Sometimes you just can’t stay at your local church. You have to leave. This is one of the gut-wrenching seasons in any God-loving Christian’s life. The good news is that there is a way to leave your church well. And there is a way to leave poorly.
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Member question – I have been growing discontent with my church. I don’t know how much of it is the church and how much is me. At this point, I’m not sure if I can resolve anything by communicating my concerns with the leadership.
I am not one to church-hop. I have been in this church for nearly a decade, so I don’t consider a change of churches lightly. At the same time, my area is not a Christian mecca, and I don’t know if there is even a better option out there.
Would it be wrong to start visiting other churches once a month or so to get a sense of other options while not severing my current connection? I have young children, and if I did seek out a different fellowship, I would want to make it as easy a transition for them as possible.
How do you leave your church?
You leave well.
There is no other biblical alternative for leaving a local church, but to leave the right way. Leaving well means you must be right with God. The counter to this is to leave when your heart is not right with God. That is not an option.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. – Romans 12:18
You do everything within your ability to leave on good terms. Leaving on good terms with every individual may not be possible in every situation, but it is possible for you to be right with the Lord regardless of what they do.
Your attitude is controlled by God, not by other people. You’re free and empowered to be right with the Lord. You can leave with grace. The main thing to think about when thinking about leaving a local church is your attitude.
A right attitude is how you should end any relationship, whether it’s with another person, your job, or your church. It is never right to have a sinful attitude toward other individuals or institutions. If you leave on bad terms, ask the Lord to work in your heart so you can do as much as depends on you–at the appropriate time–to make things right.
I realize there are times when people leave on bad terms. It can work out this way when emotions are high, feelings are hurt, and uncharitable things are said. Stressful situations happen. The good news is when things spin into an unresolvable disagreement, it does not have to stay that way. Minimally, you can change.
And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” – Luke 23:34
An attitude of forgiveness is the power of the gospel that works in all God’s children. The gospel has “reconciling power,” and at some point, people should be able to work through any sinful attitudes they may have toward each other.
The main point is that you can do right regardless of whether others follow your lead and pursue Christian charity and reconciliation.
Guard Thy Heart
Leaving well is imperative, and I want to drive this further home. Leaving a church is a big deal. No Christian should take this lightly. There are three big spheres in the Christian’s life–family, work, and church.
When you shake up any of these spheres, it’s a serious matter, and it’s hard to be objective about what is happening to you. You love God’s family, especially His family that makes up your local church.
You commit to your church, and you have expectations of your local church. There are times when these expectations are unmet, and a person begins to think about leaving. When that happens, nobody is objective.
Still yet, you can leave with hurt and anger, or you can go with grace. If you’re in a situation where someone hurt you, the temptation will be to leave with the wrong attitude. Maybe this can’t be avoided.
It would be wrong for you not to seek to gauge your heart. The biggest thing you’ll struggle with as far as a sin issue will be self-righteousness, which is a “greater than, better than attitude” toward your church.
Self-righteousness is looking down on others. In this case, it is looking down on your church–possibly the leaders or someone who has disappointed you within the congregation. A lofty position is a dangerous place to be in your heart.
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. – Luke 5:31-32
There is no grace for the self-righteous person because Christ did not come to him/her. He came for the unrighteous, the needy, the hurting, and those who realize they are not better than anyone else. These humble servants want His mercy and grace.
Apart from the grace of God, you are not better than any other person in the world. On your best day, you are equal to the human family. Without God imposing His grace into your life, you stand on level ground (1 Timothy 1:15).
An angry, cocky, condescending, “I’m right and you’re wrong” attitude is not how any person should leave a church. The first place to begin is your heart. Appeal to the Lord to search your heart.
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! – Psalm 139:23-24
A Pastor’s Perspective
When I pastored, there were times when a person or couple came to me and said, “We’re leaving the church,” and they left. They did not leave with malice, as far as I know. They just left.
My goal was never to keep a person in a place where they did not want to be. It was never about our church as the only church. It was never about building a local kingdom or thinking, “we are the people.”
But I was a pastor. I cared for people, and while I never wanted to control people, I desired to serve them. When they would come to me and state their intentions, but not ask for advice, it was always awkward for me.
Good shepherds shepherd, but when a person has made his decision and packed his bags, and the moving truck is at his door, there is nothing for me to say but, “May the Lord bless you and thanks for letting me know.”
It’s not like I wanted to talk them out of leaving. I wanted to serve the “exiting couple,” but I also wanted to learn more about why they wanted to leave. In nearly every case there was something for me to learn about myself and our church.
