I love the church! It has a unique role in the world as God’s chosen vehicle of communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church makes Christ visible by demonstrating His love to broken and needy people. However, the local church often fails to fulfill this role effectively. Often the church is a hindrance to the very thing it is meant to do, and instead drives people away from God.
I am concerned about the number of people I know or I’ve heard about who have left their local church or are considering doing so.
Some of these people are seekers who sincerely want to know what Christianity is all about and what they experience at the local church turns them off. Others are committed Christians who are faithful followers of Jesus who give and serve but want to go deeper but are frustrated by the shallowness of their church.
Some individuals I know have left their church over petty offenses while others have left over major issues in the church.
I want to urge you, if you are thinking about leaving your local church, not to make that choice until you have made the following five choices first.
#1. Choose not to listen to those who are quick to tell you to leave.
I’m talking about your family and closest friends. Because they love you they want you to be happy and are likely to advise you to leave any place where you are unhappy. Taking their advice might short circuit God’s plan for you.
One exception to this is if your life is in danger or if you are experiencing abuse of any kind at your church. In that case, stay away from there! There are other good reasons to leave a church which I will address in my next blog post, but most reasons are not urgent. Staying where you are just a little bit longer will not have a negative impact in most cases.
#2. Choose a reasonable deadline when you will decide whether the Lord wants you to stay or leave.
By planning this date in advance, it will help prevent you from making a rash decision based on emotion alone. If the date arrives and you are still not sure what to do, set another date and continue to wait on God to show you what your decision should be.
#3. Choose to protect the reputation of the church and the pastor.
Guard your words. Negativity is contagious. Rumors begin very easily. You can create new problems or escalate existing ones by complaining to others in the church and to those who are not in the church. You may forever hurt the reputation of the pastor and the church as a whole. Most importantly, you may bring dishonor to the name of Christ. Above all, seek to honor His name, even as you work through your discontentment with His people.
#4. Choose to talk with the person who is most responsible for your problem or who can address the problem.
If your problem is with an individual then deal directly with that individual. Most Christians I find are not willing to follow what is clearly laid out in scripture that most offenses between individuals are to be dealt with on a one-to-one basis (Matthew 18:15). There are times when others are to be involved (Matthew 18:16-17). The goal is to restore the broken relationship, if possible.
If it is a wider church issue, talk to the pastor or to the leadership team. They deserve to know. They have served you and have spent countless hours providing opportunities for your spiritual growth. Give them the courtesy of speaking with them about your concerns.
I would like to speak from the perspective of a pastor. I have pastored overseas and also here in Canada. Nothing is so discouraging as hearing that a faithful member has left the church. Most pastors I know blame themselves when this happens and often church members blame the pastor as well.
When you share your concerns with the pastor:
- You ease some of the guilt. I have appreciated those who have told me honestly why they were leaving. Sometimes it was my failure to meet expectations and sometimes it had nothing to do with me, but at least I knew the reason.
- You can provide valuable feedback. Sometimes the pastor is totally unaware that people are unhappy or if they are, why they are. Feedback given thoughtfully and in a timely manner can help the pastor and church leaders make necessary changes.
To Shake or Not to Shake
One elderly church member came to my office one day and said he thought we should stop shaking hands at church because he feared the spread of germs and sickness. I felt that if we did not shake hands after the service that the church would be perceived as not very welcoming. I thanked him for his concern and decided to do an experiment to see if he was alone in his concern or if there were others who felt the same way. The following Sunday I shared with the congregation that this concern had been brought to me and I was wondering how many other people were also concerned. I asked everyone on their way out after the service to let me know if they felt we should stop shaking hands. I added that if they didn’t want to shake hands they were to find another way to communicate a warm and welcoming greeting. The results were interesting! Very few people wanted to discontinue the practice. Some people hugged me explaining that they preferred hugs to handshakes any day! Others who didn’t want to spread or catch germs bumped elbows instead and still others blew me kisses! I kid you not! Because one person brought their concern to me, I was able to get necessary feedback and most people seemed to enjoy the experiment.
- You can help share the burden. You may discover that your observations, concerns and experiences are shared by the pastor. By coming alongside the church leadership you can help support your spiritual leaders through prayer and offering to be a part of the solution.
- You can be given an explanation. Sometimes people overreact to half-truths or draw wrong conclusions. By sharing your concerns with the pastor, he or she may be able to give you an explanation without breaking confidences that just might change your mind.
A few years ago, our church changed the format of communion so that one month the format was traditional and the next month it was contemporary. I heard that many people were unhappy but few people actually came to talk with me about it. One woman did and I appreciated our conversation. It gave me a chance to explain why we were doing it both ways. I also discovered that some of her understanding of communion was based on tradition rather than on the scriptures. That conversation resulted in me preaching a sermon on communion where I was able to clarify what the Bible actually said about the format that communion should take (it doesn’t say much!) and explain some of our traditions. I received a lot of positive feedback on that sermon. Because one person had the courage to speak with me other people benefited.
#5. Choose to be willing to stay if that is God’s will.
It seems to me that many Christians want God to do THEIR will rather than commit themselves to doing HIS will. In considering all of these choices a believer needs to be constantly seeking God’s will. You may wonder, “Why would God want me to stay in a church where I am not happy?” There are several possible reasons:
- You may be part of the solution. Your continued involvement, wisdom, spiritual gifts and prayers may be part of God’s plan for the church.
- Your presence may help provide stability to the church during a rough period in the life of the church. I am so grateful for the number of people I know who did not run every time our church faced a challenging time. These people were committed to the church and by continuing to participate, give and serve they provided stability until things settled down. When people leave, particularly if several people leave at the same time and if they have been very active members, they can set the church back years. Withdrawing financial support or volunteer hours can cripple a church and make moving on even more difficult.
- Your own spiritual growth. It is human nature to want to leave when things are not to our liking. I know that is true for me. When I am offended by someone or angered by a situation, my first impulse is to walk away. I say to myself, “I don’t need you!” or “I don’t need this in my life!” Fortunately, I have learned not to act on those immature impulses. Instead of fleeing, God may be calling you to stay where you are. It is in difficult times that we have the greatest opportunity to grow spiritually.
The book of James, written to believers facing trials, challenges us with these words,
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4
If you desire to grow spiritually, staying where you are just might be the answer to prayer you have been seeking. However, if you have prayerfully considered these five choices and still believe that it is God’s will for you to leave your church, you can do so with greater confidence that it is the right thing to do.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR EXPERIENCE?
I would be interested in knowing what has contributed to you leaving a church or in choosing to stay when you wanted to leave. Comment below and start a conversation!
If you know someone who is facing this dilemma and think this post could help them, please share it. Thanks!