Once in awhile, people will ask me questions about leaving their church. They want my advice and opinion on it. This happened again very recently.
Because I’ve received this question countless times over the years, I’m posting my general response here. Before you read what follows, I want you to get clear on this: there are always special circumstances and exceptions to what I’m about to say.
What I’ve written here is merely my personal opinion for those who desire to hear it. It’s based on the last 30 years of watching people leave churches (of all different kinds) and the results I’ve witnessed . . . both good and unmentionable.
Five points to begin with:
1. I have never asked anyone to leave a church nor have I encouraged a person to leave one. It’s simply not my place to do so. Except in rare situations where someone was being abused, I actually encourage people to stay in their church. Unless God specifically and clearly leads them out. Or it violates their conscience to stay involved.
2. I’m of the opinion that you shouldn’t leave a church unless the Lord clearly directs you to leave and your family has come to a consensus on the matter. I’ll simply add that I will never understand why some people leave beautiful churches while others stay in abusive or dead churches. See my post on What Ever Happened to Perseverance? where I give examples.
3. If you leave a church, you should seek fellowship elsewhere. If you can’t find a fellowship before you leave your church, be prepared for a time in the wilderness. And be careful not to complain when you’re in it. It could last awhile. So count the cost before you make your exit.
4. Strong, healthy, Christ-centered churches that are neither legalistic nor libertine are very hard to find in our day. This includes both institutional churches and non-institutional churches. They do exist, however.
On that point, I always find it amusing when someone says, “There are no good churches (organic or organized) that exist because I’ve tried looking and I can’t find any.”
That’s like saying, “There are no Publix Supermarkets because I’ve looked and never found one in my town or state.”
Good institutional churches and non-institutional churches do exist. But both are relatively rare in my experience and observation. And this has always been the case, even in the first century. (A large chunk of your New Testament is made up of letters that were written to churches experiencing major problems.)
5. There is no perfect church. If you expect to find one, you’re mistaken and you may prove dangerous to any Christian community. Read Bonhoeffer’s Wish Dream which expands that statement.
The idea of a perfect church cuts both ways. When the issue of what the Bible teaches about church life and practice is brought up, some dismiss it by saying, “There is no perfect church. So it’s pointless to examine what the Bible teaches on the matter. Just find any church you like” (or words to that effect).
This is no different from saying, “There is no perfect Christian. So it’s pointless to examine what the Bible teaches on the matter of Christian living. Just live the way you like.”
On the other hand, for the person who is looking for the perfect church, you won’t find it. It doesn’t exist, and it has never existed. And if it did, it would no longer be perfect when you arrived . . . unless of course you believe you’re a perfect person.
If you can find a group of Christians who love Jesus and want Him over “things,” who desire fellowship and community, who aren’t legalistic or libertine, and who know the basics of what it means to love others (i.e., treat others the way they want to be treated), then you’ve found something precious on this earth . . . regardless of the “form,” the meeting location, the size, or “denomination” it may take.
That said, for those of you who asked (or will ask), if God clearly leads you to leave a particular church, here are my suggestions on what not to do:
1. It’s not a good idea to meet with your pastor in person and tell him/her all the things you don’t like about the way he/she runs the church. In addition, it’s unwise to criticize his/her sermons. Unless of course you want to be boiled in olive oil or roasted over a slow spit.
Seriously: Complaining about what you don’t like or what you don’t think is “biblical” to a church leader is a study in insanity most of the time. If you do this, prepare for a lot of unnecessary defensiveness and anger targeted at you. And don’t be so naïve to think that people are going to be swayed by your peerless arguments. Most won’t.
At the end of Reimagining Church (Chapter 15), I explain in some detail what you can expect if you try to change a church that you’re attending. It’s not advisable.
And for the two people out there who see themselves as prophets: There’s a big difference between being a genuine prophet and presuming on the role (the “persecuted prophet complex” as I call it). Make sure you are clear headed enough to know the difference.
What’s the alternative?
Most wise people I know who left a church graciously wrote a letter to the leadership simply explaining that the Lord was moving them on. They added thanks for what they learned and gained, and ended by saying that they haven’t committed apostasy, they still love the Lord and are following Him, so there’s no need for the reconciliation committee to pay them a panic visit (or words to that effect).
If you were a hefty tither to the church, this may not work. The committee may visit you anyway. But you can try.
2. It’s not a good idea to give your pastor or the people in your congregation books or articles that challenge what he/she is doing. There’s an excellent chance that those books and articles weren’t written to or for pastors or to or for people who are content with church.
I can’t speak for others, but this is absolutely the case with my books, Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church. Those volumes were written specifically for people who already left the institutional form of church as we know it or who feel in their gut that church can and should be much different, but they aren’t sure why they feel this way.
These books are not for leaders or for people who enjoy church as we know it.
3. This next point is on the par with the Law and the Prophets: Please don’t take anyone else with you. Meaning, nevah evah cause division. That includes after you leave as well as during your departure. This also includes corrupting your friends who attend the church with your complaints against the church and/or its leaders.
It also includes trying to recruit them away from the church by giving them “subversive literature” that you know will cause them confusion. Barna and I actually warned about this in the very beginning of Pagan Christianity, saying,
(At this moment, all the rebellious hearts are applauding and are plotting to wield the above paragraphs to wreak havoc in their churches. If that is you, dear rebellious heart, you have missed our point by a considerable distance. We do not stand with you. Our advice: Either leave your church quietly, refusing to cause division, or be at peace with it. There is a vast gulf between rebellion and taking a stand for what is true.) Pagan Christianity, p. 5.
And again near the end:
We hope that this book will give God’s people permission to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, wherever that may lead them. No one should feel pressured to remain in a particular type of church if he or she feels the Lord is leading him or her out of it. And no one should feel pressured to leave, either. With that in mind, the advice we would offer to those who feel called to leave the institutional church [or any other kind] is threefold. 1) Leave quietly and do not take anyone else with you. In other words, do not cause division. 2) Resist becoming bitter against the institutional church [or any other kind]. If you have been hurt by people in it, take your pain to the cross. Harboring bitterness is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to get sick. Few things are as lethal. 3) Actively seek Christians to fellowship with around Jesus Christ. Pagan Christianity, p. 269.
Just because God may be leading you out of a particular church doesn’t mean that He’s leading everyone else out. Now or in the future.
If you leave in a Christ-honoring, gracious way, I believe the Lord will be pleased. If you leave in the flesh, I can promise you things will be very difficult afterwards. Not a good beginning to start a new season on. I can singe your ears with horror stories, but this post is already too long.
Again, there are always some extraordinary exceptions to all of this (like if your church is involved in criminal activity. Then calling the authorities might be a good idea). But in general, for the vast majority of cases, that’s my 13 cents on the matter.