When Do You Leave a Church?

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When to LeaveIt is the conversation with church members every pastor dreads but inevitably comes to every man who has shepherded a local flock: “Pastor, we need to meet with you and discuss our future at the church. We have been praying about transferring our membership to another church.” Naturally, you ask the inevitable question, “Why?” The answers are as varied as the variety found in wayfaring members, ranging from “The church up the street has more to offer my youth/children” to “We just don’t find things exciting here anymore,” or most troubling, “We love you and your preaching, pastor, we we don’t really like this church.”

There are certainly legitimate reasons to leave a church and sadly, it sometimes become necessary or even a duty to find a more biblically faithful body. Sometimes churches become theologically or morally bankrupt, leaving a sound believer no choice. But it seems in our self-intoxicated, consumer-driven evangelical culture, what is often referred to as “church hopping” seems to have reached a virtual epidemic. There are a number of reasons for this reality with biblical illiteracy, a loss of a robust ecclesiology, a distaste for authority, the disappearance of church discipline and the decay of meaningful church membership ranking high among them.

When should you leave a church? I think it is helpful to first think through a number of reasons why not to leave a church. Here are a few illegitimate reasons for leaving a church, reasons I have heard over the years:

  • Because our children want to go to another church. The most spiritually immature (presumably) members of the family should not single-handedly make the most important decision facing a family. This is perhaps the most common reason I have heard for people leaving a church and I find it deeply troubling.
  • Because there aren’t many people here my age. The body of Christ is supposed to reflect the culture which is made up of a diversity of ages and backgrounds. The church is not a social club, but the gathering of sinners saved by grace. The world should be at odds to explain the church. It should wonder, “What is it that brings together such a diverse collection of people in such a tight bond of love?”
  • Because I don’t like the music. The contemporary/traditional question is usually wrongheaded, in my opinion. Of greater importance is the question: What is the content of the songs being sung? Is the church singing good theology? Tune and text must fit one another, but I find that this debate usually falls out along generational lines.
  • Because the pastor’s sermons are too long. Preaching is the central act of Christian worship and should receive the lion’s share of the time.
  • Because there are many sinners in the church. As Luther put it, followers of Christ are simul iustis et peccator, simultaneously a saint and a sinner. The local church is a hospital for the sick. Obviously, there is a serious sickness where open, wanton, unconfessed sin is tolerated, but that is not what I have in view here.
  • Because the pastor doesn’t do things the way we did back in 19__ (add your favorite year). Tradition can be helpful, but traditionalism is where churches go to die a thousand deaths.
  • Because they don’t have a good youth/children’s program here. Parents are the spiritual caretakers for the children. The church should merely reinforce the biblical truths taught in the home. No church program will adequately shepherd our children; that is the calling of parents, particularly fathers.
  • Because the worship/preaching is boring. The aim of worship is God’s glory, not our amusement.
  • Because they have/don’t have Sunday school. I realize many adherents of family integration will disagree with me here, but I want to argue respectfully that the Gospel and theological truth—not secondary convictions—are the proper unifying point for a local church.

Those are invalid reasons for leaving a church and there are dozens more besides. But there does come a time when seeking a new church home is a legitimate consideration. So, when should one leave a church? John MacArthur is helpful on this point. He advises (and provides biblical rationale) that you should consider leaving a church if:

  1. Heresy on some fundamental truth is being taught from the pulpit (Gal. 1:7-9).
  2. The leaders of the church tolerate seriously errant doctrine from any who are given teaching authority in the fellowship (Rom. 16:17).
  3. The church is characterized by a wanton disregard for Scripture, such as a refusal to discipline members who are sinning blatantly (1 Cor. 5:1-7).
  4. Unholy living is tolerated in the church (1 Cor. 5:9-11).
  5. The church is seriously out of step with the biblical pattern for the church (2 Thess. 3:6, 14).
  6. The church is marked by gross hypocrisy, giving lip service to biblical Christianity but refusing to acknowledge its true power (2 Tim. 3:5).

