Leaving the church


As I write this, we’ve just started a small break from packing up moving boxes.  My family is preparing to move from our church of five years in Indiana to a new church in Michigan.  We’re excited for a new beginning, new opportunities, and a fresh sense of pastoral calling – but we’re also struggling as we consider the things we’re leaving behind.  We have people here who we care about deeply.  We have moments in the church that we will hold close and cherish our whole lives.  Entering a new church is exciting!  Leaving a church is hard.

Part of the reason it is hard is because I believe in the mission and ministries of the church.  I believe in our children’s and youth ministries.  I believe in our worship team.  I believe deeply in a number of people who act out of passion and conviction for Christ.

These days, leaving a church has become easy for many people.  To be honest, that makes me a bit sad.  Leaving shouldn’t be easy.  Leaving should hurt.

At some point in our recent history, the American church (at large) made a seismic shift in the way we “do” church.  We shifted from ministry to attraction; from the work of being and investing in a church to an approach which seeks to appeal to people’s desires in an effort to lure new people in.  I suspect we did it with good intentions, but the consequences have been significant.Leaving shouldn’t be easy.  Leaving should hurt.

When I have interviewed people who have left churches, some of the reasons they give for leaving include “I didn’t like the [contemporary] [outdated] [inauthentic] [loud] [quiet] worship music,” or “the preaching was too [dry] [lively] [unengaging] [laugh-focused] [boring] [dynamic] [theological] [worldly].”  Almost everyone who leaves a church leaves for a me-focused reason.  “I am not growing spiritually.”  “The messages are not relevant to my life.”  To be honest and blunt, the real reason many people leave churches is “The church did not adequately expend all of its energies pleasing me.”

And I suppose that’s our fault, church.  The church, after all, is the body that made the shift from ministry to attraction.  We shifted our focus from the things only the church can do – such as lead people into the presence of Christ through communion, or welcome people into the body of believers through baptism, find strength and genuine community in a body of believers, or teach the power of a transformed life in Christ – for the things that are already available and conveniently accessible from the comfort of our living room couch.  The individual caters their lives to their interests already – by which television shows they watch, books they read, radio stations they listen to, etc.

Speaking of radio stations, how many radio stations do you think the people in your church listen to?  Some listen to country, some to oldies, some to rap and hip-hop, some to contemporary music, some to 80’s or 90’s throwbacks, and a few of them have Pandora, iTunes or Spotify stations set to mixes of show tunes or big band music, etc.  Why did we ever think that we could construct a worship service in a way that caters to every individual in a sanctuary when their interests and opinions are so diverse anyway?

Why did we try to universalize diversity when we should have been introducing diverse people to the collective experience of being in the presence of Jesus as we partake in communion together?  Why did we change the church to appeal to many instead of calling many to meaningfully engage in the life of the church?

The truth is…  there will be things in your church that don’t perfectly cater to you.  The music, the sermon, the events, etc. – they might not fit you perfectly.  But don’t leave because of the worship music… stay because Christ is present.  If the musicians are worshipping, they’re doing something you might not find somewhere else (where, perhaps, performance is valued over genuine worship).  If the pastor is preaching the gospel, she or he is doing something you might not find somewhere else.  And if you see something that you can’t live with – don’t leave for a place where it’s different.  Stay and affect positive change.

Because the church isn’t all about you.  And you’re not expected or required to like the genre of the worship music or the dry humor of the pastor.  You’re not there for dance grooves or laughs.  You’re there to be a part of a worship community, a transformational body, a growing people, and to find yourself in the presence of Christ.  And the worship team or dry pastor don’t prevent a person from experiencing Christ…  but sometimes our expectation that everything in a service should cater to us prevents us from experiencing Christ.

And sometimes a desire to leave has less to do with any excuse we might give, and more to do with the fact that we lack the spiritual maturity to stay and grow, or stay and disagree, or especially to stay and be corrected.  Leaving allows us to take the easy way out instead of investing in a community in a way that pushes us beyond a focus on our desires and into a focus on spiritual growth through the joys and challenges that accompany being a part of a body of believers.  Sometimes being a part of a church is hard work, but if we open ourselves to it, it can also be rewarding work.

If it’s easy to go, you’re doing church wrong.  Get involved.  Find meaningful friendships and relationships.  Pursue spiritual growth.  Plug in instead of ducking out.  The church needs you, and you need the church.  Don’t go… stay.

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