Writings by Cole Huffman

When Is Leaving Your Church Ever The Right Thing To Do?

Some friends of mine in another city left their church. It happens at First Evan too; people leave us for other churches and people leave other churches for us. Call it the evangelical diaspora. But when is this ever the right thing to do—leave your church? Lists can be dubious, but here are five reasons not to leave your church:

Because you’ve been wounded: Wounded people usually go out one of two ways: either silently into that good night hoping no one will notice their leaving, or nailing their grievances to the church door like a second Wittenberg. The New Testament is honest that wounding happens in as much as to the body of Christ. Hurt feelings are an opportunity to practice forgiveness and display forbearance which are cardinal virtues of gospel-formed people. If you don’t practice such here you’ll likely take your wounds with you to the next church—also full of sinners as this one is—and their margin of error for you will be much narrower.

Because you’re not getting anything out of the services: Many of us are almost incorrigible consumers. A worship service should edify the worshipper as well as glorify God. But are you putting anything in to get something out? Do you pray for your worship leaders and for Sunday services? Do you come to services on Sunday mornings prepared to sing and pray and listen, asking the Holy Spirit to use that hour to transform you? How do you use Saturday nights? What else in your life do you expect to get something meaningful from just by showing up?

Because there’s no place for you to use your gifts: This reason will be cited often by those who believe they have the gift of teaching but lack a Sunday school opportunity teaching adults. There are simply a limited number of ministry opportunities in the building on a Sunday morning, even in bigger churches, but the opportunities to use one’s gifts in the church are limitless. Considered from the New Testament, if a church exists in which there’s no place for your gifts it’s not a community of Christ.

Because the pastor/church didn’t act on your idea or recommendation, or the pastor/church doesn’t care about X: Fill in the blank. Parachurch organizations abound in modern evangelicalism, each one vying for pastoral involvement and church support, with plentiful evidence for why they’re essential to the kingdom. Evangelicals love going to seminars and conferences, reading blogs and listening to Christian radio or podcasts from which we’re persuaded “the church” isn’t “doing enough” with this or that X factor. Then we kibitz incessantly: Why can’t my church/pastor get into prayer walks around cities or hold church services in bars or advocate justice for Botswana’s refugees or plant urban gardens or lobby legislators? Don’t they know we’d change the world if they’d just do X?!

Because the leadership mishandled something: This is an inevitability of human leadership—at least the perception of mishandling—even among the most well-intentioned leaders. Most of the time the objection to “the way it was handled” is the refuge of those who don’t like a decision or its results. Still, it is true that some matters ignite emotional response, that due diligence was lacking, or that in hindsight your idea was better than ours. Sometimes confrontations get avoided for fear; sometimes decisions are made from expedience not principle; sometimes leaders are inconsistent; sometimes favoritism shows its toothy visage. It is each and all regrettable and hurtful, and repentance should be practiced when leaders are guilty as charged. But mishandling always mandates leaving the church? The next church can guarantee you they won’t ever mishandle something in your view?

There are other reasons people leave churches, of course: better music or preaching or youth programs down the street, etc. But the five I’ve listed are primary causes in American evangelical experience. It requires more effort to stay and work through problems and conflicts. It requires godly humility and resilience. It is easier to conclude the Lord “must be calling us away” for a fresh start somewhere else. 

And yet, compare my list with realities in the Corinthian church. Compare my list with the situations Jesus personally addressed in the seven churches of Revelation 2-3. The five reasons I’ve listed seem rather flimsy at best, faithless at worst. Most of the first century churches were pretty bad!

What we find in the New Testament is not God calling people away from their churches, though He did/does call them/us away from false teachers, but God calling people to walk with Jesus in community regardless of what was happening in their church. This is too little appreciated by many but it is through conflicts and resistance and struggles that we mature with God the most.

When is it ever the right thing to leave a church? I can think of only one consistently applicable reason: If a church denies Jesus Christ His rightful headship over it as God it is not a place to belong. Churches can otherwise be boring, oblivious, inopportune, and mistaken in various ways. God remains patient, sometimes marvelously renewing such places after long dormancy. But a church that denies the Lord who bought her, a church where there is no love for Jesus but rejection of Him—that church has become merely a civic gathering under a steeple and a worthy institution for shaking its dust off your sandals.