When members or friends have discussed leaving a church with me through the years, I have typically advised them to stick around and be a gracious, reforming presence and avoid exacerbating the problems in their local body. Both joining a church and leaving a church are serious business, business for which those involved will give an account before God. Even if it does become clear that leaving is best for us or our family, our attitude must be chastened and humble on the way out. In part II, I hope to look at what our attitude should be when we decide to change churches.

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12 Responses to “When Do You Leave a Church?”

  1. Shirl Taylor

    I appreciate all the truths discussed here!! I am a divorced older woman!! I was married for for 20+ years and never had to make these decisions by myself!! Never before have I been forced to rely on others, God’s leading and the scriptures to help me find a biblical church!! It has been a long terrifying hurtful journey!! Wish I had known this before but glad I found it today!! God bless!!

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  2. “Because I don’t like the music.” IDK, I think this author is unrealistic to expect people to stay in a church if they object to the direction of the music in that church. From my experience, if a church radically / drastically changes its music style in a very short amount of time due to change of leadership in the church, it is realistic for that church to expect to see an exodus by the people who expect things not to change [ and many who will leave who prefered the more traditional music are the tithers, while those who prefer ccm give less per capita, etc.] . The same is true of a radical change from traditional style church to a Rick Warren / a.k.a marketing [ or emerging for that matter] style of church overnight. To expect all church members to stay after these kinds of drastic changes no matter which side you are on ” for the sake of the ministry, for the Bible, preracher, etc.” is in my opinion not very realistic.

    Michael Schmidt “Because the pastor’s sermons are too long” Re: Almost all of us who have spent any amount of time in the pulpit have made the mistake of preaching too long. I once made the mistake of preaching an hour and a half. My message was excellent, on how to properly interpret the Bible. It is one of the finest messages that I ever wrote…and it was too much to preach in one message. I had made a mistake and had lost my people. I bored most of them to death. I would not have had I just divided that message into two messages. I say leave your pride at the door, if we preach over 45 minutes we lose the congregation…and in my opinion if we can’t our sermon is either too long and should be divided into two sermons , or we just do not know how to properly manage our time in the pulpit. I once sat through a rookie preacher preach the entire book of Galatians in one message. His message was 3 hours long, and being a musician I really was not at liberty to leave so, if you will I ” suffered through his message”. I have multiple degrees in Bible , but preachers need to realize that enough is enough, to try to preach Galatians in one message is, well, just downright wrong.

    Michael Schmidt “Because they don’t have a good youth/children’s program here.” Re: Well from experience, if you develop a great childrens and or youth program, the kids will attend. When I was a youth minister in Comer, GA I was the youth minister of a church with about 40 youth.[ 25 when I arrived, 45 when I left ] The church on the best of Sundays might have had 300. But this church had 250 AWANAS kids each and every Wednesday night. At another church when I was the youth minister at Caleb Road I started out with TWO youth [ 1 was a freshman, the other was a skin head ] and about 4 children. After a year we were having anywhere from between 60 and 150 youth on Wednesday nights, and about 30 children on Sunday nights. The church averaged about 40 adults on Sunday mornings. Everything rises or falls on leadership. If your childrens and youth workers work hard and smart, you can build an impressive youth or childrens ministry from scratch. If your a Pastor of a church that does not have these workers, it is your job to build the church, and as you do recruit these workers. As the parent of a now grown child, I believe that our kids matter. Like it or not Pastors, it is your job to watch over the souls of the kids in your community, the ones who attend your church, and also the ones who don’t. I believe that part of a sr. pastors job includes developing and or overseeing his churches youth and childrens programs. If they are crummy, sorry but go look in the mirror because everything that you need to learn how to have great programs for your kids is out there if you look for it. A sr pastor can not just act like all parents should bring their kids here even if the church offers nothing good for their kids.

    Michael Schmidt ” Because they have/don’t have Sunday school.” Re: I am a pro Sunday School [ small groups ] guy from head to toe. Pastor if your church does not offer SS or SG’s I seriously believe that your not offering them [ save some catostrophic even like a tornado at the church last week, etc. ] is unbiblical.

