You Really Should Go

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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!”

About the Author

Rev. Keith Mannes has served as an ordained pastor for 30 years. He and his wife Alicia live in Holland, Mich.

See comments (8)

Comments

I love the bluntness of this article, as well as its content.

I would offer only one caveat because in this article, the trouble is presumed to be coming from congregants who are majoring in minors (not uncommon from my experience), regarding the church more as a social organization than a church.  But there are times where the source of the problem is the council, and the congregants are the reasonable ones (this is probably far less the case than the other way around but still).  If the council is the problem (or might be), one of the the best strategies for congregants -- after working directly with council of course -- it to get classis involved. Unfortunately, it takes high quality people in classis to be helpful and effective, and there no guarantee that the classis visitors or other representatives will be high quality, but my experience suggests they are high quality much more often than not.

Having several close "former pastor" friends whose congregations and councils ran them out of the pulpit, I have watched the years of heartache these kinds of situations create.  I've watched as those in power, often church councils, have used their power to erode their congregations, insiting on their "rightness".  We "regular members" often contribute to toxic worship environments as well when we misuse our power to backbite and send anonymous letters to people we disagree with.  Our denomination has a pattern of indirect methods of conflic resolution, a pattern we need to repent of.  Perhaps we all need to pause and lament for the times we have not walked out well what we believe.

Excellant article - really touched a nerve for me. I have seen the heartache and sadness that results from the talk and actions of toxic members and the bulldog clamp on minor issues which grow into major debates that threaten to destroy a church. It is so hard to carry on the mission of the church when you are bogged down by people so set in tradition or opinion, that they forget the aspirations and purpose of the church of Jesus Christ. If you are unhappy - go but go quietly and find a place where you feel you can worship and feel comfortable. One church in particular (CRC or not), is not the only place to serve and worship Christ

This article also brings up the issue of membership. The CRC has a golden calf in the form of membership. We almost worship the diety of membership as shown by the harsh rules regarding membership, active and inactive, transfers and receiving. Every year, I need to go through our membership role for the yearbook and answer questions that have no bearing on faith or worship. Our focus should be turned from actual membership to authentic faith. Why do we have such an emphasis on being "members of the church"? Why do we need to track the movements of everyone?

Janet, you raise a very good point about how we record and report memberships.  Does this really address spiritual issues, or to what degree?   It is interesting that in a city nearby, there are 10,000 rom cath members of a church that only seats about 2000, and most members rarely attend.  On the other hand, another church (Alliance) in the same city, has a membership of about 250, while there is a weekly attendance of about 1500.   Imagine how membership and church life will be looked at differently in these two churches.   It is better to take membership conditions and criteria seriously within the church, but not attribute too much to it in terms of statistics outside of the local church.   It would be more interesting to note average weekly attendance numbers. 

In the context of people considering the option of leaving a church I once heard a pastor say: “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out”. There seems to be a peculiar eagerness for some church leaders to be rid of those who would distract from the mission, i.e. the task we believe God has set before us to do. Usually, the task is seen as having a measurable positive impact on the surrounding community (as in The Externally Focused Church), leading people to Christ in measurable numbers, increasing worship attendance numbers, thereby advancing God’s kingdom and adding glory to God. We are, after all, called to bear fruit.

Excessive emphasis on what a church does may cause it to lose sight of what the church is. A genuine desire to reach out to non-believers led some church leaders to formulate the Homogeneous Principle of Church Growth. Based on the idea that birds of a feather flock together it was suggested that churches do well to present themselves as much as possible as similar to the surrounding community, so as to make it easier for community people to picture themselves as belonging to that church. Those who were obviously different, especially of a different skin color, were encouraged to start other churches of similar people elsewhere. Segregation anyone?

What is at issue here, is the tension between doing and being. Is a congregation defined primarily by what it does (mission), or by what it is (identity)? I am not suggesting that these need to be mutually exclusive, but it seems to me to be of some importance for a congregation to regularly reflect on what it means to be a community, a body of believers, an organism, perhaps with some symbiotic features, even while at the same time contemplating what they are to do.

I was particularly blessed by Eugene Peterson, who, in his book The Pastor describes his workplace as a holy workplace. Standing on the pulpit, says Peterson, I look at the wall to my left, and then at the wall to my right, and then to the back of the sanctuary, and I see there my workplace, all the people God has sent there on any given Sunday, including the guy who slept through every sermon, and the couple that were fighting when they walked into church, and who will resume fighting when they walk out. They are all God’s people, and I am to be their pastor. My job, says Peterson, is not to figure out who gets it and who doesn’t, who shares my vision for ministry and who doesn’t, but to figure out why God brought each person here, what gifts they wish to contribute to the people of God gathered here, and how I, we, might serve each one at their specific place of need.

When the pulpit communicates this vision for community, few people will feel the urge to leave. When there is an implied demand for people to all walk to the same drumbeat, buy into the same narrow vision for ministry, and, if they don’t , be subtly reminded that they don’t quite fit in, I hope they will find strength to resist the temptation to leave, and, instead, believe about themselves, and find a way to communicate, in no uncertain terms, that …The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” ...Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

This, I believe, is also the message we have the opportunity to remind each other of in the pages of the Banner. It represents the glorious indicative of our new life in Christ, which we are to work out in fear and trembling. We all need each other. Let’s figure out how.

 

 

 

 

 

I like what you say, John Vandonk.  I don't think it necessarily changes what Keith is saying.

Change is difficult, and who one is cannot always be clearly separated from what one does.

But I would ask those who are disgruntled, whether one is pushing change or resisting it, "Why are you upset?"  Almost always, the cause - at least when it gets to be toxic - is self-centeredness.  The issue is not, "Does God really want us to do and be this? Is this biblical? Are we being called to this?" It is, "Do I like this? Am I comfortable? Am I getting what I think I need?"  This is true whether it is toxic change, or toxic resistence.  Approaching worship and ministry, mission and being, focused on the self rather than the God who calls us into worship, ministry, mission, and being is always detrimental to the health of the Body of Christ.

Pastors and councils may be pushing (or resisting) change because they get something out of it, too.  It is not just members who can be self-absorbed in this process.  But in all things, if we all seek to build each other up into Christ our head, then we will see the fruit of effective being and doing.

Thank you to one of my former pastors for this article. Instead of contributing to the tearing apart and the strife associated with disagreements in churches that the Bible so thoroughly condemns, sometimes it is just better to part ways. Thanks Pastor Keith!

Eric, I think you have raised the issue of importance.  When we ask questions about what we are doing, or about what we should be doing, we need to answer it in the context of what God wants us to do, not just what we feel comfortable with or about how we feel about it.  The best basis for the discussion is what does scripture say about this, about a particular issue.   How do our life experiences jive with the message of scripture, and will our actions, beliefs, practices bring us closer to God's objectives or further from them?   Then, we will have a possibility of common basis for understanding.  In those cases, when it seems that scripture is somewhat unclear on an issue, we will be more charitable than when we are fixated on a particular point without scripture as the foundation.  This will even allow us to be more charitable towards christians in other denominations and churches;  unity is not found in a common name or a common building, but in a common purpose and a common foundation, which is Christ and His gift to us. 

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