As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
Most of us have been disappointed in our church at one time or another. The music is dull. The preaching is boring. Few friends. Weak programs for the kids. Exhausting conflicts and strife. At some point the thought of going elsewhere comes to mind.
Sometimes the decision to leave is obvious. When you move to a new area code, it’s time to change churches. When the teaching is heretical, no longer preaching salvation in Christ by God’s grace, you know it’s time to leave. Other times it is more difficult to discern whether to stay or go. Conflicts, disappointments or boredom can begin to accumulate and you find yourself asking the question: When is it time to leave?
To answer the question, we must consider the purpose of church. The Bible gives us potent images for understanding the church. One of the most prominent images is that of a body (Romans 12:1-8; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:1-16).
Like the human body with fingers, toes, eyes, ears, internal organs, etc., the church is a body with each individual as a member of one whole. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). I think of this image for church when the weather is blustery cold and one of my hands has to be outside the warmth of a pocket to make a phone call or pump air in the car tires. Gloves are not nearby and the needs of the moment are pressing, so one of my hands has to be exposed to the cold. What if my freezing left hand were upset about being chosen for the cold? I can imagine the protests:
“Why does right hand get all the breaks?”
“I had cold duty last time!”
“Of course you would favor the right hand since you’re right-handed.”
Once back inside, the cold hand gets some much-needed warming attention. The hand will send protests of pain from the cold, but the hand does not leave my arm to look for another arm.
The metaphor of church as a body is rich with implications and also speaks to our question. Some amount of suffering and difficulty are inevitable in every church. As a body, the church has work to do that will sometimes make some members cold. As such, I am convinced that the church is not as much for our comfort as it is for our strengthening. To strengthen your muscles, they need to be used and pushed. Loyalty and longsuffering are godly virtues developed by use and push. Staying committed to your church in spite of aggravation is the way to become more like Christ, who perpetually puts up with us and our shenanigans. The path of Christ is not a rosy street but the road of the cross.
The church is supposed to be a living organism where each part is actively contributing to the whole. Each member of a body has a definite purpose. If my left hand stopped working, I would be seeking immediate medical attention. When a liver or lung ceases to function, that’s a serious problem. As a pastor, I see how many different people contribute in the congregation. I think about the many work hours and the variety of giftedness with children, music, and leadership. There’s no way I could do it all even if I did have all the gifts (which I certainly do not). All I can feel is appreciation. I’m getting into the habit of saying “thank you” to people who are serving.
If it’s not going well at your church, it might be time to move on. But before you decide to go elsewhere, consider the possibility that the frustrations might be a temporary time in the cold. Persevering through a tough period of time is actually an opportunity to build spiritual muscles. It’s the difficult times that teach us the meaning of covenant and the discipline of patience. If our muscles avoid all strenuous activity, they become very weak. Similarly, if we avoid all difficult churches, we will become spiritually weak. As the hand is sending painfully cold signals back through the body, so it is a member’s duty to (respectfully and with gentleness) communicate problems or difficulties to the council.
The hand sticks with the body even when it has cold duty. The hand also serves when on cold duty. Before you leave for another church, consider that you might be exactly what your church needs.
If you not only notice but are troubled by a hole in your church’s life and work, it may be a calling from God to serve. If your heart is burdened by a lack of ministry to young adults or the aged or the poor, it’s quite likely God is calling you to fill the void. Three years ago a young woman in my church noticed we had no ministry for young adults. She spoke with me about it. I told her about our church’s multiple ill-fated attempts at starting a young adult ministry but encouraged her to pursue this idea, offering to help however I could. Member-initiated efforts often bear more fruit than council or pastor-initiated ventures. That once again proved to be the case. The “L.I.F.T.” group is now entering its third year and has grown significantly.
When looking at your own church, look for somewhere to serve. Help in the nursery. Pour coffee. Sing with the praise band or choir. Chaperone a youth outing. Teach a Sunday school class. Don’t do too much so you burn out but use your gifts somewhere. Each church has its own needs and opportunities. Talk to your pastor or an elder about how you can help.
If your church already has plenty of people with your gifts, if your initiative threatens to split the body, or if cold duty is becoming frostbite despite the many communications to council, it might be time to go elsewhere.
When looking for another church, look for somewhere to serve as much as you look to be served.
Church is a body, which means members are for serving others as much as being served.