. This too is a delicate situation. God may have sent you to help bring back your church back to life. If so, stick around, pray a lot, love a lot, and show a positive example. Be patient. This takes time. On other occasions, however, especially when there’s strong resistance to change, you may want to move on. Otherwise you too risk drifting into the status quo and “forsaking your first love” (Rev. 2:4). You won’t find a perfect church, by any means, but even a few spiritually hot hearts can make a huge difference in your spiritual trajectory.
5. I might want to consider leaving a church if the Spirit prompts me to do so
This one I mention, ironically, with some hesitation. I hesitate because I suspect that it’s often misused. “God’s leading us somewhere else” is a favorite line used by people who hop from church to church. It’s easy to confuse God’s will with our own. Nevertheless, there surely are times when God, in His wisdom, leads us away from our current church because He wants us to be somewhere else. Perhaps the church we’re in has plenty of workers, but another, smaller church could really use our gifts. Perhaps, the church we attend caters to seekers and unbelievers and we’re now ready for a church that gives more to mature believers. Perhaps . . .we’re not sure why, but the sense of being led in a new direction keeps returning. In the end, there’s only one Church. We’re all in this together.
As I mentioned in the prior post, I believe that we should have a bias toward staying in our church. Every church has shortcomings and it’s all too easy to leave – whether you’re a parishioner or a pastor. Staying allows us to grow up into mature spiritual adults, if we let it, while bouncing around can leave us mired in spiritual adolescence. Nevertheless, there are times to move on. Please do so with much thought and prayer. And, if possible, don’t just disappear without a trace or stoke the fires of dissension by hurling unhelpful, ungracious words of criticism as you exit. Talk thoughtfully with those who need to know, express appreciation wherever possible, and try to leave the door of love wide open, even if they don’t understand or agree with your decision. Forgive whatever needs to be forgiven. Stay friendly and interested when you see them in the community. Pray for them. One day soon we’ll all be together as one joyful body in the presence of our Lord.