I told a group of people recently that someone needs to write a book on “How To Leave Their Church.” I think for the most part leaving a church should almost never happen. I have watched people come and go in churches now for most of my life. Sometimes, for very good reasons, people leave one church and go to another. I had to do this just once in my life as a church member (not for ministry reasons) and it was torture. As a shepherd, I have watched over and over people leave one church and go to another or just drop out of church altogether and in my experience many of the reasons people have left are certainly avoidable while very, very few are unavoidable and understandable according to the Word.
The question I pose without going into the question of whether one should leave or not is, “Just how should one leave the church?” Let me offer a few suggestions coming from one who shepherds the heart of people and will stand some day and given an account.
1. Be honest with yourself about why you are leaving. Luke 8:15 speaks of the good soil that truly receives the seed is a heart that is honest and good. True believers are constantly being warned about “deceiving ourselves” in Scripture (Jam 1:22). Because sin is so deceptive, we have to be honest with ourselves and leave open the reality that we may not be seeing things correctly. God gives us many good ways to do this without violating other truths in Scripture. Gather people around you who will fearlessly speak truth into your life. Read the Word and again I say “Read the Word.” Usually if we are not seeing things correctly in one area, you can pretty well take it to the bank that you are not seeing things truthfully in other areas. Sin is very blinding. Check your ambitions, your motives, your reasonings but most of all your adherence to the Word itself. Is your reason a genuine biblical reason or is there something going on in the church that is simply a preference issue? Do you have Scripture to back up your reason or are you just uncomfortable? Ask yourself, “How is God using this in my life to change me?” Be brutally honest!
2. Humbly speak to the leadership. Understand what is being said here. God puts leadership in place for many reasons–but all of them have something to do with His great glory. It really isn’t that leadership can do no wrong (although, honestly, leadership can give that impression all too often). However imperfect they are, God has allowed them their existence in that position. If leadership is unqualified biblically and you can biblically prove it (two witnesses 1Tim 5:19) and if your objection is truly church-wide, then you have a bigger problem than this one article can handle. The fact that God allows leadership to exist speaks to God’s design that is intentional and with purpose. So, as you approach leadership, do so asking questions with a heart that earnestly and humbly wants to know God’s will and not to seek proof of your suspicions. Questions always help the leadership speak to your concern which in turn, makes the path to resolution accessible.
3. Be honest with leadership. Many will go to leadership with their concerns but it often is covered with words like, “I have had some people come to me with these concerns.” It very well may be that one or two people have talked to you, but be careful that it isn’t also true that you went to them seeking to find out if they would agree with you on your “concern.” It may also be true that others do have those concerns, but that is not why you are meeting with leadership. You are meeting with leadership because you have the concerns. The fact that others have similar concerns does not necessarily validate your concern and really shouldn’t play into it. It may well they are blind or prejudiced in the same areas you are and thus are not really helping you see things honestly. An honest heart is not concerned about “who” is right; it is much more concerned about “what” is right.
4. Give time to your decision. Make sure you are not merely reacting. Give yourself room to be wrong. Time has a good way of revealing things. Give leadership time for God to use your humble word to work in their lives. Give time on your knees. Give time to the Word. Give time for God to work His grace in your life. Remember, God is eternal which helps Him to be long-suffering, and forbear, and deal gently. Time has away of tearing the curtain back so truth is exposed. God calls each of us to forbear with one another (Eph 4:2).
5. Don’t burn bridges. If you must leave, be very careful to not let issues drive you away from caring and loving people. Relationships are very important. Your walking away from a church will have impact on people, finances, and most importantly the gifts that God has given you to properly serve the church. These relationships are important ultimately for what God may be doing in their lives. Burning bridges in relationships often can come back on bite you as you have no entrance back into the very lives God may want you to minister to later.
6. Give proper notice graciously. Don’t just walk out. If you have obligations, finish them. Serve God’s Kingdom by serving the people you have obligated yourself to. Give leadership a chance to adjust to your absence ahead of time. Be courageously gracious. Remember, people are not the enemy – we struggle not with flesh and blood (Eph 6:12).
7. Immediately align yourself with another body of believers. So many walk away from the church simply because they had a bad experience. It is in these transitional times when Satan can get his foot into a heart to stir up strife, pride, self-righteous thoughts, and a root of bitterness begins to grow. This is dangerous as the accountability of the body and the soul-searching ministry of the Spirit and Word will wane because of the absence from the body. This then becomes a situation that is worse than the original problem itself. Run to the Gospel! Run to Christ and the church He gave His life for. Be warned, though! The next church will be imperfect to. The greener grass on the other side…needs mowing too.