Mark Fairweather Tall
Is it OK to leave my church?
Imagine the scene for a moment. It is Sunday morning and before the service has started I spot a couple who I haven’t seen in church before and go to speak to them to introduce myself. It isn’t long into the conversation before I discover that they live locally and are visiting us today because they are not happy at their current church. They are thinking of leaving and so are trying out a few places to see where else would suit them as they look for a new home. At this point you could put into the story a hundred or more different reasons about what has led them to take this step.
Those of us who have been in one church for a period of time will almost certainly have experienced people joining their church from another church as well as people leaving them to go somewhere else. The chances are that a number of you reading this article will be in the position of having moved churches at some point in your life. Moving churches seems to be an inevitable part of church life.
It begs a question… Should it be so? Is it really OK to leave my church? What we are really asking is, “What does God think about it?” If we are to begin to answer this question then we should turn to Scripture as our basis for understanding. This is difficult, though, because the Bible is not a handbook that lists all the things that can go wrong in a church and how we should respond to each issue. Nevertheless, let me offer a few verses of Scripture (this is not intended to be an exhaustive list, simply some examples) that might be helpful for us as we consider this matter:
1) The priority of going to church
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” Hebrews 10:24-25a
First of all, there is an emphasis on the importance of going to church. We should not try to be Christians in isolation. Meeting with others who confess the name of Christ is vital as we encourage one another to live lives of love and action. We should hold being in fellowship with a local church as a high priority in our lives.
2) We are part of the body of Christ
“Just us a body, though one, has many part, but all of its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body.” 1 Corinthians 12:12-13a
Paul’s well known illustration speaks of the unity and completeness of the body. All who are baptised as they accept Christ as Saviour are part of the one body. There are many different parts to that body but all are important in making up the whole. When someone leaves a church, whatever the reason may be, they leave a gap. A part of the body is missing and this should sadden us.
3) What the community of faith should look like
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”Ephesians 4:11-13
Paul seems to be saying that unity and maturity go hand in hand. We might add in here the prayer of Jesus shortly before his betrayal and arrest: “that they may all be one, just as you Father, are in me, and I in you that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” People falling out with their church and speaking negatively about it has a harmful effect on our witness to those who don’t know Christ.
To summarise: Being committed to a church is important; we are all part of the body with different gifts to bring; unity is a sign of maturity, which Jesus desires for the church.
However, this is talking about the ideal! The reality is that there is no perfect church because it is made up of imperfect people. As well as joy, love and celebration there will be hurt, pain and disappointment. The question is when this happens should we stick with it or look for new pastures?
Here are some questions we might ask ourselves as we deliberate…
1 Do I have a good reason to leave?
Recently a couple came to speak to me because they felt they were being called to use their gifts to support a smaller church in the area. We were able to discuss it and pray for them as they went. Others I know have left to lead other churches or because they have felt a specific call from God to move on. Clearly such examples are good reasons for people leaving. They may be a loss to us, but God is leading them on to a new chapter.
However, there are many other reasons why people leave churches. Here are just a few: falling out with someone; being hurt by someone; disappointment/anger with the church leadership; the church has changed; the church hasn’t changed; not liking the worship; theological issues and so the list could go on.
Reasons like those above should be examined more carefully because whilst they may result in someone leaving, they may also be issues that could and should be resolved. I have this uncomfortable feeling that people end up leaving churches too easily when a stronger sense of loyalty is desirable. When you are in one church for a while you are likely to find people who you find difficult and who may hurt or offend you. Forgiveness is not easy but it is central to the Christian faith; Churches change over time and some of those changes we will like and others we won’t. We should remember that people change in marriages, but the aim is not to leave and start again but rather to grow alongside and adapt to each other; Even with theological issues we need to recognise that we are unlikely to have the same views on every aspect of our faith as someone else – is it a strong enough reason to leave?
2) What are my failings in the situation?
Having carefully considered our reason for leaving we need to honestly evaluate our own contribution to the situation. It is very tempting to pin the blame for things that have gone wrong entirely on someone else but this may not be fair. I remember a number of years ago a couple leaving the church because we had done nothing to make them feel like they belonged and nobody other than I spoke to them. Was this a failing of the church? Listen only to their story and the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. However, I could tell you that the earliest they used to arrive at church was a couple of minutes after the service began and they left as soon as the final blessing was given. They never stayed for refreshments, declined invitations to church social events and did not want to join a HomeGroup. They contributed to their feeling of not belonging.
An honest evaluation of our own failings in the situation may help us to understand whether or not we should stay or go. It is difficult to do this on our own. Asking some wise and trusted friends who know both us and the church may help us to do this better. Certainly the right people could help us understand another point of view held by someone else. It just might be an eye-opening process! Without this, the danger is that leaving churches becomes a habit.
3) Is the gap too big to bridge?
We go to church to worship God, to listen to Him and to serve Him. It can happen that the problems that exist are so great that we are no longer able to worship, too much is going on for us to be able to listen and these things mean we can’t even serve as we know we should. Theological issues can sometimes come in to play here. People feel passionately about something but can sit on opposite sides of the fence (women in ministry; issues to do with the Holy Spirit; inerrancy of Scripture; who goes to heaven and hell; and many others besides). If a different view to our own is held it can seriously affect our ability to worship and serve. There comes a time when for the sake of our own spiritual health we need to move on. This is especially so if we become overly negative to the church we are in. We can become more and more critical and end up being responsible for damaging the body of the church. If we find ourselves in this situation, it may well be better all round that we leave because the gap is too big to bridge.
4) Have I communicated well?
There have been a few occasions in my ministry when someone has just stopped coming to church. At other times I hear on the church grape vine that someone has decided to leave. On following this up the person may tell me the reason they have decided to leave. Such situations leave me disappointed and saddened because the person has not spoken to me or someone else in the leadership earlier. If we as a church have done something wrong, no chance has been given to put a wrong right. Sometimes the criticism someone makes is completely valid and all I can do as a church leader is apologise. However, when I make a mistake I like to have the opportunity to put it right. If someone has already decided to leave there is no chance of this. I believe it is an important principle to communicate to someone in the leadership of the church before a decision has been made. It may be that we can work together to put the wrong right. Even if this isn’t possible, it helps church leaders to learn for the future.
Well, this is a subject where so much more could be said and there is the opportunity to engage in discussion below. For now, let me make a few concluding remarks.
Although my general view is that there are too many people who have moved churches too easily, I do not intend to make anyone feel guilty. There are many people who have both blessed and been blessed through moving churches. God works through these situations. However, I do want to encourage those who are thinking of leaving a church to consider the issues carefully.
I believe God wants us to commit to being a part of a church where we can worship regularly and serve Him (this is a generalisation and I recognises that for some there is a different way). We should do our best to journey with the church through the ups and downs of church life, remaining loyal if we possibly can. It may require an extra portion of grace, but we remember God who is full of grace and mercy towards us.
If we decide to leave a church we need to give due consideration to the process. We should seek to fulfil commitments we have made and to do all we can to avoid damaging the church, not to do so is to damage God’s Kingdom.
Is it OK to leave the church? My answer is ‘yes’, as long as it is done prayerfully, for the right reasons and in the right way.