Should I Leave My Church?

That was the subject of an email I recently received from a Christian friend, and it’s the most frequent “church” question I’ve been asked over the past few years. It’s a difficult question that nearly all of us church-goers will ask at one time or another. If you are the one wrestling with whether to stay in or leave your church, this post will hopefully give you something to think about and may help you to make the right decision.

You may be reading this at a time when the question of leaving your church is the furthest thing from your mind. If so, consider forwarding this to someone you know who is struggling with their church, or keep it as a resource to refer to if someone asks you the question.

 According to singer/songwriter Paul Simon there are “fifty ways to leave your lover” but let’s narrow our question down to five good reasons to leave your church and five things you should do before you go. Before we do, let’s start with five bad reasons to leave your church...

Five Bad Reasons to Leave Your Church!

1) The Church Is Changing. 
Depending on what is changing, this may be a perfectly legitimate reason or a bad one. I read about a couple who stopped attending their church because the pastor painted the front door red. Church doors were painted red in the middle-ages so that people fleeing persecution could quickly identify a church building as a place of sanctuary, safety and refuge. It was for that same reason that the pastor painted their entrance door red. But the couple believed that red was the color of Satan (after seeing too many paintings of the red flames of hell?) and that was their reason for leaving. I knew a woman who even left her beloved church because she disapproved of the new pastor’s hairstyle! Someone told me they were leaving because their new pastor had the audacity to carry the Bible down the aisle and read the Gospel in the middle of the gathering instead of reading it from the pulpit where “according to church liturgy” it should be read. I suggested that perhaps God was not horrified that His Word was read among his people and that person begrudgingly decided to stay despite the violation of their church’s “tradition.” We need to resist our human tendency to get our knickers in a knot over petty insignificant changes. If we do, the problem is not the church. It’s us.

2) You’re Not Being Fed
As I recently mentioned in Why Do You Go To Church, “not being fed” is what we say when we don’t enjoy the pastor’s sermons, but we want to say that in a way that makes us sound more spiritual than shallow. Our problem is too often that we are milk drinkers. Both Paul and the author of Hebrews 1 Corinthians 3:1-2; Hebrews 5:12-14 speak of immature believers who are only satisfied with drinking “milk” from their teachers and avoiding the “solid food” of a mature believer. Milk is passed through the cow. She eats the food, chews on it, chews on it some more, and turns it into milk that is fed to her immature calf. Pastors do the same thing. We devour the word of God, chew on it, chew on it some more, then turn it into an easy to understand biblical lesson that may also contain a funny story to make us laugh and a human interest story to make us cry. Many would give that pastor an A+ and come back next Sunday. But others have come to a place in their spiritual walk where they have heard those milky sermons and now require something a little more “meaty.” 

When we were infants, our mom would strap us into our high chair and spoon feed us. As we grew older, we were taught to use the spoon to feed our selves and soon learned the joy of flinging our strained carrots at the wall. If we are not being “fed” at church, it may be that we are now at the age to start feeding ourselves. The “meat” of our faith is something that we have to work at. We need to devour God’s word by reading our Bible. We need to chew on the scripture. Meditate on it. Did you know that of the Christians who attend mainline churches, 56% reported in a survey that they never read their Bible? If you have a pastor who gives shallow, “milky” sermons, that might be a legitimate reason to seek out a church with a pastor who has different preaching gifts. Or, if you are a mature believer who “isn’t being fed,” you might want to consider picking up the spoon and feeding yourself. Then you can start feeding and serving others.

(Note: The stories are true. 
Some details and all names have been changed.) 

3) The Church Is Not Meeting Your Needs
Harrison was a long time church member who owned a number of very successful beauty supply stores located throughout the western United States. He was a life-long committed Christian dedicated to the growth of our new church plant and was on the church council. We valued his business acumen along with his commitment to his faith. Then his two twin sons turned twelve which was when, at that time, they could join the local soccer league. Harrison explained to us pastors and the council that his family’s Sundays were now reserved for his son’s soccer games. He said he needed to teach his boys how to be competitive in sports so that as adults they could be competitive in business. That was over twenty years ago and I can’t remember the question I asked him in that council meeting, but I’ll never forget his answer to me. He said, “The church is not meeting my family’s needs.” For Harrison, the need for his family was to teach his sons how to exist in a fierce, ruthless world of business where reality is the survival of the fittest. And in our church, we had no Sunday school lessons on how to dominate and crush your business competitors. 