    Michael Schmidt “Because the worship/preaching is boring. The aim of worship is God’s glory, not our amusement. ” Re: I agree that the aim or worship and preaching is for God’s glory. We are not there to entertain, we are there to preach the word of God. That being said it is not a sin to be a preacher who is enjoyable to listen to , as long as you do not water down to message to do so. Joel Osteen ‘s theology is lousy, but like it or not his opening illustration is usually not lousy. If a preacher is always boring, than he is always not an effective minister from the pulpit. Lets face it, be honest, many preachers are boring those in the pews to tears, especially those who are minors. Preacher if you are boring, go take a homeletics class or two. Go tape your sermons, and then watch yourself preach. While all of us preachers are going to bore folks in the congregation from time to time, there is no excuse for always being boring. If you are boring people, work harder not to be boring. Spend more time studying for your sermons, read more, write better illustrations, etc. Relate to who actually is listening to your messages, vs who we wish were listening.

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    • Robert Thompson

      Michael, the author here is not saying these things are realistic, he is simply stating the biblical reasons to leave the church and popular reasons that are not biblical.
      I am not saying I am perfect in any means, I am far from it, I am a mere sinner saved by God’s grace. But I am a 19 year old guy who goes to a church with almost no young people (I am one of 4 college age students, and yes I included myself in that 4). I do not Particularly like the music style at this church.
      Jeff is also not arguing against Sunday School, I know his church offered Sunday School (people attending this Sunday School class is another case).
      Jeff is also not arguing against a good youth/children’s ministry. He is simply arguing against the mindset that the church’s youth/children’s program being the primary source of discipleship for the youth and children, that, biblically, comes from the parents.
      I say these things with confidence because Jeff was the very one to talk me out of leaving my current church, which was also where he was the pastor. I know his heart, I know him personally. He mentored me. I promise you he was not making any argument saying that it is realistic to expect people to leave for the right reasons and to stay when there are no biblical reasons to leave, he is simply stating the biblical reasons leaving a church and what reasons are not biblical reasons for leaving.

      Reply
  3. When I got saved in 1957, there was a revival situation going on. there were two church buildings, and several storefront churches, that I would frequent. I would go a few weeks to one, a few months to another, then visit another two or three times, and then go back to my main congregation. I was young in the Lord, and innocent. I thought this was just a freewheeling learning experience, fellowship experience, and fellowship with lots of people. Learning in various settings about the Holy Ghost. I began to hear discussions and complaints from the pastor and others, about something called “sheep stealing”. It occurred to me that this type of thing was absurd. The sheep belong to the Great Shepherd, and the Pasture is very large. And why would I get criticized for visiting another congregation. Did I need permission? Then I went for a very, very, long stretch of time when I had no place to go, because there was no revivals going on, the churches I wanted to visit were to far for me to get to. I finally found a congregation that moves in the Holy Ghost like I remembered from my early days. My experience in this tells me this. If you are an ordained elder or some kind of servant to the congregation, stay at your post and tough out the hard days. Unless the church starts forgetting the Bible, the power of the Holy Ghost, and goes into false doctrine. Then leave. find a place where the Lord is ministering. But to the congregation, you are free to feed your hungry soul at any restaurant you want to feed it at. If you want to take break from Pastor Bob’s sermons and sit in on Pastor Jim’s church down the block, go and eat at that table until you get filled. Then go back to Pastor Bob’s. If you really cannot worship in the Spirit with the ty pe of music that is offered, then find a congregation where you can join in the worship instead of sitting there feeling oppressed. We are free in the Holy Ghost. We are not slaves to our pastors or our congregations. We can leave if we feel like it, and we can come back later if we feel like it, too. Churches that get really, really, hung up on people leaving, can turn into closed little clubs that can become cultish if not remedied.

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  4. Would it be proper to leave a church if you have a more reformed/covenant belief system and you are attending a more dispensational minded church?