Their departure was not only an opportunity to come alongside them, but they could come alongside us. I was not under the illusion we had the perfect church, and if a person was at the point of leaving, there was always something I could learn.
People leave churches because they like something better somewhere else. It would be arrogant of me to downplay their reasons for leaving while not humbly self-assessing how we could be a better church. This idea is another aspect to Matthew 7:3-5–the log in my eye and the speck in yours.
In this case, I applied it to our church. Rather than being critical about why they left, I judged the “log in our eye” by asking hard questions about our church. Perhaps they left for inadequate reasons. Those reasons did not hinder me from self-reflection on how we could do church more effectively.
If your situation is not to where you feel comfortable sharing all your reasons for leaving or receiving counsel from your leaders, I recommend you receive guidance from two or three other sources.
I appeal to you if at all possible to talk to your leaders about your intentions. If a person is thinking about leaving because the church has not met their expectations, there are probably others who are thinking similarly. Your departure may be an opportunity to motivate the church to make some changes.
Whatever you do, please don’t gossip. Don’t tell others about your disappointment, unless the church is preaching heresy or there is abuse in the church.
If the church is a biblical church and the leadership is humbly leading, they are doing some things right. They may not be doing it the way you want but the gospel is going forth, and in that, you can rejoice (Philippians 1:18). Other people do like your church, and the church is ministering to them.
It’s always like this. It works for some people, and it doesn’t work for others. It would not serve other people to hear the downside of the church. Keep the circle tight regarding your critical opinion of your church–if it’s a good church.
There can be weak Christians in your congregation. There may also be those who are checking out the church. You don’t want to cast doubt in their minds. Again, we’re not talking about heresy or sin being in play.
Gossip unnecessarily divides people and if it’s at all possible to keep division from happening in the body of Christ, do your part to keep it out of the church. When folks ask you about what you’re doing, let them know the Lord may be leading you to another place. Keep is simple.
You’re not obliged to tell everyone more than that. If your peripheral friends press you, tell them what you love about your church, but remind them how the Lord is doing another kind of work in your heart.
If you have children and they are young, they will hardly remember your church relocation. Children are resilient and have a great capacity to overcome challenges. They will overcome this move if you decide to move.
I would not recommend taking too long to make the decision. Your children need structure. If home, work, and church are the big three spheres for adults, then home, the church, and school are the big three spheres for children too. You will disrupt two out of their three primary contexts if you move.
The temporary upheaval does not mean you shouldn’t move, but it does say that you don’t want to drag things out for them. They need security as much as anything right now, and a good church can partly provide this for them.
Sit them down and talk to them about what your plans are–as much as is appropriate for their ages–if you’re going to visit other churches. You can remind them that the Lord is working in your hearts and how this is a good time to check out other churches.
Let them know you’re not making a decision right now, but only looking around perchance the Lord has something else for you guys. Reaffirm your love and protective care for them. Get their opinions, though staying or leaving should not be determined by their views.
They are too young and will not be able to think about all the layers involved in this kind of decision, but you can allow them to be part of the “family team” by talking with them and removing as much mystery as possible.
Insecurity (fear) will tempt your children. They need security and protection. Change can create instability. Stay close to them. Communicate with them. Reassure them about God’s sovereign care.
You know there is no perfect church. No clear-thinking Christian is under this illusion. Your next church will be a disappointment to some degree. Sin, sanctification, people, and a local church are four things that cannot be made right on this side of heaven.
It’s the sin piece that disrupts the entire fig cart. Make sure if you leave, your reason for leaving is biblical and a matter of the conscience.
As you visit other churches, be careful to scrutinize how they think about the gospel and their theology. These two things are the most important pieces to any sound church.
Don’t make this move about the children. Sometimes parents can over-worry regarding their children and not trust the Lord to take care of them. I was not in a church until I was 25-years old.
Before coming to Christ, I was a hardcore pagan. I made it to Jesus via the jail. If your children make it to heaven, it will be because of the grace of God, not because of a perfect church. I know you know this. I’m only stating the obvious. The best gift you can give them is your prayers.
Think and pray robustly about this decision. If there is no heresy or sin in your local church, you may be at the best place you could be at this time.
If your heart is free, live in God’s freedom and make your decision in God’s freedom. It’s not wrong to shop around. It’s not wrong to leave a church. It may not be wrong to stay.
Call to Action
- Do you like your church? Why or why not?
- Do you want to leave over doctrine, abuse, or preferences?
- What specific ways do you differ from your church leadership, and can you stay at your church though you differ?
- In what ways have you contributed to the problems in your church?
- In what ways have you contributed to making your church a more effective sanctification center?
Also published on Medium.