The new year is always a time for big decisions, big hopes and big disappointments.
Churches are no exception.
For the next few weeks, gym memberships and diets will soar. Job losses and divorces will rise. Some people will decide to go back to church, while others will decide to leave their church. Some will leave for another church. Others will leave the church for good.
Those who choose to go back to church will have about the same success rate as diets and gym memberships. But those who decide to leave will probably succeed at it. Sadly, it's one of the few new year's resolutions that people almost always keep.
If you’re considering leaving the church you attend, there are a few things you may want to consider before making the leap.
Your current church may have more to offer you – and you to offer it – than you may realize.
(If you’re a pastor who’s considering leaving your church, check out my follow-up post: Transition Without Relocation: 8 Steps to Stay Fresh In a Long-Term Pastorate.)
Are There Good Reasons to Leave a Church?
First, let’s acknowledge that there are some good reasons for leaving a church. Here are just a few:
- The church is stuck in dead traditions
- They’re so determined to do new things, they’ve become unbiblical
- The leadership is not leading
- The leadership is overly controlling
- You live too far away
- The only thing they want from you is a warm body and an offering
- You’re hindering the health, unity or growth of the church (yes, the problem might be you)
- and more.
But there are also some bad reasons to leave a church, even though they may seem like good reasons at the time:
Bad Reasons to Leave Your Church
1. Because It’s Small (Or Getting 'Too Big')
Many of us have bought into the myth that, if a church is not growing numerically, it must be broken. I call it The Grasshopper Myth, and it’s so prevalent I wrote a book about it.
If the ‘problem’ with your church is that it’s not getting bigger, I have good news for you. Small is not a problem.
Is it possible that the church’s lack of growth is a sign of deeper problems? Of course. If so, the church needs to address those reasons. But if the only issue you have with the church is its small size, that’s not a reason to leave.
On the opposite side of the church size coin are people who leave because the church is getting 'too big' for them. I may be a small church guy, but I don't believe a church can get too big. Yes, some churches do unhealthy things to get big. But other churches do unhealthy things that keep them small. Either way, the problem is ill-health, not size.
The size of the church is never a valid reason to leave a good church.
2. You’re Not Being Fed
There’s only so much growth we can receive as passive church consumers.
As we grow spiritually, the amount we can take in from others – even from great sermons and programs – diminishes until we do one thing: start serving.
Expecting to grow spiritually by attending church but not participating is like expecting to get physically healthy by eating better but not getting off the couch.
In both 1 Corinthians 3 and Hebrews 5 we read about immature believers who wanted more “milk”, even though they should have been ready for “solid food” (some translations use the word “meat”). Often, church members will leave a church because they want meatier sermons. But, while sermons can always be better, I don't believe we can ever get spiritual meat from sermons. Just milk.
What makes something milk is that it’s been through the cow. Someone else has eaten it, chewed it, processed it and fed it to you. Meat is something we have to chew on. It requires our work and participation.
If you’re a mature believer who isn’t being fed, don’t look for another church. Pick up a spoon and feed yourself. Then start serving and feeding others.
The church is not a marketplace where we pick the spiritual products we like. The church is a community that worships Jesus together. A family that cares for each other. And a team that goes out to bless others in Jesus’ name.
People don’t become giants of the faith by hearing better sermons. They do so by drawing closer to Jesus and living better lives as a result.
3. You Haven’t Found the Right Place to Serve
One of the good reasons to leave your church (see above) was if the only thing they want from you is a warm body and an offering.
But before you do that, be sure that’s really what’s going on. If the church leadership wants you to be involved, but hasn‘t found the right fit yet, keep trying.
I’ve known people to stay at our church for years before we finally found the right fit at just the right time. They were always glad they waited.
4. Someone Hurt Your Feelings
If you leave your current church over hurt feelings, you’ll leave your next church for the same reason. People are people. Feelings get hurt. Sometimes we’re too sensitive, sometimes the hurts are real. Either way, the solution isn’t leaving, it’s reconciliation. Or growing thicker skin.
Leaving a good church because one or two people offended you, only to go to another church where one or two people will offend you is not a solution.
5. The Church Is Changing
Every church needs to change. Not core theology. But methods, demographics, leadership styles and more.
Buildings need to be upgraded, new songs should be introduced, clothing styles fluctuate, demographics shift. And more.
Some people hit the brakes on every change, good or bad. If you have that tendency, you need to resist the temptation to assume that a change is bad just because it’s uncomfortable for you.
If the leadership of your church is changing things before you think they should, they're probably being proactive instead of reactive. That’s good leadership.
Society is changing around us. Fast. If your church leaders are trying new ways to meet the needs of a shifting society, don’t fight them. Help out.
6. You’re Hindering the Health, Unity or Growth of the Church
I know this was listed above as a good reason to leave the church. But not always.
Before you change churches, ask yourself if what really needs changing is you.
You may discover that the change you feared in the church is the change you need in yourself. I know. It’s happened to me more than once.
After all, the Gospel is about change. From darkness to light, from death to life, from sin to salvation. And sometimes, from stubborn to teachable.
This may not be your time to change churches. It may be your time to let Jesus use your church to change you.
7. You’re Giving Up On Church Entirely
If you’re planning to leave your current church to stop attending church altogether, please reconsider this very dangerous step.
Very few decisions are more likely to cause long-term spiritual damage than leaving the church. Even for a little while. Because a little while almost always becomes a very long time.
Even deciding to ‘see what’s out there’ in other churches can be a dangerous practice. Church-shopping can become church-hopping, which easily leads to church-stopping.
Christianity was never meant to be lived in isolation.
We need you. You need us.
We need each other.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.