After my first article about leaving a church, I got a lot of responses from people (including my own family) asking when it was OK to leave a church. Because obviously people do leave churches from time to time, and there should be a “good reason” to leave—so what are they? What are the good reasons to leave a church?
Real quickly I scribbled down the obvious ones that came to my mind: you get married and you and your spouse choose a church together; the church disbands; you move out of the area; you decide to begin supporting your local community church rather than the megachurch 30 minutes away; you are part of a church plant, or you are asked to leave by the church “bullies.”
But I also know that people leave all the time over other issues like church polity, church beliefs and denominational decisions. What about stuff like that? Are these good reasons to leave a church?
So before I could begin to answer these questions, I knew there was a missing piece to the equation. Because there is a difference between church hopping (shopping) and being a committed member of a church. Because, let’s get real—you can’t really leave if you never first belonged. If you have not actually “joined” a church and committed to its mission and people, you are just an observer, a church “player.”
It’s a lot like dating. You scope out a few churches, you sit in on a few services, you find out what you like and what they believe. You swap stories with a few people, you attend a few functions, and then one day you decide, “Yes, I want to be a part of this community.” You become a member—and then all the other elements like polity, denomination, pastoral leadership, worship style and their organizational structure were already a part of your decision making process.
When is it OK to leave a church? My response would be, “Well, are you a member?” Because if you are not a member, you can leave for whatever reason you want. You’re not really leaving the global church; you’re just exchanging one meeting place for another. But if you are a member, and you have made a commitment to a particular body, then I would hold you to a much higher account.
Again, this is a relationship, and you don’t just back out because some days you don’t feel your needs are not being met. If things are stale, and you notice it, then you look for ways to ignite it again. If a disagreement arises, then you talk about it with leadership. (Yes, you get into the conversation—your church does not want an email explaining all its faults anymore than your boyfriend or girlfriend does.) A church body needs the same care and attention that your own relationships do. It needs active participation on your part. It means sometimes you need to spend your own money. It means coming alongside your church on the journey towards wholeness, and it means loving and meeting the needs of the other members.
I think we all too often want a cushy church relationship where the church meets all of our superficial needs, it’s good for a laugh and a feeling, and we can count on it to carry us through hard times, but the relationship is all one sided. We want that “Sugar-Daddy Church” that can be all things to all people, and just like in dating, we’re always on the lookout for something bigger and better. Caution: as Rob Bell says, “If you find the perfect church, don’t join it, because you’ll ruin it.”
So the bad news is that just like in a relationship, sometimes you can see that the two of you are going nowhere. You look down the road, and despite all of your efforts, you see yourselves growing apart. God is calling you in a direction that your church does not have a passion for. God is teaching or revealing something to you about ministry that your church is not excited about. Or, it could even be that your church and its leadership are growing away from God, and the problem is bigger than any one person can resolve.
I’d say at this point, it’s time to have “the talk.” Go to your pastor or elder, and let them know what is going on, advise them that you are going to be looking for a new church. Why? Because having worked at a church, I know that your leaders do ask, “Hey, where are the so-and-so’s now?” Give your leaders the opportunity to talk you through the process, help administer change, or, at the very least, celebrate your time with them. Joshua Harris in Stop Dating the Church says to “leave as humbly and helpfully as possible.”
Remember, nobody likes the person who tries to sabotage things on the way out or who screams out to the skies, “You’ll never find someone as good as me!” This is a place that you once called home, and there are people who are staying on to continue the relationship. Honor that community by leaving in the best light possible.