[Editor’s note: This summer, we’ll be bringing in different experts to answer your questions for our weekly advice column. Today’s answer is written by Preston Sprinkle, the vice president of Eternity Bible College’s Boise extension and the author of Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us. Send your questions to [email protected]]
I’ve been attending the same church for about seven years—it’s the church I started going to in college, and it really helped me grow spiritually during that time. But in the last year or so, there have been some staff changes, and I’ve started noticing that I disagree with some of the things being taught and how some areas of ministry have been handled. I don’t feel like I belong there anymore, but I also don’t want to just stop showing up, since I’ve been an active member for several years. How do I know if it’s time to start looking for a new church or if I should stick it out?
Melanie, this is such a good question, and it’s nearly impossible to give a simple, black-and-white answer. There are so many things that we need to wrestle with as we think about when it’s OK to leave a church.
Let me say up front: I have changed churches several times during my life. Sometimes it was because I moved, other times it was for theological or other differences. I do think, however, that our church culture has become plagued by consumerism, where Christians shop for churches like they shop for clothes—trying on the newest style every six months. In any case, here are a few things to consider as you think through this tough decision.
1. Dig into Your Motivations
As you mentioned in your question, there were staff changes that brought some shifts in terms of teaching and philosophy of ministry.
Only you can know for sure, but I’d want to make sure that there aren’t any other wrong reasons that are contributing to your desire to leave. These may include things like relational difficulties that haven’t been reconciled, lack of forgiveness toward someone who has wronged you, or preferences such as style of worship or preaching. Or—an unfortunately common reason why people change churches—there’s simply another new church in town that has a killer worship set every Sunday. I think we have to fight hard against having a consumer mentality, where we keeping hopping from church to church, always looking for the “better product” that will make us happier.
2. Ask What’s Better for the Church
Picking up on that last point, we can’t just change churches if it would be better for us. We need to also ask the question: What’s better for the church? If you change churches, will it hurt the community you’re a part of? Are your gifts vital to the health of the body? Or is there another church community whose ministry needs you more than your current church does? Too often, we only ask the “what’s best for me” question while forgetting about the “what’s best for others” one. Both are important.
3. Invite Others into Your Decision-Making Process
You’ll probably not make the best the decision if you decide on your own that you want to leave and then slip out the back door. You should invite others into the process—especially wiser and more mature believers who won’t just give you the answer you’re looking for! This doesn’t mean you have to go with what other people say. Your voice certainly counts too. But if all your friends don’t think it’s wise to leave, there’s a good chance—you guessed it—it’s not wise to leave.
4. Talk with Your Leaders
Each situation is different, so talking to your leaders might be tough. But if you have concerns over the new staff changes, I would explore whether you should talk to them about it.
Now, I’ve seen this go very well, but I’ve also see it blow up in people’s faces. If you talk to the leaders, make sure that you approach them non-confrontationally, seeking to understand where they’re coming from. Some of the problems you perceive might be cleared up after hearing their heart and getting more clarity on the matter.
Of course, they may just defend their views and say that this is where the church is going. Either way, by humbly going to the leaders, you have shown (to yourself and others) that you’re not just leaving on a whim and you truly do want to maintain peace and understand the heart of the leaders.
If you decide to leave, it would be good for your leaders to support your decision. When I was an elder at my last church (before I moved), if a person wanted to become a member and had recently left another church, we would usually contact the previous church to make sure they left on good terms and for the right reasons.
Again, some leaders are so power hungry and driven by fear and control that they would never approve of anyone ever leaving their church. So it’s possible that your leaders might demand that you stay no matter what. But you need to do everything in your power to maintain peace and unity for the sake of the Gospel. Paul says: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18) and Hebrews tells us to “have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). Talking to your leaders as part of your decision-making process will show both submission and a desire to live at peace with everyone.
I don’t think it’s wrong to leave a church. After all, leaving a church isn’t the same as leaving the Church—the global community of Christians. What we want to avoid is having a church-hopping rhythm in our Christian life, where we keep bouncing around from church to church every time we get bored or bump into relational difficulties.
As long as churches are filled with humans, they’re going to be messy. At the same time, we should always ask the larger question: What’s best for the advancement of God’s Kingdom? And sometimes our answer will involve us leaving a local church for another community that will enhance the progress of the Gospel.
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