Every one of us has become familiar with the pattern. Every one of us has seen church members becoming dissatisfied and then disgruntled, missing church occasionally and then consistently. Every one of us has seen the pattern and begun to dread the nearly-inevitable conclusion. This is especially discouraging when the reason for the departure is not an area of essential theological disagreement but something much more common and much less important—hurt feelings, petty squabbles, matters of preference.
This pattern is so common that we should all assume we ourselves may at some time fall into it. This being the case, what should you do when you begin feeling discontent at your church? What should you do when you feel that yearning to pick up and move on? What should you do when you find yourself eager to slip out of one church and into another? I’d like to offer just a few suggestions that I hope you’ll consider and put into practice.
Pray through the directory. Find yourself a copy of the church directory and commit to praying through the entire thing at least once. Pray for each person or each family by name. Pray what the Bible models and pray what the Spirit prompts. Prayer is one of our core responsibilities toward one another and has a way of stirring up our affections. As you pray for those people may it remind you that you’re not just walking away from a club or institution, but from a community—a family, even.
Commit to serving. The temptation when disgruntled is always to stop serving—to remove yourself from whatever ministries you’ve been involved with. Before you leave, recommit to serving others for a period of time—several months at least. Love tends to grow cold when we stop loving others and it tends to be rekindled when we start loving again. Plus, it’s as we serve that the Lord reminds us that he has gifted us specifically so we can use his gifts to bless our fellow Christians.
(Parenthetically, it is almost universally true that when people leave churches for reasons that are poor or inadequate, they have stopped praying for their fellow church members and have stopped serving them. Rarely do people leave when they are constant in prayer and diligent in service.)
Remember the good, not just the bad. In times when we are hurt or discouraged we usually find ourselves fixating on what others have done wrong, not what they have done right. So as you consider leaving, force yourself to remember not only the church’s failings, but also its blessings. Remember not only the bad times, but also the good, not only the times it fell short, but also the times it rallied to the cause. Remember all the times it blessed you, expressed kindness to you, and supported you. You may find this side of the scale by far outweighs the other.
Think it through. There may be many good reasons to leave one church for another, but there are certainly many bad ones. The worst reason of all is allowing unidentified or unrepentant sin to be the determining factor. Hence, before you leave any church, think carefully about whether sin or sanctification is leading the way—whether you feel the need to leave because you have grown in holiness or because you have diminished in holiness. Too many people allow sin, not the Spirit, to lead them out the door.
Pray it through. The only way to adequately think it through is to pray it through. You need to labor in prayer to become convinced that your departure is consistent with God’s will. Pray for God to expose your heart, to guide your feelings, to make your motives clear. Pray that your deepest desire would be to honor and glorify him, whether that means leaving or staying.
Talk it through. It is possible that the church is in error, but it’s also possible that you are in error. It is possible there is a sore problem with the church’s leadership, but it is also possible that there is a sore problem with your sanctification. Have the character and honesty to ask someone, “Am I making a wise decision?” And make sure that individual is the type who will challenge you if you need to be challenged. Don’t leave if trustworthy men and women are telling you to stay.
The fact is that in a consumeristic culture like this one—a culture in which the customer is always right—too many people leave too many churches too easily. It’s unlikely that any of us is above the temptation to depart for poor reasons and to leave behind us a trail of hurt and confusion. So before you make that decision, pray for the people of the church and diligently serve them. Ask God for wisdom and ask others for guidance. And then, only then, leave with confidence that your departure is God’s will. As you do so, you will have honored God, served others, and modeled how to leave a church well.