The question ‘Why leave a ‘church?’ may be a dangerous question to ask, especially on a church blog!
The reality is that all churches have people leave them – for both wise and unwise reasons. It is worth spending some time thinking about why one would take the step of leaving a ‘church’ and then further considering how to do that well. That said, I am hoping that no one reading this will in fact leave 5pm Church as a result!
In the previous two articles we have considered ‘What is ‘Church’?’ and then ‘What to expect of ‘Church’?‘ which as background should help establish that leaving a church should be thought about carefully – that is not a decision that should be made hastily or prayerlessly. If ‘church’ is about God’s people gathering as a family in Christ around his Word, it should give some pause for thought to a person when deciding to stay or to go. Leaving means leaving a family and a place where God’s word should be key to their fellowship.
Changing churches or leaving church altogether is no small thing.
Why leave a Church
Assuming that the default option should not be to leave a church, let’s consider some reasons why leaving a church might in fact be a wise thing to do!
1. The Word of Christ has gone missing
The apostle Paul writing to churches or leaders often warned the saints to be wary of false teaching. He rebukes the Galatian church for ‘so quickly deserting…and turning to a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all’ (Gal 1:6-7). To the Corinthians he challenges them when saying ‘if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus [I] preached…or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.’ (2 Cor 11:4). To Timothy he predicts that people ‘will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths’ (2 Tim 4:4). And other New Testament writers echo Paul’s concern (c.f. 2 Peter 2:1-3; 1 John 2:18-27; Jude 3-16).
Interestingly, that danger is announced without the instruction to leave the church. Those recipients were being encouraged to stay and instead to be alert and responsible in ensuring that falsehood is challenged and truth upheld – a role that you can not do, if you have departed.
That said, there may be occasions (hopefully rare occasions) when false teaching has taken hold of a church, correction is not possible, and so with heavy hearts leaving is the option.
Friends, if this is a concern for you in regards to our church, then please tell me and point out the error. For our sake as a church family, you must.
2. The Leader/s has gone missing!
In contrast to the false teaching that may rise up (1 Timothy 4:1-8), Paul tells Timothy (a church leader) to ‘devote [him]self to the public reading of scripture, to preaching and to teaching’ and implores him to ‘be diligent in these matters…so that everyone may see your progress’ (1 Timothy 4:13-16).
Church leaders are not perfect (I wish I was!), but it is important to look for progress in them, seen in their life and doctrine. There are good leaders and bad leaders, but an unacceptable church leader is one who does not want to honour God, or submit to his word, or model Christlike living, or is unrepentant in sin.
Where a church is being led by such a person, and their is no opportunity to reform, and no intention to resign, then they are not suitable for service. The godly thing for a believer to do may be to leave.
Friends, if this is a concern for you in regards to me, then please tell me and point out the error. For our sake as a church family, you must.
3. Godliness has gone missing!
The Corinthian church was known for its divisions. In Paul’s first letter he spends a good portion of the letter dealing with issues among the church family. One issue was a culture of embraced immorality ‘a kind that does not occurs even among the pagans’ – they were proud of it! (2 Cor 5:1-2)
Sin has a devastating effect on a church family and if left unchecked it will spread (like bad yeast through a whole batch of dough – 5:6-8). This is where rebuking and correcting is so important in a church family, despite how difficult it is to do that. We live in an age of entitlement and for many, a rebuke or a correction is more outrageous that the sin they are involved in!!
If a church at large is more outraged by the pursuit of godliness than it is the folly of sin, then there is a systemic problem. The person who wants to live in repentance and faith may find standing up for holiness as an increasingly difficult proposition. We expect that in the world, but not in the church. A better option may be to consider leaving.
Friends, if this is a concern for you in regards to our church family, then please start having the conversations with your brothers and sisters in faith and lovingly call one another to repentance and faith. For our sake as a church family, you must.
4. A mission opportunity will go missing!
‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how can they call if they have not believed? And how can they believe if they have not heard? And how can they hear if they have not be told? And how can they tell if they have not been sent? (Rom 10:13-15 – my paraphrase). Paul’s encouragement to the Roman church is to be people who are willing to go.
Sending is a very good reason for someone to leave church and the New Testament offers many examples of people who left a church (either for a time or permanently) in order to take up ministry or mission elsewhere – consider Timothy who left Lystra to be trained by Paul before nurturing congregations all around the Greek world including Thessalonica, Philippi and Corinth (Acts 16:1-5 c.f. 1 Thess 3:1-3, 6; Phil 2:19; 1 Cor 4:17).
It is both a privilege and a grief for the local church to be able to send its members out where they might be able to reach others with the gospel. That said, it is not an imperative that everyone should go when the need is identified. Each local church has its ministry and mission needs. Prayerful wisdom is required in acknowledging the appropriate needs of each place.
Friends, 5pm Church plays an important role is sending people both into training for ministry and into church planting for mission (our next in a few weeks with Trinity Grove). If you are considering this please tell me – there are people to reach both here and elsewhere. For our sake as a church family, you must.
Any decision to stay or go will invariably be far more complicated and relationally charged then what is laid out here in these four scenarios. There are circumstances which may contribute to a persons departure that may be hard to avoid (e.g. moves for work, relationship breakdowns, age or demographic requirements etc.) Regardless, it should not be taken lightly, on a whim, and only after the person has asked hard questions of themselves.
So how do you leave well, knowing that your departure will have a known and unknown effect on many? You leave a family not a gym membership!
First – do it prayerfully.
Second – discuss it carefully. Preferably before you have made the decision and with trusted Christian friends. Leaving church suddenly helps no-one, including yourself.
Third – be willing to talk to church leadership. If you are leaving for some of the above concerns, then the Pastor and leadership may have a critical problem. Tell them for the sake of others at church if not for your own. Don’t do that by email or text message.
Fourth – do it publicly. It is not a small thing when a family member leaves and so it may help others to know at least the reasons why. Sure this may need to be managed to protect you, or the congregation, so that the departure is handled sensitively. Fading away is not helpful for you or those who have cared for you.
Fifth – do it in love. You have loved and been loved in this church family (even if there are times when you have not felt that). Your departure will mean that connections across the family will be weakened, so do what you can to uphold those who you leave.
Sixth – stay connected. You are family, and even though your departure will mean that regular contact is not as possible, stay connected. Keep up friendships, stay in touch (e.g. Facebook, evangelistic events, updates etc.), visit when on holidays, etc..
Seventh – join a new church family. A place where the word of Christ is preached, godly leadership is in place, godliness is valued, and mission or training is happening.
This article acknowledges the very helpful work published by Matthias Media in Simon Flinders Time to Go? – the What, Why and How of Leaving Church (Kingsford: Matthais Media).