A few years ago I talked with a woman who had taken the God from the Catholic Church of her childhood, added a pound of Oprah’s new age teachings, a generous scoop of Buddhism, a bushel of her own feelings and thoughts about how life should be, an ounce of Jehovah’s Witness doctrine and a sprinkling of some Hindu deities. She had invented her own custom religion and was trying to find a church that would support and validate these scattered and unfocused beliefs. This very intelligent, highly articulate woman complained to me that she could not find a church that “met her needs.” What we need is a church that will lead us into the presence of God through worship, songs, prayers and the Eucharist (Holy Communion). We need a pastor who preaches the word of God and facilitates our growth into disciples of Jesus. We need a community of people to love and to serve. That’s what we need. Everything else is an optional add-on. Are you sure the church is not meeting your needs?

4) You Were Hurt At Your Church. 
The church can be a horrible place to be. My ex-wife struggled with being a pastor’s wife. She asked me one time, “Why are Christians so mean to each other?” We can be terribly hurt by the church leadership and by the people sitting next to us in the pew. Here’s why. From the youngest sinner kicking the back of the pew during the service to the oldest sinner struggling with their walker, the church is filled with sinners. In our church, I would sometimes reference 1 Timothy 1:12-15 and point out that their “chief sinner” was the old guy in the clerical collar standing up in front with the guitar every Sunday, and despite that confession, some of them seemed to like me anyway. In my own church experience, I have experienced absolutely horrible treatment from others and can assure you that I have inadvertently hurt people as deeply as I have been hurt. 

I can promise you that in every church you will ever attend, you will have numerous opportunities to take offense and have your feelings hurt and you will have countless opportunities to hurt others. We pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” and then Jesus says those words that make us wince, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15 If you have been hurt at church and are struggling with unforgiveness, talk with a pastor or someone who is a mature believer who can help you. There are no perfect churches – just those filled with wounded people like you and me who sometimes say and do foolish things that are hurtful to others. I think that’s why when God invented the concept of church, He also invented the concept of forgiveness.

5) You No Longer Can Connect With The Institutional Church. 
“I’m spiritual but not religious” has become a flippant way to avoid talking about the deep disappointments with the church or with those in it. I have never met an atheist, who was not hurt by the church. Sally was just a child when her cat was dying and her Sunday school teacher told her that if she prayed to God and trusted in Him, that He would heal her cat. She was devastated when her cat died, and her conclusion was that God didn’t love her enough to save her cat or God did not really exist. Now as a grown woman, Sally is attracted to Wicca and revels in the “love” from the Wiccan’s triple goddess. 

Jane was a young God-loving Christian woman who married the ultimate dream husband – a charismatic pastor. She was devastated when she found out about his affair, and many decades later, she still blames God for what happened in their marriage and refuses to have anything to do with the church. 

When David’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, his Pentecostal “name it and claim it” pastor told him that only his faith would heal her. Pastor Clyde told him to not take her to the doctor because the “chemotherapy” would show God that David had no faith in His healing power. She went to the oncologist, had surgery and treatments but passed away. Pastor Clyde told David that he had “killed his wife” by not having enough faith to believe that God would heal her. Would it surprise you to hear that David left the church, left his faith in that pastor’s office and has never been back? 

Born to Catholic parents, Jenny’s father was a professor at a Catholic school. Jenny’s faith was very important to her as a child, but she struggled a little bit with it when she became an adult and saw that some church teachings conflicted with her political beliefs. Her faith was completely destroyed when she found out about pedophile priests and today she hates the church and is a committed atheist. 

All four abandoned their church, their God and their Christian faith. For now the Devil thinks that he has won these four souls, but God is not through with them. When He tells us that He will never leave us or forsake us, Hebrews 13:5 that’s a promise we can count on. Sally, Jane, David and Jenny would tell you that they are done with God. But God is not done with them. If you don’t believe that you can any longer connect with the institutional church because of something you blame the church for doing, talk with an understanding, compassionate pastor or someone who is a wise and mature Christian. God is not done with you. 

Five Good Reasons To Leave Your Church!

1) Logistics Have Changed. 
We’ve moved out of the area. We now have Sunday school aged children or grandchildren and our church is older and too small to have a Sunday school. Our employer now requires us to work Sunday’s and we need to find a church that has a Saturday night service. We were recently divorced from our spouse and our family-focused church disapproves to the degree that we are being shunned. We decide to look for a new church that has a divorce support group and perhaps even a ministry for older singles. 