These are good days at First Evan. Let’s keep working for the “better things—things that belong to salvation” (Heb. 6:9). And as far as it depends on each one of us “pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19), until that great Day on which the Lord comes for His bride and our faith is sight. Finally. A perfect church then.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 6:26 PM
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7/26/2013 at 08:43 AM by Jeni

Surprisingly, there are other reasons why people leave churches. As a child, my father (a pastor) found out that one of our Sunday school teachers was teaching that we could become God. When my dad called for this teacher's removal, the church resisted and wanted my dad to sweep it under the rug. He didn't (and shouldn't have), so we ended up leaving the church since my dad could no longer effectively lead the congregation. We left another church because an elder stood up in a meeting, waving a copy of the church membership roll, calling it the "Lamb's Book of Life." He said if your name was wiped from Rural Church X's membership roll, it was also wiped from the "copy" in heaven, the Lamb's Book of Life. When my dad gently tried to correct him, this elder called for my dad's resignation. I also think there are other legitimate reasons for leaving a church besides the ones you've listed. Certainly we are a culture of consumers, but your list certainly isn't all-inclusive.

7/26/2013 at 10:26 AM by Todd

There certainly are other reasons to leave a church. My family attended the same church until I was in middle school. It was a smaller church, and in youth group and Sunday school the only other kids that were close to my age were 2 years older than I was, so my parents decided to move to a church with a strong youth program where a lot of my friends went. While it certainly sounds like they were just trying to please me, it ended up being a real blessing because the strong community of and commitment to kids my age kept me interested in going to church through high school, a real accomplishment for anybody. Also, to me, if there's an issue, whether it's theological, social, or otherwise, that hinders fellowship, the missions of the church, or personal growth in one's relationship with Christ, it certainly warrants at least a serious consideration of either change within the church, change within the heart of the member, or a change of membership. Christ doesn't only work within the confines of one congregation, and sometimes God really does lead individuals to leave one church for another. You simply don't and can't know what God is doing in the hearts of His people or what His plans are. Sure, people can make rash decisions and leave for petty reasons, but it's not up to anyone but God to make a judgment call on the quality of one's reasoning for a change in membership. If that individual is actively seeking God's will, then it's perfectly reasonable accept that decision to be the right one.

7/29/2013 at 03:39 PM by Jim

Got to say, I understand the heart of this treatise, but think it engenders an over simplification at its heart. In no small part by minimizing the headship of Christ over The Church and inflating the value of each local assembly. Certainly believers shouldn't be quick to leave, but God is the God of geography, calling us each to and from. A didactic, blanket statement is dangerous. Even usurping Christ's authority. It should be the responsibility of the individual to heed the ethical call of God. I speak of ethics here as Bonhoeffer regards ethics; that is the only ethical action occurs and is known only through relationship with God. Stepping into the midst of this interaction, regardless of whatever perceived error (especially when this is such a grey area) has greater repercussions. Rather than trusting the work of the Spirit and the headship of Christ; there is the possibility of limiting (even subverting) the work of the Spirit and the headship of Christ. It suggests a human way that is better. In my humble opinion, a church should spend more time in discipleship demonstrating how it is to be in this kind of relationship than clutching after its fleeing members. Then it could trust the actions of its members coming and going. But you mention "Considered from the New Testament, if a church exists in which there’s no place for your gifts it’s not a community of Christ." There is another option why people might leave. The church is absent of Christ in any real, particular way. Instead of blaming those that leave, it might be time to assess. Especially when the exodus is notable. When God is at work people are drawn to him. Even in the midst of hardship and persecution. That is proved time and again. Let us not be quick to judge those that leave. Instead, it is always best to judge ourselves...

8/8/2013 at 11:02 AM by Jason

I may have read this differently than some others, but it didn't strike me as though Cole was providing an exhaustive list for why people leave churches. In fact, he said, "There are other reasons people leave churches, of course..." (5th paragraph up from the bottom). I took it as a Top 5 list of reasons that are most-often--if not always--unwise. Of course, there are circumstantial details that we should seek to understand and counsel people through in each situation, but in general these are five bad reasons. I'll add that we need to be careful of countering this post by saying, "There are other reasons: I know someone who left a church for X, Y, and Z." While that may be true, it doesn't necessarily follow that X, Y, and Z are *good* reasons to leave a church either. Like other commenters, I think there may be more one good reason to leave a church (other than denying Christ), but Cole's point is still well taken: far too often our reasons are flimsy and self-centered. Michael Svigel has a good article* on this topic as well; he gives two positive and two negative reasons we see people leave churches in the New Testament. But even still--with reference to Cole's post--note that he doesn't say "there's only one reason"; he says there's "only one consistently applicable reason." That's a big distinction; it makes room for us to say that geography/ministry *may* be a reason to leave, but not necessarily so. Thus, it's a reason, but not a consistently applicable one. Just my 2 cents. Good stuff to think through and discuss. Thanks, Cole! --- * Svigel's article: http://www.retrochristianity.org/2013/04/04/thinking-about-leaving-your-local-church-think-again/

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