Over the years I have found myself in number of conversations with people wanting advice about finding a church and/or leaving their current one. Common questions range from things like: How you pick a church? How and when do you leave one? What are good reasons and bad for leaving? How should you go about either task, is there a proper way?
How to Choose a Church
From talking to many people about this subject here is what seems to be the most common criteria on people’s minds when I ask them what they are looking for in a church:
• Impressive musical performance
• Attractive people for dating
• Programs specific to my life (singles, children, etc.)
• Entertaining preacher
• Service time/location convenience
• Size (big or small)
If you are desiring to be a part of a church, then there is a choice to be made. It is unavoidable. But there seems to be something faulty about this question itself, or at least the way it’s framed. because it is almost inherently laden in an individualistic and consumeristic mindset. These popular reasons people give seem to be especially fixed around the idea of “What church I like and want to be a part of.” Like picking a church is like picking out a new pair of shoes or what you are going to eat off a restaurant menu… ”I’ll have the burger, cooked medium, with extra cheese, no pickles please.”
Is that really the way God’s children are supposed to go about it? Something just seems wrong about that method. What if the question were posed in a different way…a less individualistic and consumeristic way. What if we asked this question: “What church does God like and want me to be a part of?” What sort of criteria would we come up with? I think if that was our criteria would most likely look something like this:
1. Solid Doctrine
Cares a lot about who Jesus is and what his Word says.
1 Timothy 4:2 - “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
2. Godly Leadership
Leaders are called by Jesus and live holy lives like Jesus.
1 Peter 5:2-3 - "Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”
3. Loving Community
Helps each other love Jesus both with tangible care and accountability.
John 13:35 - “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
4. Missionally Minded
Longs and works hard for others to come to know and love Jesus.
Matthew 28:19 - "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
5. Gifts Oriented
Has opportunities for you to use your gifts to love Jesus and one another.
Ephesians 4:7,11-12 - “Grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift…And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
When I ask the Bible the question of how you pick a church, it seems its list would be something like this second list. I just can’t imagine that at the top of God’s lists of cares and concerns about a church are the style of the worship in music band, the outward appearance of it’s members, how good the kids program is, how funny the pastor is, how easy it is to get there, or how big or small it is.
All of those things on the first pop culture’s list are things which can change and do not matter so much. The things on the second list are much stronger, much more long lasting, and have God as the first and primary concern. With that said then how do you know when you ought to leave a church and how are you supposed to go about it?
When to Leave a Church
In my own personal life, I have been both on the side of being the one needing to leave a church and on the side of having people leave the church I pastor and planted. Both sides are equally as heartbreaking and difficult. One of the things at the very heart of being a church is that it is a family (see The Jesus Family Sermon Series). When you really become a part of a church it actually does start to feel like that, which is why it makes it so difficult to leave or to see someone leave.
I’ve left two churches in my life. The church I was a youth pastor at and later the church I was a college pastor at. I am still in close relationships with people from both of those churches. They left a permanent imprint in my heart and it was so hard to leave when I did. On this side of now being a pastor, I have never forgot a single person who has left The Resolved Church and I have a scar left for every one. It is so hard when you truly love a person, pray for them, and work so hard to teach them to see them go, whether it be for good reasons or bad ones.
So what are the good reasons and what are the bad ones? I could be wrong but I suspect that very few people leave churches for good or Godly reasons. Many times people leave because of the same reasons listed above that people pick churches, they want a church that has better music, more people or better looking to potentially date, better or more programs, a more funny preacher who tells better or more stories, a church that is easier to get to because of it’s time or location, or a smaller or bigger church numerically.
In addition to these reasons, I’ve also witnessed people leave churches for the following reasons:
• Have a conflict with someone that either goes unaddressed or unresolved creating bitterness and resentment.
• Get confronted about a sin and/or do not want to deal with what's really going on in their soul.
• Get tired of serving with their gifts (“burnout”) and feel like there is no way out.
• Don’t like the way the church is doing: Sunday service, mission, community, etc.
• Have trouble trusting and submitting to church leadership and authorities.
• Get a new job in a different location.
• Break up with a boyfriend/girlfriend in the church.
• Get a boyfriend/girlfriend who doesn’t go to church.
