Over the years I have had many friends and acquaintances ask my opinion as to when it is appropriate to leave a church. They will also ask me to lay out the criteria for finding a new church, and inevitably they ask if I could personally recommend one in their area.
I am guessing that because I attend a high-profile, well-known church, people confidently value my thoughts on the matter of church life. I get a bit nervous, however, when I am asked about recommending a church because in spite of the fact I attend a good church, in the grand scheme of things, I have a limited perspective of my inquirer’s situation.
I live in California, not Oklahoma, for example, where the person asking may live. Additionally, the recommendations I usually come across are contacts from our yearly Shepherd’s Conference, but a couple of nice pastors representing their home churches in Illinois don’t necessarily provide an accurate reflection of the overall church dynamic where they pastor. A little bit of visiting and observing may be in order before a person can make a sound decision as to whether or not the church is a place where he or she will want to serve.
A good illustration of what I mean was a friend I knew about 7 years ago who wanted to move from the big city, expensive life here in L.A., to a more rural, slow, and certainly a much cheaper lifestyle expense-wise. So, after much research as to where to live, he sold his house in the San Fernando Valley and moved to southern Missouri. He was told by some friends of a church like-minded to the convictions he held and he began to regularly attend their services. However, over a brief period of time, he began to notice the fellowship he experienced was not the same and what he was told was expositional teaching wasn’t really expositional at all.
I am sure there were personal quirks that unnecessarily got in the way of him enjoying his new church, but never the less, he fell out of sorts with the pastor and tried another church in the area. It didn’t prove any better for him. But after a year of living in Missouri, and in God’s providence, after a series of severe health problems my friend moved back to L.A. and in the course of time succumbed to his illness. My exhortations to him as he struggled to find a good church helped me to sharpen my view point about churches and church life.
What I want to do over the course of a handful of post is share my personal observations and thoughts so as to explore the questions of when a person should leave a church and what should he look for in a new one. My ideas are by no means infallible and certainly could be improved upon, and perhaps have been improved upon else where.
To begin, I think there are some key questions needing to be considered.
One of the first questions is, Will leaving your church solve your problem? I plan to go into more detail as to the wrong and right reasons to leave a church in the next post, but for the moment, I believe anyone contemplating the departure from the membership of a church needs to ponder this question as to why he is leaving and will it help his spiritual situation?
Will leaving your church place undo division upon important friendships? It could be that this church is where the person thinking about leaving was saved and spent many years growing in the Lord. To leave in a spirit of bitterness or self-righteousness (which can be the case with many individuals) shows disrespect and dishonor to those individuals who poured a lot into your life. Is the person giving up on his church home and friends for no good reason? Now, it could very well be there is sound justification for a division that will separate good friends. However, whatever that justification may be needs to be weighed carefully in light of our call to love one another.
Do you have another church to attend? I have spoken with many folks over the years who became unsatisfied with their church for one reason or the other and hastily left. When they began to look for another congregation to join, there weren’t any that met the criteria of a “good” church. Granted, what constitutes a “good” or “bad” church is many times relative to the opinions of the people leaving. However, let us say for a moment they have legitimate concerns with their church. When they leave it, is there another one available to join? I have learned from many conversations with people that usually there isn’t one. They merely trade one problematic church for another.
I have also seen this happen to people who move to a new location for a job. They leave an excellent church to get a higher paying job only to discover in their new location none exist. One of the major spiritual life lessons I learned was from a deacon in my current church who was offered a rather high paying promotion that would require he and his family to move. Before he even accepted the offer, he scouted out the new city where he would be living if he took the job and found that there were no like-minded churches where he and his family could serve. He turned downed the job just so he could stay at a church he knew was solid. That certainly cuts against the mind-set of our world today.
With these three basic questions simmering in our minds, the next post on this subject will take up the question of What are the WRONG reasons to leave a church?