American evangelicals shuffle all too often from church to church, following the movements and fancies of the moment, but that’s not what I’m addressing here. I’m talking about when there are legitimate reasons for leaving a local body of believers.
First, however, let me say that our loyalty to our church should be stronger than our attraction to the better praise band down the street or to the in-depth preacher who just took a job at the church on the corner. Leaving a church should feel like leaving a marriage. It should hurt because we have lived our lives with a group of people, and now we are leaving. But, again, there are legitimate reasons to leave. Doctrinal considerations or the specific needs of our children are, for instance, two valid reasons for leaving a church. When a church is moving in a direction that an individual or a family feels is contrary to God’s Word that is another prudent reason for making a change.
But how should one leave? The usual method is to slither out the back door with the hope that no one notices. Over the years I’ve had numerous conversations with people who have left Santa Barbara Community Church, conversations that are sometimes embarrassing and sometimes hurtful. Haven’t seen you in a while, I say as we pass on State Street. Is everything okay? Then I learn that this person has moved to another church for whatever reason. I’m quick to try to relieve the embarrassment. Assuming this person has moved to a good church, I say something like Well, may God bless you and keep you. . . That’s a great church, and I’m sure it will be better with you in it. We’re all on the same team in the Body of Christ. We’ll miss you.
But these conversations—while cordial and sincere—are hurtful because they happen accidentally. A serendipitous encounter at the grocery store should not be the moment to announce that three months ago you left your church. When I have these encounters, I find myself thinking as a pastor, I’ve prayed for this person and invested my life in this family. I performed his wedding and dedicated his baby. Besides, aren’t we members of the same church universal? How could he and his family leave without so much as a good-bye?
So how do we leave a church? I offer the following suggestions:
First, leave deliberately. Don’t slither or slide. Don’t wander hither and yonder. When it’s time to go, go—and then go become an integral part of another good, Bible-believing, Christ-saturated church. The New Testament knows nothing of individual believers taking a little from here and sampling a little from over there. The biblical doctrine of the church describes a body of believers deeply committed to Christ and to one another.
Second, go graciously. Has your theology changed to the extent that you need to join a different church? Have the needs of your family or your work schedule compelled you to make a move? Fine. Move, but move graciously. Resist the temptation to concentrate on the warts and blemishes of the church you are leaving. (You’ll find, soon enough, that your new church has a few of these too!) It is important that you leave your church graciously and join your new church graciously. Eugene Peterson writes:
Every time I move to a new community, I find a church close by and join it—committing myself to worship and work with that company of God’s people. I’ve never been anything other than disappointed. Everyone turns out to be biblical, through and through: murmurers, complainers, the faithless, the inconstant, those plagued with doubt and riddled with sin, boring moralizers, glamorous secularizers. Every once in a while a shaft of blazing beauty seems to break out of nowhere and illuminate these companies, and then I see what my sin-dulled eyes had missed: Word of God-shaped, Holy Spirit-created lives of sacrificial humility, incredible courage, heroic virtue, holy praise, joyful suffering, constant prayer, persevering obedience.
Third, go thankfully. I write as a man who has been a pastor of the same church for almost three decades. During these years many people have left our church (some of them because of me). To be honest, some of the people who have left I don’t miss much. And others I miss sorely. But I always appreciate the one who takes the trouble to say good-bye.
Embarrassing or awkward as it may be, have an exit interview with one of the leaders, elders, or pastors of the church you are leaving. Explain the reasons for your departure, express your gratitude for their hard work, and commit yourself to praying for the church with which you will no longer be associated. These exit interviews are rare, but they are sweet. Pastors care about people. So when someone comes to me, shares where God seems to be leading, and gives thanks for the season of involvement at _____ , I beam with joy. Pastors are not running a business and trying to get more customers. Pastors are shepherds of a flock. On our good days we are not jealous of our sheep; we have their best interests at heart. Still, it is rarely easy to hear someone say, I gotta go. . . In fact, it always hurts. But the pain is softened when we learn that he or she is going to settle in a godly congregation of Christ-exalting believers. After all, we’re on the same team working for the same purposes.
Church membership and church involvement are serious undertakings. When we meet Christ, we are saved into the church. The Bible speaks of our being members of one another (Romans 12:4-5). We are joined together in Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16). We eat from one loaf and drink from one cup (Ephesians 4:4-5). We are to carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). We might even find ourselves selling our property in order to meet another’s needs (Acts 4:32ff.). We are to be a forgiving community (Colossians 3:13) that is deeply in love with one another (John 13:34). The church is a precious gift to God’s people. Christ died to bring the church into being (Ephesians 5:25)! The church is the mantelpiece of God, the display of God’s splendor before the angels (Ephesians 3:10)! So let us take care that we cherish the organism that Christ suffered to create—and may God bless his church!