You might be angry at your church. Maybe you’re upset at its style or direction, displeased with its doctrine, or utterly disenchanted with its pastor.
If so, I truly hope that you make a prayerful and godly effort to resolve the problem with your pastor and council and that you choose to stay. However, if after trying to work things out you are still visibly, audibly, persistently unhappy, you should leave—and soon.
You should leave in a clear, orderly, mature fashion for the good of the church. Since the church is God’s household, suggests the apostle Paul, we are all under holy and disciplined constraint. We need to consider how we “ought to conduct” ourselves within the church—even in the process of leaving.
What’s Going On?
As a pastor, I love the people of my congregation. I want to serve them; eagerly I pray to feed and nourish them in the body of Christ. It would be terrific if the church were numerically strong and growing, if we could all serve God’s kingdom shoulder to shoulder, wrapped in the grace and truth of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
However, in churches that are experiencing pain and conflict, this vision may seem like an elusive dream. Perpetually unhappy members do damage to the household of God. A group from one congregation is deeply displeased with the pastor for changing the style of worship services. The last straw comes when the council changes the time of the morning worship service. The group absents themselves from worship because the time change interferes with their weekly golf plans. They also begin streaming bad news about the pastor to anyone who will listen. Their vocal discontent creates stress for the congregation, bruises the pastor, and casts a pall on the church. And this is not an isolated example.
It’s as if two vehicles are on a collision course. One is a bus filled with parishioners who have different passions and hopes. Some want the church to be the way it was back when life made sense and the kids were little and the world wasn’t so crazy. Others are trying to get their kids to come to church with them instead of to the mega-church across town, but they’re on the verge of giving up because the truth is, it’s pretty cool over there. Or they watched Joel Osteen on TV before leaving for church, and they wish their pastor would preach like that, even once.
In the other vehicle is a pastor who wants to spread the gospel. The pastor has read the latest books and ministry journals. He or she has all sorts of ideas for ministry that require big adjustments and cost money. Meanwhile, he or she must adhere to Reformed doctrine and church order and be more concerned with pleasing God than pleasing people. She might, for example, refuse to officiate a wedding for reasons of Christian principle. Or gently counsel husbands or wives to repent of having sex with someone who is not their spouse. Or step in to protect someone from abuse. Of course, pastors make mistakes too. They have weaknesses, insecurities, and limitations. They may try to push the congregation in a new direction too hard.
At the intersection there’s a traffic jam, and everyone is yelling. People are losing jobs and losing market share; they’re losing their kids and losing their hair. Everyone’s on edge.
Weary and disappointed, they arrive at church on Sunday morning. A kid is playing video games during the prelude. One person wants a sermon about Christian education, another wants one about abortion. A dad has to have his daughter at soccer camp by 1 p.m. And some just want to eat a donut and make their tee time.
Why You Should Leave
To get through this intersection, the congregation needs to steer a course. The pastor and the elders, in tune with the Lord, must define what this church is for and where it’s going. It needs to set a vision and a plan. Once that course is set in place, the members need to prayerfully get on board.
If you cannot do that, you should leave.
Why? First, because your fellow church members want to worship and serve the Lord. People who create hissy-fit drama instead hurt the church. Second, because the church is doing God’s work—work that is life-changing and loaded with divine power. In order to move forward, God’s people need a unified vision. The church needs cheerful supporters, not grenade-launching detractors.
I’m not arguing here against people holding opposing viewpoints. As a pastor under the authority of council, the council sometimes says no to me. Sometimes their way is better. At major junctures where I don’t get my way, I have to ask myself, Is this a deal-breaker? Can I cheerfully live and serve in ministry here? The church needs strong leaders and strong church members, and we have to figure out ministry together.
Every church member is under authority. Professing members of the Christian Reformed church promise to “honor and submit to the authority and discipline of the church.” We promise to “join with the people of God in doing the work of the Lord everywhere.” When we ordain pastors, we promise to “joyfully receive [them] in the Lord” and to give the pastor the honor of the office, remembering that through the pastor “God speaks to us.” We are charged to hold elders and deacons “in honor.” Members are bound by these commitments. This is the church of the living God. We serve it—and him.
I may or may not agree with everything in the Christian Reformed Church, but I must be able to serve within it with a basic, workable cheerfulness. The day I become harmful to the church’s agenda that is bigger than me, well, that’s the day I should leave.
So it is with you and your church. If your unhappiness is damaging the unity of the church, you should leave. Visitors feel your cloud and smell it too. And ask yourself what you’re teaching your kids or grandkids about being a Christian. If you’re going to stay, you must, before God, resolve not to spread your discontent, lest you infect the rest of the body.
How You Should Leave
How you leave matters. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus teaches us to try to work out our problems person to person. Unfortunately the practice of this teaching is rare. Often the pastor or the elders find out about a problem long after it surfaces. It may be months before they find out that a member has been boycotting church. During that time, however, that person may have told a great many people about the perceived offence.
If you have a problem with the church, ask to meet with the pastor and an elder. If they reach out to you, agree to meet and talk. Or write a letter to the elders. Think carefully and state the issue with mature, courteous language. Avoid sarcasm or personal attacks. Write in such a way that you could show it to God. Have the dignity to sign it.
If you still intend to leave, seek a new church. When you find it, request a transfer of membership, or, if the church is from another denomination, graciously inform them and ask to have your name removed from membership. Don’t string this out for years. Don’t make life more difficult for the elders. Take the initiative to transfer your membership, and do it like a grown-up follower of Jesus.
When people see you at a restaurant and say, “Hey, we’ve noticed you haven’t been at church” say, “Yes, we needed a change.” Then change the subject. Be humble, confidential, and gracious. For God’s sake, and for the good of his church, act like a Christian.
Change is really, really difficult. We’re not all going to agree all the time. Yet if we all behave in biblical, godly fashion, we can build churches that are warm and joyful in purpose and fruitful in ministry. One woman from our congregation said it best: “Just tell us if you’re in the boat or not. And if you’re in, grab an oar!”
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