We all know there are times and circumstances in which the only right course of action is to leave a church. If the church leadership has apostatized or proven themselves unqualified for ministry, if they are preaching a false gospel, if they have surrendered to the culture, we need to get out. We can leave these churches boldly and without looking back, shaking the dust from our feet.
But more often than not, we leave churches for what we might consider discretionary reasons. We don’t need to leave, but choose to leave. And we typically do this when we feel weary of the people, when we feel like they aren’t interested in us anymore, when relationships feel cool rather than warm, when we feel like we need a fresh start.
I wonder if you are in such a place right now—you are part of a church but feeling restless, ready to move on. Maybe you’ve attended another church a time or two and are finding yourself drawn to that congregation, to those people. It’s not always wrong to leave a church under such circumstances, but before you do, I would want to ask three important questions, all of which I’ve asked many times as an elder and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church:
Here’s the first question: Have you been praying for the people of this church? Your love for others grows in direct proportion to your prayer for them. As you pray for people, you find that you love them. You are called to pray for your enemies in the hope that they will become your brothers and sisters and for strangers in the hope that they will become your friends. How much more, then, are you to pray for your fellow church members? When you don’t pray for the people in your church you may soon find your heart cooling toward them. Once your love cools you may find yourself blaming them for your discontentment when really it began within you. Before you leave a church, first determine that you will take a period of time to pray—to pray for the people specifically and by name. Then see if your heart remains cool and distant.
Here’s the second question: Have you been serving the people of this church? Your love for others grows hand-in-hand with your service to them. As you do love toward others you naturally feel love toward others. Too many Christians prefer to be served rather than looking for every opportunity to serve. They gauge their emotional response to the church by the actions others have taken or not taken toward them. Yet God’s first call to us is not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45, Philippians 2:5-11). The more we imitate Christ in his selfless service, the more our love grows warm. Before you leave a church, first determine that you will take a period of time to serve that church—to creatively seek out opportunities to serve and surprise. Then see if your heart remains cool and distant.
And one last question: Have you been with the people of this church? Have you been there on Sunday morning, and if you have, have you been all-in, looking for people to speak to, new people to meet, coffee to brew, chairs to stack? Have you been at the Sunday evening or mid-week services, or the prayer meetings, or the small groups? If everyone else in the church is getting together three times a week while you parachute for a quick Sunday morning fix, you will necessarily feel like an outsider looking in. You need to embrace the whole life of a church, not just the one main gathering. Before you leave a church, first determine that for a time you will commit to it all the way. Then see if your heart remains cool and distant.
Under many circumstances we have freedom before God to move from one church to another. In some cases this is a necessary course of action, while in others it is a sinful course of action. Most of the time, though, it is discretionary, depending on the particulars, the circumstances, the heart. Before you make such a move, do consider the questions: Have you been praying for the people of the church? Have you been serving the people of the church? Have you been with the people of the church? Love grows cold where there is no prayer. Love grows cold where there is no service and no togetherness. In other words, love grows cold where there is no love—no expression of love through prayer, through deeds, through fellowship.