Some years ago. I bumped into a woman who had been attending our Sunday morning worship for over a year. She’d been active in adult education, and I’d been touched when she brought me a small vase at my family’s Christmas open house. I considered her part of the church family.
On the day I bumped into her, though, it had been several weeks since we’d seen her.
“Hey,” I said, “We’ve missed you at church.”
“Oh,” she replied. “I don’t go to your church anymore.”
Pause for my stunned silence.
“I go to the Lutheran church now,” she went on. “Your church just wasn’t meeting my needs. You understand, I’m sure.”
Actually, I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand, and I don’t want to understand. Here’s the thing: I take my commitment to the people of my church very seriously. When I hear through the grapevine that they’ve moved to a church down the street, it hurts. Even worse is when someone casually mentions to me, weeks later, that he’s started attending elsewhere.
The professional church literature says I’m not supposed to take it personally when this happens. Baloney! I’m going to take it personally, because I care about these people personally. I pray for these people personally. I visit them in the hospital personally. I love them personally, so don’t tell me to not to take it personally when they leave.
In the immortal words of Kathleen Kennedy in You’ve Got Mail, “What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway? Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”
Pause for my long sigh.
Are there are times when it is necessary to leave a church? Of course there are. I’ve had difficult, tearful conversations in living rooms and on back porches, as men and women explained why God was leading them elsewhere. Do I enjoy these conversations? Of course not, but I don’t leave them angry or betrayed.
Gathering up my twenty-some years’ experience in the ministry, in churches large and small, I’m going to tell you how to do this thing—how to leave a church—in ways that don’t diminish you, the people of the church you’re leaving, or Jesus Himself.
First, before you make the decision to leave, do some heavy-duty self-examination.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the best book ever about church life. It’s called Life Together, and in it he describes the necessary disillusionment that comes with committing ourselves to a particular church community.
“Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship,” he wrote, “so must we be overwhelmed by the great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”
The reason you’re leaving the church might just be wearing your own boots and driving your own car. Look in the mirror before you go looking for a new pew.
Second, if you’re convinced it’s not only yourself that’s the problem, go talk to your church leaders. That decision you hate? Maybe there’s a fair-minded reason why they made it. Still don’t like the decision? At least you know it was made wisely. People of good conscience really do differ on matters of faith and sanctuary decoration. Try to work it out. If there’s a problem they can fix, give them a chance to fix it.
Third, do more self-examination. Some of the reasons for leaving I have heard over the years in my churches and colleagues’ churches are stunningly absurd: fellow worshipers’ clothing, a hymn selection, a church’s purchase of folding chairs.
“Because Christian community is founded solely on Jesus Christ, it is a spiritual and not a psychic reality,” Bonhoeffer continued. “The basis of all spiritual reality is the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ.”
The church is founded on the Body of Christ, and you’re ticked off about folding chairs? Let me say this as simply and as earnestly as possible—this is about you. Not the church. Not the leaders. And it’s probably not even about the chairs. It’s about some old, long-held hurt that’s gotten stirred up some way by the Spirit of God and your fellow believer. Pay attention to that, and let your church family help you. Cutting and running won’t solve anything.
Fourth, if you decide to leave—there’s misconduct going unaddressed, false teachings coming from the pulpit, or you’re moving to Reykjavík—then go back to those church leaders to whom you’ve already spoken and tell them you’re leaving. Don’t write a letter. Don’t send a text. Don’t even call. Actually talk to them face to face. It’s going to be hard. Believe me, I’ve been on the receiving end of it, and it’s not fun. It does however give witness to the courage that comes of a decision well and prayerfully made. Can’t bring yourself to face the church leaders? Then go back and do some more self-examination.
Please, please, dear friends, don’t just disappear. Don’t leave at the first sign of conflict. Don’t be lured by the new, coolest church down the street. It’s childish and weak, and it reeks of a kind of church consumerism that is demeaning the body of Christ as it turns worship into entertainment and pastors into marketing executives.
The Church—in all its funky, local expression—really is the body of Christ. Respect it, even when, especially when, you’re on your way out the door.