I was recently asked this question by someone: “How do you know when it’s time to leave your church and find a new one?”
I get asked this question more often than one might think. We Christians can have a hard time finding, and staying at, a church, for lots of different reasons. The decision about leaving a church can be an agonizing one and picking a new church can feel like you are shuffling through a dating website trying to find a right fit – only instead of a website you have to actually show up and meet the date face to face and sing together.
I admit I have been a little sensitive about this question lately. Currently, I am blessed to serve in a church that is growing and healthy. What happens when a church is growing and healthy, of course, is that people who want a growing and healthy church start to show up. I am aware that this sounds like a good thing. I am just a little partial to Jesus’ words when he said: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” I want our church to be a place where the spiritually sick can come and find hope and healing – and not only a place where the healthy can find a style of music or a children’s ministry that they prefer. Kingdom growth is important to me. I don’t consider “taking” a Christian from a smaller church to be a win; in fact, it makes me sad. So before I can even answer “How to pick a church” I have to ask a whole bunch of other questions first. If you are considering leaving your church, here are questions I would start by asking:
Have you had an honest conversation with leadership about your plans to leave?
If there is a tension, have you given your community a chance to resolve it?
Have you allowed for healing to happen?
If you are leaving for other reasons (such as wanting a church closer to your home), have you talked to leadership so that they don’t wonder what happened to you, and so that they can send you off well?
If not, you’ve got some stuff to do.
Have you truly invested in your community?
If you are leaving because you don’t feel “connected” to your church or because you don’t feel you “belong” – have you done everything you can to make that so? No matter how friendly a church, relationships go both ways. To develop real friendships and connections, you will have to invest : help serve, make an effort to see people beyond Sundays, invite people into your life. If you have not learned to do that, things will not be any different in a new community.
What are your motives for leaving?
Let me be clear: I don’t like the idea of leaving churches. I think churches are families and we find God most when we are learning and growing together through all the challenges that family life brings. But I do acknowledge that sometimes we may need to shift communities. Here are some of the motives that hold a lot of validity to me:
Obviously, moving to another place means you may need another church. In fact, if you are moving I would ENCOURAGE finding a church in your new community instead of commuting to your old community. I also think that there is something significant in choosing to shift to a church that is nearer to your home so you can invest in community. But again, if doing this, a healthy conversation with your leadership should still happen so things can end positively.
Sometimes we are called to the mission of a certain church. If we sense that we are no longer in line with what a church is doing, we may choose to bless that community and serve elsewhere.
I think that if your church has a major shift in theology with which you are uncomfortable there is validity in moving on. Or sometimes we have a shift in our own theology. Sometimes, for example, people come to us because they have shifted in their theology about women in leadership. I get that. But again – do not leave until you have made every effort to talk through these issues with your pastor or leadership (sensing a theme yet?).
It is sad to say but sometimes a church community hurts us deeply. Sometimes communities or leaders do become so toxic that we cannot be in that community and remain spiritually healthy. If this is the case with you, however, please return to the earlier questions: Have you attempted to reconcile? Have you talked to your leaders so that they have heard your concerns? Even if you end up leaving, doing all you can to heal will be important for you as you move forward.
In all these cases, it remains important to transition well. This means that you saying good-byes to your community. Let them say good-byes to you. It hurts people when friends just “slip away.” Secondly, after you leave, be discerning about how you talk about your last church. We may be tempted to tell everyone the horrible things our last church did. This is not godly, and it rarely casts you in a positive light, no matter how justified you may feel in your anger. Pray for your church and trust in God to continue to work there.
Now, what about reasons to leave that I would call – shall we say? – less valid?
– We want something “different.”
Ugh. This one is frustrating for me because it’s consumerist. This is the one that starts with “I just want a church that….”
Has a certain type of music.
Or a better preacher.
Or a sermon that is a certain length.
Why is this dangerous? Because no church will ever meet all your needs. NONE. That’s why a church is not about meeting your “needs.” It’s about serving God together in all the messiness, imperfections and differences we all share.
This is a sad one as well because it can be so hard for our small churches. Churches close all the time because people begin to trickle out little by little. Yes, bigger churches have more programs and so on. It can be nice to have more people your age or more opportunities to get involved. But as Kingdom people if we are driven by consumerism for those things many wonderful church communities can suffer.
Your church has let you down and so you’re leaving to make a point. You are leaving to hurt them and to make them see the error of their ways. Usually, the only person who ends up hurt by this is you.
I do not think that wanting certain types of friends or going where your friends attend is a valid reason to leave a church. Friends are nice – but church is a family.
You just want a change. You’d like to “try something different.” Another church is so much cooler. Not a great reason.
Your church is challenging you too much. You don’t like some of the things you’re being taught because they are hitting too close to home. You’re being asked to serve and you want to go somewhere where you can “disappear.” Remember – community helps transform us. Part of that is being challenged.
So. Assuming you have sought reconciliation and it has not come to pass. Or assuming that you have moved. Or assuming you are feeling a call to your community. Or assuming a change in mission or theology is leading you to bless and move on. AND assuming you have let your leadership know you are leaving, given them the opportunity to bless you and said good-bye to your church in a healthy way… What then? How do you know which church is right for you?
Let me suggest a few starting points, based on how I hope people would decide to commit to our church:
Start with churches as close to where you live as possible.
Be where you feel God is calling you to serve, not a church where you feel you can best be served. When you meet that pastor don’t start with: “What programs do you have FOR ME?”…start with: “Tell me about this church’s mission.”
Invest in a community because you align with what they are about. If you are excited about a church but don’t resonate with their mission, be wise. There are so many wonderful communities – don’t go somewhere if you know you will bring discord.
- Ideology/ Theology
Same is true of this one. For example, If you are going to be totally infuriated that a pastor can’t make decisions without church approval – don’t go to a Baptist church. Of course, churches will differ than you in lots of ways, and that’s okay. If you are willing to do things differently, that is great. But if you feel strongly about a theological point, be cautious about joining a community where you may struggle. Because then, sooner or later, you will end up in the same boat – looking for another community. And you get that dreaded label none of us wants “Church Hopper.” Dum Dum Dum (that was ominous music…)
I want to end with a story someone once told me about how she found a church when she was a new Christian and wondering how to find a church. Her friend said: “Go to the churches nearest your house and when you find a Bible believing church (author’s note: a whole lot are!), stay there.” Nearly 30 years later she’s still at the first church she attended and she is a blessing to that community. She didn’t analyze, she didn’t comparison shop. She just STAYED.
Perhaps I should have started with that story…