This blog started as a process of my family leaving a church. In my own mind (and in many places on this blog), I’ve made much of that. Looking back on that history, perhaps I focused on that a little more than was necessary. What can I say, I’m emotional and I needed to shout. Things that mean a lot to us evoke deep emotions, and the Church means a great deal to me.
I’m now firmly planted in what I would call my post-leaving world now. I’m over the anger, though I do sometimes think back on the experience. I haven’t flushed all memory of the experience from my mind, I still have a great love for the people at the other church. We’ve become involved in another congregation, and we’re growing there. Unclouded by the emotion that was ruling my mind before, I’ve come to ask a question: can leaving be good?
First a look at why leaving is perceived as bad. We’ve been experiencing some of that. Our family went to a church with multiple services, so we still sometimes get the, “I haven’t seen you at church lately” thing. Gently, without trying to embarrass the other person, we tell them, “that’s because we haven’t been there in eight months.” (We don’t say it like that.) This usually gives birth to an awkward pause, which I customarily feel obligated to fill with a joke or a dumb remark along the lines of, “Yeah, we decided that we need to build an ark with all this rain, and that takes a lot of time.” (You can see the value in letting my wife be the person to handle these conversations.)
Once the initial reality sinks in, I can tell that most people are building a scenario in their head which has something to do with some observation they’ve made along the way, “Oh right,” they’ll say inside their brain, “he did seem mad that time that thing happened. I bet there was a lot more to that.” Despite the fact that I’m pretty sure a lot of conclusions are being jumped to, I avoid talking much about our reasons for leaving. I do still feel a need to guard the future of the brothers and sisters who are still doing good work at that place, and not create a lot of drama. Also, it’s a long story that would just drag me back into a place that I’ve also happily left.
Let me be clear on that point: airing your personal grievances is hardly ever good for the body of Christ, especially if you’ve put very little thought into the conversation. The church is not about your getting what you want. It’s about an equally broken group of people bringing about what God wants.
Someone reading this might be thinking, “But what if the thing that happened could hurt someone?” Yeah, that happens. In my case, there were some details which concerned us, and we relayed that to church leadership. Nobody was being physically abused, so that’s as far as we felt it needed to go. (In our case, church leadership saw us as the villains in the story, and any bigger deal we made would have just proven them right.)
If you’re in a situation where you can’t stay at a church because something diabolically bad is happening, say this to yourself: “Does this need to be reported to the law?” If it’s not at that level, there’s a good chance it’s just happening to you. Or your group. Or people who think like you. And in that case, maybe there’s another question you should be asking. Remember that you might be emotional, that you might be focusing on that emotion, and there might be something bigger going on.
“Is God moving me?”
People grow spiritually at different rates. Things can happen which shake us up, cause us to have growth spurts. Suddenly you realize something you never knew before. It seems big. It seems like something the whole church ought to know, and they need to know it RIGHT NOW. Remember, though, that you are the one that had that experience. Part of “being patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2) is allowing your brothers and sisters time to grow. And let’s not get too arrogant: sometimes we think things that are wrong. In those times, we need our brothers and sisters to bear with us, gently correct us and then maybe never mention it again.
Growth spurts can be one-time, they can be sudden. They may happen with long gaps between. They’re not always a good reason to think of leaving your church. Sometimes they happen so you can bring other people to a new place, which is the purpose of us being together. Your experience can bring others closer to God, the Spirit living in you which harmonizes us if we don’t shout louder than he is speaking.
But there are other times. Times which cause us to think, “I don’t fit here anymore.” We’ve said that to ourselves over and over, and maybe it’s true. Maybe you’re opposed by church leadership, maybe your friends all think you’re crazy because you’re getting serious about Old Testament prophets and they think you’re going through a phase. It’s been going on for a long time, and you’re starting to feel like an outsider. You find yourself burying the nagging questions because nobody is answering them.
Maybe, just maybe, God is moving you. He does still do that.
If you’re broken, take a break
One thing I believe absolutely: God does not ever move someone to leave The Church. Capital letters there: I’m talking about all the believers in all the world. I think he moves people to start churches, switch churches, heal churches, and grow churches. He never, ever calls people to abandon Church as a principle. Ephesians 2 is a good starting place for this conversation. Christ died, for one reason, to create an environment where everyone is included, and that’s a big deal. If we love him, we can’t rationally turn our back on that.
Taking a break from your church is absolutely okay. Loyalty to a particular church body is not ever, ever preached by Jesus or Paul or anyone else. Jesus is the only one that gets that title, and to put anything before him is idolatry. That includes your church.
I think there’s tremendous benefit in getting to know how other denominations operate. Having a deeper sense of the movements of the entire body of Christ would probably produce a new level of understanding for what he’s doing in the world. If you were raised Baptist, go see what the Catholics are doing. If you were raised Pentecostal, go check out the Quakers. Non-denominational? Maybe you should look at the Anglicans or the Episcopals. It might shock you to find out that the Holy Spirit shows up for their services just the same as yours, and their expressions are different but still find the same Savior present.
Do stay with places that firmly hold to the fundamentals of Christ and him crucified. Not everyone does. But I don’t want to get off topic.
Do not bounce around from one church to the next every week for the rest of your life. Yes, it’s good to see more of the body of Christ. Commitment is important, however.
It is critically important to be active and known somewhere. None of us is strong enough to hold ourselves to account, we need others to keep us sharp. Most critically, we need the experiences of other people to prevent us from becoming a self-centered egomaniac. That happens in the context of The Church.
Maybe you’ll go on your travels and come back. Maybe you’ll find a perfect home in a new church. Maybe you’ll start one. Whatever you do, stay put for a while. Learn their rhythms and be open to different expressions of worship.
Healthy leaving is leaving for the right reasons. Healthy life in The Church only happens, though, when we commit to one another in patience and love.