Before you leave your church

Nov 4, 2015 by

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Is it wrong to call it quits on your church?

The question comes from the longing I sense in my generation for authenticity and spiritual life, and that it seems we don’t often find that in our churches. When you’re tired of your church, is it ever wrong to leave?

I invited people to share their stories, and they did. It’s overwhelming how many people feel this issue. Perhaps we are not the first generation to struggle with these questions, but that indicates even more that something is wrong. We keep making the same mistakes, repeating the cycle.

While the churches I have attended certainly aren’t perfect, I have not personally struggled with wanting to leave my church. I deeply appreciate the people and the leadership of these churches. Their hearts are for God and they constantly seek to be more aligned with His will.

But I have watched as close friends wrestle intensely with this question. Three, in particular, are incredible examples to me. Each of these friends are under 30 years old. One was already a part of the church leadership. Their stories inspire me because I feel whether they left or chose to stay, people have respect for them and feel valued by them.

That’s huge.

Not very often do we hear stories of people leaving church that aren’t full of accusations and belittlement. That’s not the case for my three friends. As I look at their stories, I see three common elements to their journey that I feel anyone struggling with their church should consider before leaving.

But first, let me set the stage of what I’m talking about.

Why knowing when to leave your church matters

You may be wondering what the big deal is. In America, churches are a dime a dozen. If you can’t fit into one, you can find another one. After all, we’re all one church, right? So why does it matter if I leave?

Here’s why your local church matters: relationships reveal the authenticity of your spirituality.

There is value in having relationships with people. No matter what scripture does or doesn’t say about the church, it constantly points to the close relationships as indicators of God’s spirit within us.

Think of it, the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness. It’s not those that I have minimal interactions with that I struggle to love or be patient with; it’s the people with whom I interact at least weekly.

That’s why attending a local church matters and why knowing when to leave (or not to leave) is important.

One key theme that comes up in this discussion is that there is one Church. Some suggest the idea of having local or individual “churches” contradicts scripture. I don’t see that being something the writers of the New Testament worried about clarifying. Ecclesia, the Greek word for church, means “assembly, church or congregation.” It can be used when speaking of the universal church or of local churches. Assembly, church and congregation are used interchangeably throughout the NT and we have specific letters to “the church at Corinth,” “the church at Ephesus,” and so on.

I suggest that to worry about clarifying this is getting overly technical. I believe everyone in this conversation agrees with scripture that there is only one Body, one Head, and that we who confess Jesus Christ as Lord, have turned from our sins, and are baptized with Him (Jesus) are members of that body whether we go to a Biblical Mennonite Alliance church or Mid-Atlantic church. Whether we’re a part of the Anabaptist denomination, or Pentecostal. If that is not where you’re at, then we can have another discussion.

But the purpose of this conversation is, within that context, is it ever wrong to leave your local church? Are we supposed to just stay connected to the church that is closest geographically? Does it matter if the specific congregation we are currently a part of is a place for spiritual growth?

As I listen to my generation of young people, I hear a lot of frustration with church. Even those who sincerely invest in their local church and seek to be an influence for God’s glory — even they get frustrated when they don’t feel free to go to the next level. “The way it’s always been done is the way it will always be.” That kills any life or vision for that particular church.

When dress standards are a bigger issue to govern than whether or not we’re engaging the world around us for Christ, when maintaining a reputation among your particular conference is more important than doing what needs to be done to effectively reach whatever culture your living in — when it’s all about looking spiritual and not actually being spiritual — people burn out, and soon become tired of church.

So what do we do?

There is a time to leave

I’ve chosen for this post to share what I’ve learned from others. Along with my three friends that I’ve watched and had many conversations with, I contacted a few church leaders to see what it’s like from their perspective. It’s been a valuable exercise for me, even though I don’t necessarily feel in the middle of this struggle myself. I’ve learned a lot, and I believe you will to.

The first person I talked to was my dad. Dad has been an ordained pastor my entire life. He has a pastor’s heart, which means he has a heart for Christ and for people. But that heart has been shaped through some intense seasons of life. Dad has left two churches as a pastor. Dad left a church system once, and another time he walked away from an independent church. He always felt that it was better for him to leave as a leader than to force others to leave.

Dad says if he had it to do over again, there are some things he would do differently. But in both cases, he’s really glad that he walked away from systems that were deadly and not life-giving.

One of the worries of people leaving church is what will happen to their children? That’s a legitimate concern because I have watched many families go from one church to the other and the children basically grow up not knowing how to submit to others and work as a team. Furthermore, they’re disillusioned with church and since “church” is about God they become disillusioned with God.