2) The Church Has Changed. 
While this was listed as a reason to not change your church, it may also be a perfectly legitimate reason to do so. My parents went to a church in Burbank that was one of the churches in the denomination that had ordained me. There was a much-loved older pastor with an older congregation but it was flourishing. Services were well attended, offerings were generous and many of the older people were actively engaged in leading Bible studies, prison ministry, home visits, men’s and women’s groups etc. The nice thing about having a church filled with retired folks is that they are able and willing to commit to time-consuming ministries! But the denomination wanted a change. When the pastor retired, they put in a thirty year old who took down the cross above the platform and painted the back wall to make it look like the set of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” The congregation was told that new young faces would be required for the church’s ministries, and all the older people who had been leading those ministries were now dismissed. The new pastor wanted to have only young families in his church and the worship team was replaced with a band wearing torn tee shirts and spiked hair. The pastor now stood in a single spotlight on a darkened stage wearing ripped jeans and reading his sermon off his handheld iPad. The pastor’s vision for a younger-looking church was fulfilled and within months there was a complete cleansing from the church of all people over the age of sixty. 

In a church I was pastoring, the same denomination gave our own church (property and $60,000 dollars from our savings account) to a Spanish-speaking church and replaced me with a pastor who spoke no English. Sometimes, we have no desire to leave our church, but our church has left us and our only option is to say goodbye to it and move on. (My parents returned to their Episcopal church roots and our church left the denomination to become an independent Evangelical/Charismatic church.)

Some changes are doctrinal. One of our Nation’s fastest growing mainline denominations quickly became our fastest declining denomination after ordaining gay and lesbian pastors and bishops a few years ago. Their doctrine (teaching) is changing every year and their presiding bishop was recently quoted as not believing in the concept of Hell as taught by Jesus. Another quickly declining mainline church questions the deity of Jesus Christ, His resurrection and His atonement on the cross for our sins. If the doctrine of a church has changed to comply with modern cultural beliefs and no longer reflects historic Christian doctrine and deeply held Christian values, you may find yourself with one of three possible responses. 1) You are delighted that your church has finally aligned with your cultural and political beliefs. 2) You change your traditional Christian beliefs in order to conform with the new modern doctrine. 3) You change your church to one with a traditional understanding of God’s Word. 

3) You No Longer Respect The Leadership Of The Church. 
A Protestant pastor or a Catholic Priest who is a pastor of a church is the “shepherd” called by God to love, care for and lead the people. The pastor much preach well and communicate sound Biblical doctrine. Narcissistic, arrogant and abusive pastors do not fit the following job description: “So an elder (overseer) must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach.” 1 Timothy 3:2 NLT As with everyone else in the congregation, all pastors have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God Romans 3:23 but they are working hard at becoming the person God wants them to be. Jesus told us to “Love God” and “Love Others” Mark 12:30-31 and our pastor’s job is to show us how to do that through how they live their own lives. Above all, our church shepherd should be kind and caring with others. If your pastor is not, find one who is.

4) The Church Is Unhealthy
The church may be spiritually unhealthy, pastorally unhealthy or systemically unhealthy. Jesus made it very clear as to the purpose of the church: To make disciples and to bring people into His Kingdom by baptizing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Matthew 28:19-20 Does your church make “disciples?” A disciple is not someone who believes in Jesus. Satan and the demons believe in Jesus. A disciple is not someone who attends a church. A disciple is someone who follows Jesus. By definition, a “Christian” is someone who follows Jesus. Healthy churches are not those filled with church-goers; they are filled with Christians. 

The size or worship “style” of a church does not determine the health of a church. In my former denomination, there was a “traditional” megachurch in our area that I attended a few times. The pastor had been the president of a seminary and the teaching was solid and life-changing. During times of worship, the entire church soared into the presence of God, and I’ll never forget what it was like worshiping with over a thousand people! It seemed as if the entire building was trembling with the power and the presence of God. Our denomination was most proud of a cutting-edge megachurch in Hawaii that I attended one Sunday. Most of the service was projected, professionally-produced videos. The pastor gave an eight minute high-energy motivational talk. I can’t remember God being mentioned. A professional band performed but what I will never forget is that there were very few in the congregation who were singing. It was a church service but not a worship service. The church was entertaining and exciting but spiritually dead. 

I’ve been in small “family” churches that were so “in-grown” they had the appearance of a secular country club. The Sunday rituals were faithfully performed but it appeared that many attended not to come into the presence of God but to come into the presence of their friends. I’ve also known small “family” churches that looked and acted like you might imagine the first century church to have been. The churches were small but the people were spiritually growing. Megachurch or mini-church, Catholic or Protestant, Baptist or Pentecostal, mainline liturgical or Evangelical, choirs or worship bands or one guy with a guitar, hymns or praise music, none of that matters in determining a spiritually healthy church. According to Jesus, what matters is if your church is life-changing and people are becoming His followers. Healthy churches are ones who are filled with people endeavoring to become His disciples.

