Writings by Cole Huffman

When Is Leaving Your Church Ever The Right Thing To Do?

Some friends of mine in another city left their church. It happens at First Evan too; people leave us for other churches and people leave other churches for us. Call it the evangelical diaspora. But when is this ever the right thing to do—leave your church? Lists can be dubious, but here are five reasons not to leave your church:

Because you’ve been wounded: Wounded people usually go out one of two ways: either silently into that good night hoping no one will notice their leaving, or nailing their grievances to the church door like a second Wittenberg. The New Testament is honest that wounding happens in as much as to the body of Christ. Hurt feelings are an opportunity to practice forgiveness and display forbearance which are cardinal virtues of gospel-formed people. If you don’t practice such here you’ll likely take your wounds with you to the next church—also full of sinners as this one is—and their margin of error for you will be much narrower.

Because you’re not getting anything out of the services: Many of us are almost incorrigible consumers. A worship service should edify the worshipper as well as glorify God. But are you putting anything in to get something out? Do you pray for your worship leaders and for Sunday services? Do you come to services on Sunday mornings prepared to sing and pray and listen, asking the Holy Spirit to use that hour to transform you? How do you use Saturday nights? What else in your life do you expect to get something meaningful from just by showing up?

Because there’s no place for you to use your gifts: This reason will be cited often by those who believe they have the gift of teaching but lack a Sunday school opportunity teaching adults. There are simply a limited number of ministry opportunities in the building on a Sunday morning, even in bigger churches, but the opportunities to use one’s gifts in the church are limitless. Considered from the New Testament, if a church exists in which there’s no place for your gifts it’s not a community of Christ.

Because the pastor/church didn’t act on your idea or recommendation, or the pastor/church doesn’t care about X: Fill in the blank. Parachurch organizations abound in modern evangelicalism, each one vying for pastoral involvement and church support, with plentiful evidence for why they’re essential to the kingdom. Evangelicals love going to seminars and conferences, reading blogs and listening to Christian radio or podcasts from which we’re persuaded “the church” isn’t “doing enough” with this or that X factor. Then we kibitz incessantly: Why can’t my church/pastor get into prayer walks around cities or hold church services in bars or advocate justice for Botswana’s refugees or plant urban gardens or lobby legislators? Don’t they know we’d change the world if they’d just do X?!

Because the leadership mishandled something: This is an inevitability of human leadership—at least the perception of mishandling—even among the most well-intentioned leaders. Most of the time the objection to “the way it was handled” is the refuge of those who don’t like a decision or its results. Still, it is true that some matters ignite emotional response, that due diligence was lacking, or that in hindsight your idea was better than ours. Sometimes confrontations get avoided for fear; sometimes decisions are made from expedience not principle; sometimes leaders are inconsistent; sometimes favoritism shows its toothy visage. It is each and all regrettable and hurtful, and repentance should be practiced when leaders are guilty as charged. But mishandling always mandates leaving the church? The next church can guarantee you they won’t ever mishandle something in your view?

There are other reasons people leave churches, of course: better music or preaching or youth programs down the street, etc. But the five I’ve listed are primary causes in American evangelical experience. It requires more effort to stay and work through problems and conflicts. It requires godly humility and resilience. It is easier to conclude the Lord “must be calling us away” for a fresh start somewhere else. 

And yet, compare my list with realities in the Corinthian church. Compare my list with the situations Jesus personally addressed in the seven churches of Revelation 2-3. The five reasons I’ve listed seem rather flimsy at best, faithless at worst. Most of the first century churches were pretty bad!

What we find in the New Testament is not God calling people away from their churches, though He did/does call them/us away from false teachers, but God calling people to walk with Jesus in community regardless of what was happening in their church. This is too little appreciated by many but it is through conflicts and resistance and struggles that we mature with God the most.

When is it ever the right thing to leave a church? I can think of only one consistently applicable reason: If a church denies Jesus Christ His rightful headship over it as God it is not a place to belong. Churches can otherwise be boring, oblivious, inopportune, and mistaken in various ways. God remains patient, sometimes marvelously renewing such places after long dormancy. But a church that denies the Lord who bought her, a church where there is no love for Jesus but rejection of Him—that church has become merely a civic gathering under a steeple and a worthy institution for shaking its dust off your sandals.

These are good days at First Evan. Let’s keep working for the “better things—things that belong to salvation” (Heb. 6:9). And as far as it depends on each one of us “pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19), until that great Day on which the Lord comes for His bride and our faith is sight. Finally. A perfect church then.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 6:26 PM
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