However, there ought to be just as great a concern for what will happen to the children of families who choose to stay in unhealthy environments. I fear that I would not be walking with the Lord, today, if Dad had stayed in the original church environment my family was in. Dad’s choice to leave is what saved his family — twice.

What to consider before you leave

So how does this work? If we’re in a church situation and we deeply feel that something needs to change, like perhaps we need to leave, how do we that without burning bridges? Or doesn’t it matter if we burn bridges?

I don’t know what your situation is and what all experiences I’ll face over the course of my lifetime, but as I have observed friends and talked with leaders, there are three common elements that surface in these conversations that we ought to consider before we leave any church.

First of all, let’s ask ourselves three questions that help us pinpoint what the issue really is:

1. Am I struggling with a theological difference, or a relational conflict?

One thing I’ve noticed as a pastor’s son is that, although it’s rarely the said reason, people usually leave a church because of broken relationships. Many people are searching for many things, and ultimately they long for a place to belong and be loved. People will embrace tremendous beliefs whether they be good or bad if the relationships with others are whole and healthy. When they’re not, they’ll even reject truth.

If there truly is a theological difference, then it may be best just to leave. What’s sad about American churches, though, is that I believe most people leave under the pretense of “theological” or “doctrinal” differences, but really there was simply a breakdown in relationship.

What if we would start resolving those conflicts?

2. The second question to ask is are people attracted to this part of Christ’s body?

People were attracted to Christ, they should also be attracted to his bride. Along the first question, when there are unhealthy ways of relating happening in the church, people feel repulsed and will not be attracted. On the flip side, when they see people resolving conflicts and loving each other in spite of their differences, they are greatly drawn to what they have because everyone wants hope in the face of broken trust, or broken love.

3. Another question to ask (and the last that I have for this post) is our church serving?

The bride of Christ is for the purpose of serving Christ. And Christ calls us to make disciples. If our local church is only serving itself, it’s like a masturbating bride. Sure, it’s great to have good Sunday schools and developed church programs, but ultimately the church needs to be serving the community around itself. If it’s not, it’s just a self-serving church.

I hope these questions help you better identify what you’re struggling with, and no matter where you come out on these issues, there are three things I want you to consider before going any further. These are tools I have received from friends and mentors. I try to apply them to anything I struggle with in ministry and church, even if I don’t necessarily “feel like leaving.”

Give it time

Perspective is only found in time and there is always a point in time that we feel strongly one way or the other. But before we leave our church, give it time.

As we give it time, let’s self-evaluate. Ask ourselves the three questions above and allow God’s Spirit to speak into our hearts whether we are playing into any negative aspects of our church. Saturate the issue with prayer. God works through prayer, yet we often become consumed with figuring out what is right or wrong first. We don’t always need to know that. We just need to pray. And be patient.

Pursue people

We can give it time, but if we’re not pursuing people we will probably come to the end of our “time” feeling no different about the situation than when we started.

Seek to understand the vision and heart of the leaders. They may struggle with the same things about your church that you do, only they need your help to get the church there. Care for your leaders. A pastor will let you say anything to him if he knows you love him and care about his heart and vision.

But we usually assume we know where our leaders are at, and they’re always evil.

Also, we should pursue those we’re having conflict with by seeking to understand their point of view. As we get to know their heart, the whole issue might become irrelevant.

In short, pursuing people means we talk, we don’t simmer. Simmer always ends in conflict.

Be respectful

Sometimes we just need to agree to disagree. And it’s possible to disagree without belittling others or blackmailing them.

Belittlement and blackmail is a sign of insecurity and lack of God’s Holy Spirit. If you’ve had that happen to you, it says more about the people doing it, then it does you. And if you’ve been someone who does that, you must repent. That was not a Christlike move.

And that’s one of the greatest weaknesses in Conservative Anabaptist churches.

Being respectful means we care about other people’s reputation, not just ours. We know they long to feel significant and so even if we’re in conflict we will not degrade them because they are God’s children as we are, and they house God’s Spirit as we do.

When I have struggled with respect for someone, one of the best helps is to pray for them. God works through prayer, and sometimes the work is done in my heart.

Conclusion

I purposely didn’t try to tell you that you should or should not leave your church. I also purposely avoided building a case from Scripture over the issue. I trust I’m speaking to people who value God’s Word as authority and who value their local church as an expression of his whole bride. But I also assume that I’m speaking to people who face struggles with their church.

No matter what issue you’re facing, and no matter if you leave or stay, give it time, pursue others, and be respectful. I’m confident God’s bride will shine with beauty because of it.

Asher Witmer is a husband, father, writer and teacher from Los Angeles currently serving as a principal at a small international school in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He blogs at asherwitmer.wordpress.com, where this post first appeared.


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