I’ve left churches in the past. Most of the time it was because I was thrown out. There was that one time that a church shut down to keep us from coming there. We figured it was time to look elsewhere at that point. The couple of times that we left of our volition were over ministry philosphy. It wasn’t my preference to leave either time but after many requests for dialogue and a complete rejection or opposition on the part of the leadership, I left because I didn’t feel that I could be fruitful in ministry at that location.
Now, that I’m the “senior pastor” somewhere, I’ve been able to experience being left a few times. From the vantage point of a leaver and a beriever, I’d like to comment on when leaving a congregation is a good thing and when it might not be.
First of all, God doesn’t need any particular institutional entity to accomplish his purposes on this earth. Often, church leaderships make decisions either to gain or retain members. In my view, this approach actually resists God’s purposes with his people. As a community of Christ on mission for him, our goal should be the release of people into new fields where they can plant and cultivate the gospel in the lives of those wandering in the world. If we believe our own message, we won’t need to make concessions in order to please people, even our own congregants. As Paul said in Galatians 1:10, “If I were still seeking to please people, I wouldn’t be a servant of Christ.” In another letter, Paul acknowledged that God didn’t need him to accomplish his purposes and in fact the gospel had begun to spread even more with Paul in prison (Phil. 1:12-18). God doesn’t need us because the gospel is his power to salvation (Romans 1:16). His power is all-sufficient. It only needs to be proclaimed and can be proclaimed by anyone. If God chose as he did in Acts 8 to disperse a happy and healthy body of believers so they could all go out to proclaim his good news throughout the world, that would be a good thing, would it not? God’s choice to scatter his people proves that we don’t need a particular “critical mass” in order to fulfill God’s will for us as his people. If this is the case, then why should the church exist at all?
From the way I read scripture, God means for the church to demonstrate his love in community. Jesus commanded his followers to love each other with the promise that all people would know they were his people if they pursued this one requirement. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul asserts that the connection between believers provides the space for God to dwell among us (2:21-22; 3:14-19; 4:16). In the same letter, Paul calls the connection between believers the “bond of peace (4:3.)” From the passages we’ve surveyed, it would seem that there is a dichotomy here. How can the church fulfill its purpose to release its members into new fields while being true to its nature as a coherent spiritual family? It may sound simplistic, but it seems to me that love itself must motivate any outward movement from a congregation.
Most of the instances of church changing that I’m aware of have not been rooted in cross-shaped love. The proliferation of mega church supports my assertion. What do megachurches have that smaller congregations and house churches do not? Do they provide a greater degree of personal responsibility to follow Christ and grow into leadership or a lesser degree? I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say that they chose a megachurch because they liked being able to slip into the back row, be served an experience, and slip out without anyone engaging them. Does that sound like a desire to practice agape love? As a former staffer for a megachurch, I’ve heard people share that they came for the high quality worship, dynamic teaching, youth programs etc. Consumerism by its nature is self-loving. Are those who leave churches where they are truly needed in order to access “spiritual goods and services” (an actual phrase used by my former senior pastor), going for the sake of agape love? Probably not. Using the church as family imagery, those who leave less sexy congregations for nubile new churches, look much like a husband abandoning “the wife of his youth” for the younger model. Rationalizations such as “we did it for our kids” or “that other church was just dead” sound a lot like, “my kids are better off with happy parents living apart” or “it was a failed marriage from the beginning.” If we’re not trying to teach our kids about loyal, sacrificial love in community, what do we hope the youth group will give them? Self-love will never honor God no matter what the specific circumstances.
Considering the church as family, there is an instance when members leaving is a good and joyous occasion. When adult children leave to pursue their own calling and form their own families, everyone can join in the tearful celebration. In this case, the love of Christ that propelled him onto this planet can be seen in the ones leaving and the love of the Father who sent him can be seen in the parent congregation. Just like in families, the leaders’ main job is to nurture and equip the other members to prepare them for this natural, healthy, and fruitful eventuality. In my line of work, I’ve met people who’ve not been equipped as physical children to live on their own as healthy adults. They go from place to place trying to find someone to parent them. When they find another person broken enough to fill this role for them, it’s always destructive for both parties. Whatever happens, church leaders must reject this kind of codependency between the church and it’s members. Every member must feel the tension to grow up and leave home to found new spiritual families. The experience of church for each person must be ever more uncomfortable not the opposite.
Are you ready to leave your church? Here are some questions to consider:
- Are you currently being challenged to become like Jesus? If not, have you told the leadership that you feel a deficiency? Have your specific requests for a deeper investment in your spiritual growth been rejected by the leadership?
- Do you currently, actively love the people in your current fellowship like family with all of the conflict and comfort therein implied?
- Have you planted a gospel community which has begun to require time you used to invest in your current congregation?
- Have you included your current leadership in a dialogue about the best next step?
If we believe the church is the people rather than an institution, then we won’t be able to just switch churches like we switch burger joints when a new one comes into town. Leaving church means leaving people. It’s always painful, but the pain can be mitigated by the joy of new life that comes when members leave to start their own families.
If you’re feeling that wanderlust of spiritual adolescence, could I humbly suggest that you ask your current leadership for more support in your efforts in making disciples in your own context. Explain just what you need from them and don’t settle for counter offers to include you in church based programs. Then, go and make disciples. When those disciples become a church that needs your focused attention, ask your church leadership to give you a prayerful sendoff/commissioning to consider the new group your primary spiritual family. Keep contact with your original congregation so they can celebrate wins with you. This will cast vision back in that group for others to do as you’ve done and so the kingdom will expand exponentially and more people will become more like Christ.