Most of us who go to church regularly and are involved in the life of the congregation go through times when we think about leaving. Sometimes it’s necessary – if we move house, for instance – but more often we become restless for other reasons entirely. It’s a very hard decision. We feel loyal to our friends, we have happy memories of meeting with God, we don’t want to let people down – and yet it someone gets harder to stay. How do we decide whether God is calling us to move or whether we should just deal with our very human frustrations? There are no easy answers, but here are things to think about.
1. Loyalty is good. Being part of a church is like any other relationship; it takes work. We might find ourselves frustrated by the way things are done or by the people who do them, but very often sticking with it brings long-term gains. Church can be like family, and we don’t always like our families, either.
2. Leaving isn’t always wrong. Whether we realise it at the time or not, when we’re part of a church we are learning about God and accumulating Christian experience. If we leave and take what we’ve learned to another congregation we can be a blessing to them – especially if we intentionally go somewhere we are needed.
3. We shouldn’t expect to have everything our own way. Our teeth might be set on edge by the music or our theological hackles raised by the preaching, but there’s more to church than that. Learning to cope with new things and seeing God at work in strange ways is a discipline and a blessing – though if we’ve tried and feel we aren’t being spiritually satisfied by church services, God may be moving us on.
4. Bad preaching is no reason for leaving. There are very few pulpit wizards around today of the stature of CH Spurgeon. But the good preachers do tend to attract people to their services. If these people are previously unconverted, that’s fine; but ‘honeypot’ churches that drain the life out of smaller congregations can be a problem unless they deliberately take steps to support them. Faithfulness and prayerfulness in preaching is much more important than drama and style.
5. Neither is bad music. Some churches are blessed with full-scale worship bands, choirs and organists. Others stumble on and just do their best. There are more important things in worship than music.
6. Friends matter. One of the functions of a church is to provide a place where people can grow together in fellowship. If that isn’t happening for you, you might need to ask why not. Perhaps people aren’t very friendly – or perhaps you aren’t very friendly. Either way, if you are really lonely in church and have tried everything you can to make friends, you might need to try somewhere else.
7. Service matters. One question we should ask ourselves is, ‘Am I useful here?’ We might be very happy in a church but still have the sense we aren’t being stretched or challenged. Just down the road there might be another congregation crying out for our gifts. It might be the time to ask the blessing of the pastor to go and help somewhere else.
8. Broken relationships matter. People do fall out at church. It’s always sad, but sometimes it’s unbearable. Christians are called to forgive, and we can’t share bread and wine at the Lord’s Table together unless we do that. But when we have tried everything and still can’t agree, we need to be open to moving to avoid serious spiritual harm.
9. Theology matters. When we find ourselves at odds with what’s being taught at the church we attend, we have to be very careful not to assume we’re right. Perhaps we’re hearing things we haven’t heard before; that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. We have to test everything, but sometimes we feel we simply can’t support the direction the church is travelling in. When that happens we might decide we shouldn’t stay and try to block every change in the name of what we believe is true, but get out of the way and trust God to lead the church where he wants it to go.
10. God calls us. For most Christians church is a large part of our lives. Not just our spiritual lives but our social lives are wrapped up in it and leaving is a big thing. Once we’ve committed ourselves to a particular church, the presumption ought to be that we’ll stay. But sometimes God moves us on, and when that happens it ought to be done as graciously and lovingly as possible, on both sides.
There are no easy answers to a question like this. But if we are prayerful and unselfish in our approach, God will guide us and bless us.