• Friends leave the church.
• God “calls” them to a new ministry post or education.
Some of these may be good reasons if handled properly or they can be terrible reasons. The primary and most important reasons for leaving a church are the same as good reasons to pick a church. You can and ought to leave a church if they are in doctrinal error with false teaching, have ungodly leadership, have an unloving community, are not attempting to reach the lost, and/or they do not encourage people to use their gifts.
In addition to those reasons, a person should leave a church if:
1. They are living in sin and are unrepentant after going through the three steps of biblical confrontation.
Matthew 18:15-17 - “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone (STEP ONE). If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses (STEP TWO). If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church (STEP THREE). And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (LEAVE).
1 Corinthians 5:11-13 - “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
2. They are divisive to the church community and unwilling to follow the church leadership .
Hebrews 13:17 - “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Titus 3:10 - “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.”
How to Leave a Church Well
Many people may have good reasons to leave a church or have worked through the bad ones as best as possible and still simply need to leave. So if you are going to leave how are you supposed to do it? Does the Bible have anything to say about that?
1. It Should Be A Last Resort
Leaving a church ought to always be a LAST RESORT after you have tried everything! We are not to avoid problems or difficulties but appeal to one another and if need be the church leadership.
Matthew 18:15-18 - “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."
2. You Need To First Self-Examinate
Identify the real issues and what is really troubling your soul in why you feel the need to potentially leave. Scott Thomas (Former Director of the Acts 29 Network) has written, “After prayer and fasting…a careful self-examination to deal with personal selfish motives and divisive attitudes…should be made. A person must not neglect this step of self-examination. It is all too easy to take a step of separation with the wrong spirit (bitterness, rebellion or a factious spirit). Unfortunately, many people leave a church with a schismatic spirit that denies the unity of the body of Christ.”
Psalm 139:23-24 - “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!”
3. Have A Godly Decision-making Process
Don’t hear voices in your head and say “God is telling me or calling me ________” That’s not how God calls us to make decisions.
Romans 12:2 - “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Here’s how to be transformed by the renewal of your mind and thus make Godly decisions that won’t steer you wrong:
Be Slow - Fast decisions typically tend to be foolish ones.
Proverbs 21:5 - "The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty."
Be Careful - Finding a good church to be a part of is not easy and what church we are a part of should be one of the most important decisions of our lives.
Ephesians 5:15,17 - “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise...therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
Be Prayerful - Truly be open to what God wants, want what He wants and be willing to submit to His will.
Philippians 4:6 - “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Be Counseled - Make sure to ask for advice from other trusted Christian friends and leaders. If you are considering leaving a church it is imperative to meet with one of the pastors who are keeping watch over your life and soul to ask for input, advice and direction rather that simply inform church leadership you are leaving.
Proverbs 15:22 - “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”
Be Unified - When seeking counsel beware of gossip, speaking with a critical and judgmental spirit and or disrespecting and slandering anyone who has hurt or disappointed you.
Ephesians 4:2-3 - “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bear(ing) with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
1 Corinthians 12:20 - "I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder."
Beware of Wanderlust - When life is hard it's easy to think we'd be happier if we lived somewhere else or doing something else or even being around someone(s) else. Ultimately our happiness is to be found in Christ and living the life He has given us leading to our true home in heaven.
Jeremiah 29:7 - "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."
Be Biblical - Do you have Biblical grounds for leaving? the Bible is the chief guide God has given to us to help us make wise and godly decisions in life.
2 Peter 1:3-4 - “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us His precious and very great promises (the Bible).
4. Seek A Blessing of Grace From the Church
Nobody ever wants to leave on bad terms and it is just weird when a person disappears, especially when they are like family to you as a church relationships should be. Sometimes a change in churches must be made and it's important for both the church leaders and the church member leaving to entrust themselves to God's sovereign plan and extend one another love and grace. In addition, a conversation with one of the church leaders with the new church leaders is the best way for the baton of pastoral care to be handed off.
Acts 15:39-40 - “There arose a sharp disagreement, so that they (Barnabas and Paul) separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.”
I pray this will serve not only the members of The Resolved Church but several others who need the guidance of God’s Word on this very important issue.