The purpose of the church service is to provide a time and a place for us to express our worship, gratitude and love of God to God Himself. The purpose of the worship singing, the prayers, liturgy and the Eucharist is to bring us into the very presence of God Himself. I’ve been in congregations who received the Communion elements of the Body and Blood of Jesus with great reverence and I’ve been in churches where country-Gospel rock music was blaring. For me, their church tradition was a distraction that created a distance between me and the presence of God in His Body and Blood. For some, candles and incense brings one into the presence of God; for others it’s the hymns and worship songs. But whatever the atmosphere in the church and style of service, our bottom-line is that a spiritually healthy church for us is one that brings us into the presence of God and disciples us to become more like Jesus.

I’ve observed churches that were pastorally unhealthy. I have known liberal churches who focused on social justice and militant activism to the degree that it became the primary purpose of church and the constant message from the pastor. (That was why I left my Episcopal church when I was a young man.) Our doctrine was that we are saved by the grace of God alone through faith alone, but what was implied was that an authentic Christian participates in boycotts, marches and protests. The underlying message was that we are saved by our works of social justice and activism. I was told once by a pastor, “How can you be a Christian if you don’t participate in the (upcoming) march?” Does your pastor preach or convey intense dislike for all those who do not agree with the pastor’s political identity? If a church is preaching expressed or implicit hatred for those in the liberal democratic party or those in the conservative republican party it is preaching hatred for half the people living in the United States. Is this really what Jesus would do? It is a pastorally unhealthy church when the overseer ignores the teachings of Jesus and instead preaches the teachings of the media and of his or her own political party.

The church may be systemically unhealthy meaning that something intrinsic to the church itself is unhealthy. These churches are characterized by fights and dissension in the church. Pastors never stay. Mature Christians visit but see the dysfunction and soon leave. People are unhappy with the church, the pastor, the service, the music and even the food at the hospitality time. There is grumbling and murmuring among the small groups that gather after the service. Marriage and Family Therapists call this the “tipping point” in a relationship. That’s when the other person can do no good. Every little thing becomes an insufferable irritant. Unhappiness, complaints and dissatisfaction have become the norm. When people are at this point, I often tell them that they must leave before they become the problem. (See #5)

5) You Are Hindering The Health, Unity or Spiritual Growth Of The Church. 
Ahh..Okay..this may be the difficult one to talk about, but it may be the most important reason for you to leave your church. There is nothing more destructive to the health of a church than the constant passive-aggressive murmuring. Disappointment leading to bitterness and negativity is unhealthy for both you and your church. I have cried tears of grief and loss when some have left my church. I have literally danced around my study with shouts of great joy when some have left my church. You need to have a good honest talk with yourself. Are you the person who loves their church and encourages everyone they see on a Sunday? Or are you the one who seeks out others for that satisfying after-service gripe session? Are you the person that the pastor would select to greet and spend time with the newcomers? Or are you the one that the pastor would warn the newcomer about if he saw you talking to them? 

If you are unhappy, discouraged and fed up with your church there are only three possible solutions for you. Back when I was a counseling pastor, I’d often tell people that whether it’s a situation with your job, a church, a personal relationship..even a marriage, if it causes you stress, anxiety, anger, frustration, annoyance or any negative emotion, there are only these three solutions. No more. Just three. 1) You can change the situation. 2)You can think differently about the situation. 3)You can leave the situation. But unless you do one of those three, you will remain mired in the negative emotion that you’re feeling. Remaining unhappy is always an option, but life is too short to choose to remain in a miserable long-term situation.

Sometimes we can change the situation, sometimes we can’t. We obviously can’t change anyone unless we have authority or influence over that person. For example, I could change the behavior of those at my work for the City of Glendale because I had authority over them and I could change the behavior of those at my church because I had influence over them. But when I see un-Christian behavior or unbiblical teachings at other churches, I may wish that I could change it but I have no authority or influence over those at that church. We can’t change a situation simply by whining, grumbling or murmuring about it!

