Many, if not most, Christians (at least in the States) will leave a church at one point in time. While they might leave because of one of the unstoppable forces, they will still leave. I’ve done it and, more than likely, you’ve done it. While I would rather people stay at their churches, there might come a time when they will leave. The issue, then, is why someone might leave.
Getting into the topic of why someone would leave a church is not easy. Most people want to address the fuzzy middle. (Can I leave because I don’t like the new pastor? Can I leave because my convictions have changed? Can I leave because I like a new church better?) This post is going to start with issues that are clear and then go from there.
You Have Moved
No brainer, right? Not really. Sometimes people will move—even in town—and now be 30 minutes away from where their church usually gathers—and 15-20 minutes from any meaningful relational connection. At that point you start missing out on simple graces that exist within a church family—stop-in visits, fellowship, the ability to engage your neighbors with others in your church family. What might’ve been a vibrant way to engage your church family originally no longer exists, and you are more on an island except for those 90 minutes on Sunday. If that’s the case, you are likely parched and in need of something more significant—both for your own growth and for your ability to help others.
Your Church Has Abandoned Jesus
There are times when a church has made such a significant change in doctrine and practice that it no longer reflects Jesus. Such a departure can show up in numerous ways. Perhaps you’ve clearly heard leadership adopt ideas that, if believed, move someone outside of the faith. I don’t mean secondary or tertiary matters (eschatological positions differ), but matters of first importance.
For example, you start to hear this idea taught regularly: “We know that Jesus loves everyone and, ultimately, regardless of faith, everyone will ultimately be with God.” Such an idea feels nice but doesn’t reflect the clear need for faith in the work of Jesus (1 Cor 15:1-7). If, after investigation (key point), you find that such a belief truly does exist in your church amongst leaders (you’d be surprised, but I would assume some people who attend your church do hold this position), then it would be okay to leave. Why? Because such a departure from simple orthodoxy will make meaningful engagement hard, if not impossible. State your reasons to your leadership, address the concern, and pursue fellowship in a new congregation.
There are people (maybe even some reading this) who have been abused by church leadership. People who have been manipulated. People who have been controlled. People who have been harmed so deeply by pastors that they are shell-shocked and hurting. God has words for the bad leaders of Israel in the Book of Ezekiel:
34:2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; 6 they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.Ezekiel 34:2-6
Pastoral harm is significant harm, and I would be remiss if I told someone in one of these harmful situations to continue to place themselves in the care of negligent shepherds. We praise God for Jesus, our Good Shepherd, because all human shepherds are imperfect. But if the shepherds of our local church have lived for themselves and not the sheep, and they have a history of harming the sheep, it could very well be time to leave.
New or Unique Opportunity
There are times when you might be invited to start a new work—join a church plant in a new part of town with no churches or start up a new ministry that no one has started. In these instances, it might be good to change churches.
A friend recently shared about a woman at his church who needed a specific type of support ministry for a marriage issue. His church was smaller and unable to care for this woman in the ways that she needed. This is how he put it: “She wasn’t angry, upset, or disappointed in our church—but we also weren’t equipped to minister to her specific needs and there was a local church that could.”
I appreciate when a leader can say, “We’d love to have you, but, honestly, we might not be the best for your growth in the Lord.” Such a mentality is focused on God’s work and not building our own little local church kingdom. It’s healthy, even though losing people hurts.
A Word of Caution
Too many of us will take these topics and let our flesh manipulate our reasoning. We hide behind the reason and make it an excuse for not working diligently for unity. This can be dangerous ground. Here’s how:
- We simply don’t like a decision a pastor has made, so we say he has harmed us. We have no proof, just hurt feelings (remember reason one from the original post?).
- We hear of a ministry decision and make an assumption about the entirety of the ministry approach because of it. We tap out before any meaningful or reasonable investigation.
- Our kids like another children’s ministry better, so we change churches and we define it as a new or unique opportunity. (Note: your kids will always change what they like. So will you.)
- We make things of third importance things of first importance. Starting a kids program isn’t abandoning Jesus. Changing preaching styles isn’t abandoning Jesus. Small groups that invite unbelievers to them isn’t abandoning Jesus. We will take minor issues, make them major, and turn them into our reason for leaving.
Leaving one church for another in town should be an exception, not a rule. When it happens, we need to approach it graciously and honestly. Our next post will look at just that: how, then, do we leave?
I’d love to hear any of your thoughts or experiences. Feel free to share in the comments. And, if these posts are helpful to you, consider sharing them with others.