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  5. Our issue is the teens in our church. We love our pastor and his message is great and in line with the word. But every sunday we get these teens that sit right behind us and they talk, laugh, eat chips and are very disruptive. My aunt rarely visits church due to temptations of the world so when she does attend it brings us joy but she also has circular implants and the noise is too much along with the speaker system. When we have mentioned it to the ushers or known guardians of the teens they laugh it off as it is not a concern. We have been patient waiting for someone to handle the situation. We have asked the kids to keep it down and they of course ignore us and continue on with the games. Any suggestions would be greatly accepted. Like I mentioned We Love The Church!

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  6. As a Pastors wife (and a pastors kid) I know the hard work that Pastors and Elders put in year after year serving the Lord and brothers and sisters in Christ, through times of plenty and times of little. Trying (struggling with their own sinful temptations) not to build it upon themselves, their personality etc but faithfully leading and encouraging people, to know the Lord deeper for themselves, to grow up in Christ. Their desire is to faithfully preach the gospel, teach the word, care for people, equip them to do the work of the ministry. However it’s not always as straight forward and not always possible to have all the programmes under the sun to cater for everyone.

    My husband worked in a secular job (sometimes working 2 jobs) as well as being the senior pastor for 16 of the 17 years we’ve been at our church so he didn’t burden the people (they are now in a position to pay him which has been a wonderful blessing to us). In these 17 years we’ve had thriving children and youth works with teams of people running them, working hard and then none at all (though we’ve always provided Sunday school; even when no one turned up the Sunday school teachers were faithfully prepared). We are not a big church but we’re busy, we run food banks for those in need, over 50 programmes, care groups, prayer meetings, men and women’s fellowships, Sunday school. We care for each other and we care about others hearing the gospel.

    It hurts when people leave, even when they leave for good reasons like employment, because you miss them. Or when it’s difficult to understand reasons, because you feel you’ve failed somehow, (even though you try really hard not to have a pity party or be self righteous!)

    We have had families leave us or not join us because we don’t have lots of families with young children. We’ve had people come and stay, and come and go, over the years, some for legitimate understandable reasons and some for immature reasons, (sadly and disappointingly).

    It would be wonderful if when a church has faithful biblical teaching and loving care from the leadership and congregation (albeit imperfect often), that we could stick together and all serve one another in love, bearing with one another no matter what the size, programmes etc.

    I guess that’s why I have to remind myself daily that Christ died for the ungodly (me / us) and that he died for all the things I / we have done even hurting each other or sometimes possibly choosing a path that at the time may be immature/selfish on our part. Thank the Lord that he doesn’t give up on us and I guess we need to do the same for each other, no matter how much it costs ( how can we do less when our Saviour has done so much for us).

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  7. Wilbert

    I have been contemplating on leaving my current church and the reason why I haven’t done so is because I have not been able to ask God for guidance on the wrongs that i feel I see taking place in the Church.
    the writer gave several reasons that people have for leaving the church but he did not touch on the core issues of what has been bothering me. please help me understand the following:
    Why do most pastors rush to appoint people who are well up into positions of leadership in Church.
    Why is money the primary focus of Churches today yet the bible is clear on the subject that this is the beginning of all evil.
    Why is tithing a serious subject in Church today yet the use of tithes paid are not channeled towards orphans and widows as well.
    Why is it that churches come up with events to cater for orphans and Widows yet the bible commands us to look after this class of people on a daily basis like the pastors are demanding to be looked after by their congregations.
    If this is their reward what benefit do congregates have for following doctrine that is not sound.
    75% of collections today end up in the hands of pastors because in most teachings people have reached a level where the believe their blessing comes through Pastors as representatives of God on earth, how far true is this. is it not God who blesses people by having an understanding of his word through revelation.
    Where does one find a church that is not a denomination with man made doctrine.
    Why is it difficult to find a Church today which is the body of Christ.

    I am very confused with what I see today for the bible says this in Ecclesiastes 8-17

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  8. Wilbert

    Can someone enlighten me on this act called Appreciation where people are asked to collect money as individuals and departments in church and give to Pastors in appreciation of the word the give to the congregation. how biblical is this notion. it might sound biblical but if people dont understand that God gives us the word do we not end up worshiping our Pastors if we feel they are proving the word and not God.

    the bible says the teachers of the bible shall eat from their works but it does not say manipulatively

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