If we can’t change the situation and we don’t want to leave, we will continue to experience the negative emotions until we change the way we think about it. This is not gritting your teeth and “putting up with it” because we will typically just become angrier and more bitter if we do. Before we change the way we think about something, we need to determine if we are compromising the values, morals, ethics that are foundational to our Christian beliefs. Many times our strong convictions make it impossible or extremely difficult to make something okay with us that really isn’t. Because when we change the way we think about someone or something, we are making the person’s behavior, or the situation that we’re in, something that is genuinely and completely okay with us. Most of the time, the things that make us angry about our church are not really that important. There are things about the church service that irritate us. We don’t like the music during communion or the long and never-ending organ postludes at the conclusion of the service. The way the pastor paces back and forth when he gives his sermon. The prayer times. You can be forever annoyed and have your irritation get in the way of your worship and ruin the service for you or change the way you respond to these frustrations by reframing these in your own mind. You tell yourself that you enjoy the music and are thankful that others do too. You admire your pastor’s energy, enthusiasm and passion that he manifests during his sermon. You are thankful for the long prayer times knowing that this is an important time for people to participate in the service.

If we can’t change the situation and we can’t change the way we think about it, then we will continue to be unhappy until we leave the situation. Of course sometimes situations do change on their own because someone else of authority or influence changes a person’s behavior or situation or something else happens to change what is bothering us. That’s not a viable option because we can wait a long time hoping for things to be different while we grow more and more frustrated that nothing changes. As a counseling pastor, I never recommended leaving a marriage unless there was abuse or unrepentant adultery but I always advocated for leaving other unhappy situations when the person was unable to change a situation or change their thoughts to make the situation okay with them. If your church is not helping to bring you into the presence of God.. If your church is not helping you to grow as a disciple – as a follower of Jesus Christ.. It’s time to leave and find one that does. And yes, I would have told you the same thing if you were attending my church.

Five Things You Should Do Before You Leave!

According to Paul Simon, when we leave we should just: Slip out the back, Jack! Make a new plan, Stan! Don’t need to be coy, Roy! Just hop on the bus, Gus! Drop off the key, Lee and get yourself free! Today, we call that “ghosting,” meaning to just simply disappear out of a person’s life. That’s a cowardly and contemptible way to leave any relationship with a person or your church. The decision to leave a church may be one of the hardest you’ll ever need to make. If we have been attending for a long time, we are leaving a church family and friends and we need to do that the right way. If you are thinking of leaving your church, make sure you are doing it for the “good” reasons and not the “bad” ones and then: 

1) Be Honest With Yourself. 
Take a sabbatical (that’s Christian-speak for a “time-out”) from church. Tell your friends that you are taking time to enter into a period of discernment about what God would say to you about your church. Don’t let stress, grumbling and bitterness build up until the only answer is to make a break for it and run from your church as fast as possible. On your sabbatical, make sure that the “log” in your own eye is not blinding you to a realistic look at your own motives and reasons for leaving. Take time to talk this over with a mature Christian who is not associated with your current church. If and when you have a settled peace that leaving is what you should do, then your next step is to..

2) Talk To Church Leadership. 
If you are in disagreement with the church over an issue, tell them your thoughts and give them a chance to offer you a different perspective. Matthew 18:15-17 That’s a biblical way of handling conflict and you will leave knowing that you did your best to reconcile the situation. Your leaving, and your insight about why you are, might be beneficial for the church leadership to hear and know.

3) Resolve Any Outstanding Conflicts With Others. 
I have known too many who just lug their “baggage” from one church to another and become offended just as quickly in their new church as they did in the one they left. Resolve conflicts with others and make every effort to maintain unity in the Spirit in the bond of peace. Ephesians 4:1-3 If personal relationships are a persistent area of difficulty for you both within and outside the church, you might want to seek help from a counseling pastor or a therapist. 

4) Be Grateful For The Church You Are Leaving
Even the worst church you can possibly think of most likely has good and endearing qualities. You may disagree with the pastor’s theology but the worship and singing takes you into the throne room of God. You may hate the doctrinal direction in which the church has turned, but you love the many friends that have loved you over the years. Celebrate the ways that the church has blessed you and consider writing that to the church leadership. Leave gracefully. 

5) Say “Goodbye” To Your Church Family. 
If we decided to retire and move to Florida, we would not secretly disappear. We’d spend time with friends and say goodbye. When you leave your church you need to do that too. “Ghosting” your church is the worst possible way to leave your church. The only exception is when you’ve suddenly stepped over the threshold of this life to the next and you’re now resting in the arms of Jesus. In that situation, your non-attendance at the Sunday services will be understood and that’s the only acceptable reason for “Ghosting” your church – no pun intended.