t’s hard to leave a church you used to love – and maybe still love.
In previous articles I’ve written from the pastor’s perspective about how hard it is when people leave the church you’re pastoring, and what to consider before leaving a church you’ve been pastoring.
But the pain of leaving a church isn’t limited to pastors. Many church members find themselves facing the heartbreaking decision of whether-or-not to separate themselves from a church they’ve invested a lot of their lives in. And I’m not talking about church-hoppers, bored believers or shallow saints. I’m referring to people who have found themselves in a place they never expected – considering leaving a church they had planned to stay committed to.
If you are facing that dilemma, here are 8 principles to consider that will help you leave well – or decide to stay:
1. Talk it over, first
If you’re considering leaving a church, talk to the leaders and your church friends before making your final decision.
As a pastor I’ve had a handful of frustrating conversations with church members who had already decided to leave the church, only to discover that it was due to a misunderstanding that could have been rectified easily if it had been brought to light earlier. But by the time it got to me they already had one foot out the door and it was too late to change.
On the other hand, I’ve had some difficult, but constructive conversations with people while their frustration level was small, and we’ve been able to fix problems, correct misunderstandings, reverse course and keep good people in our church body – often with a renewed sense of hopefulness and dynamic ministry.
These are not easy conversations to have. But if the church is healthy enough that those conversations are possible, it’s healthy enough to fight for.
2. Leave for the right reasons
In a previous post, I listed 7 Bad Reasons To Leave Your Church. You may want to review that article to be sure your reasons are better than those.
I don’t intend to give a list of good reasons to leave a church. I’ll leave that to each person, their conscience and their circumstances. But some of them might include a church that’s moving toward unbiblical theology, unhealthy leadership or dysfunctional relationships.
3. Leave cleanly and kindly
If it’s time to leave, do so with the right spirit. It will be better for everyone – including you and the people you leave behind.
It’s hard when good people leave a church they love. It’s harder on everyone when they leave a mess behind them as they go.
So please, talk to the people who need to know what’s happening (which may or may not include the pastor, depending on the size of the church or the leadership environment), but avoid gossiping or bomb-throwing on your way out the door.
4. Don’t separate yourself from healthy Christian relationships
If you’ve been heavily involved in a church for a lot of years, it’s not just a place where you sit for an hour on Sunday mornings. It’s a big part of your spiritual, social, economic and emotional life.
Remember, the church is not a building, a denomination or an institution. It’s people who love Jesus and each other.
So even if you have to leave a specific congregation, don’t make the mistake of disconnecting yourself from healthy relationships with fellow believers. As you negotiate the challenge of finding a new church home, those relationships will be more important than ever.
In fact, maintaining healthy relationships with other believers is probably the most significant determiner of whether-or-not you’ll find a new, healthy church home or drift away from Christian fellowship – and maybe from the faith – entirely.
We need each other.
5. Rediscover Jesus
More and more, people are saying that they aren’t leaving the institutional church because they’re leaving Jesus – they’re leaving to find Jesus again.
As someone who has been blessed to serve, worship and minister in a healthy church environment for all but a couple years of my life, this is both understandable and heartbreaking.
No matter what you may have experienced from other Christians or in a difficult church environment, never take your eyes off Jesus.
People who have committed to a congregation for decades haven’t had 100 percent smooth sailing – they’ve learned to outlive the bad times and stay anchored to Jesus.
I know because I’ve been through it, too. I’ve been deeply damaged by bad church experiences. But I’ve stayed in the church (sometimes changing congregations, sometimes staying put), not because the church is perfect, but because I need to be with others who are just as imperfect in their attempts to follow Jesus as I am.
6. Don’t demonize your previous church or idealize a new church
People tend to make one of two mistakes when they go to a new church: Mistake #1) picking a church that’s exactly like the one they left. Mistake #2) picking a church that’s the opposite of the one they left.
Neither of those extremes is healthy.
It’s understandable that someone might pick a church that’s entirely different from the one they left. But if you push it too far you may be trading one set of problems for another (and very unfamiliar) set of problems.
On the other hand, if the church you’re going to is virtually the same as the one you’re leaving, why not stay put and work things through?
7. Don’t get busy at another church too fast – or too slow
An object in motion tends to stay in motion – and busy people tend to stay busy.
An object at rest tends to stay at rest – and busy people who stop being busy can stall out.
It’s a difficult balance.
Be careful not to fall into either trap. Don’t jump into the first church you find, over-idealize it, then overcommit again. Take some time to rest, recharge and reflect.
But don’t make the mistake of allowing a time of rest to become a habit of laziness, or letting a time of reflection become a lifestyle of entitlement.
8. Reconnect with a healthy church
This may be the greatest danger I’ve seen when long-time church members leave a congregation.
It’s so easy to stay disconnected. But so dangerous, too.
It’s not enough to say “I hang out with some of my Christian friends occasionally.” And it’s definitely not enough to watch church on livestream or podcasts.
Whether it means going to a brick-and-mortar church, a house church, or meeting in some other format, if we hope to stay spiritually passionate, emotionally connected and maturing in our faith we need to breathe the same air as fellow believers on a regular basis.
Our church experience needs to impact our schedule at least weekly. And it needs to include purposeful times of worship, fellowship, communion, ministry and discipleship.
Anything less isn’t church. Anything more is personal preference.
We need Jesus.
We need to be with others who love Jesus.
And other people who love Jesus need to be with you.