Aaron and I have often wondered, over the years, how a Christian can be confident that their season of attending a particular church has come to a close…and yet do it in a graceful and loving manner that Glorifies God and builds up the body of believers. Many different examples have happened in my 20 years of being a Christian and attending church, so I thought I would write a little bit about my experiences and ways we (as a body of believers) can live a life that is pleasing to the Father…even when leaving a community of faith.
Let me point out the purpose of this blog post is to not debate “WHY” a person would want to leave a church (because the motive can be good or bad…only you and the Lord can honestly know the motive behind your actions), but the sole purpose is to wrestle with the “WAY” you leave. Usually, people see two options: 1) Leave kicking and screaming 2) or disappear quietly and hope no one talks to you.
The first option is usually embarrassing for everyone involved and leaves the rest of the church members in a wake of destruction. There is often hurt feelings and the root of bitterness and unforgiveness takes over a persons unsuspecting heart. The person that has left often talks about the things they hate and can find many irritations at that particular church. And they often say, “You’d be shocked to find out how many people agree with me, but they are too scared to speak their mind.” This first group tends to be a fraction of the people that leave, but most people remember them because they have very loud mouths and want everyone to hear their side of the story. They get people worked up and talk to everyone…so it seems like the whole church is upset when, in reality, it is only a small handful of people.
The second option of leaving is really the majority of people that leave a given church because they just slowly slip away and say nothing. They just disappear. They quietly resign from their ministry roles and then eventually they just stop attending. If you are privy to their giving records, you’ll usually find that their hearts actually left a few months prior to their departure. Something happened and they soon became less enthused about the future. Or perhaps they moved into a new phase of life and the church just wasn’t working for them anymore. Either way, at some point everyone looks around and says “where is ________?” You begin to realize that they just slipped away, hoping to go unnoticed, and they often pray that no one will call them and follow-up with their MIA status. You might think that this is the most loving way to leave…but truthfully, slipping away quietly can be just as painful for the pastor and leaders of the church (especially when you’ve been a major part of the church for a number of years) as those that leave with a loud voice.
I am not proud to announce that I have done both in my heart when leaving a church, and I usually choose the second option because it is less confrontational. The time has come for me to act like an adult and move on to an option that is more fitting with Scripture and will Glorify God without causing lifelong damage to others. Can I offer option 3) as an approach to leaving your community of faith? In all honesty, no one wants to talk about this subject. Much like the topic of sex, if we do not teach people how to leave a church gracefully then it will just be left up to our own flesh or what the world is doing to be our example. Christians…get your head out of the sand and help people to live a Christ filled life and let’s give practical steps that will build character that will move on into eternity!!! My prayer is that we will actually BE the body of believers that spans distance and time…and quit acting like a bunch of disconnected clicks that secretly worship the God of the Universe. We are all in on this thing we call life, and Christ came so we can life life…to the fullest.
With that said, here is the better way to approach leaving your community of faith…option 3) James 2:8 “You will do all right, if you obey the most important law in the Scriptures. It is the law that commands us to love others as much as we love ourselves.” If someone was leaving a church, I would want them to come to me with a loving, humble heart and tell me exactly what was going on. When they do that, I can see their brokenness or their excitement and rejoice that the Lord is doing something in their lives and grant them the blessing of going as the Lord leads. So, here are a few practical steps that would help this approach to be more effective.
Leaving Your Community of Faith with Love
1. I would write a letter to the pastors and the leaders of your church. In this letter, I would talk about the way God has changed your life through the ministry of that church. I would talk about how some of your family members met Christ there, were baptized, went on missions trips, etc. I would talk about how your own thoughts and beliefs were formed through your years at that church. I would talk about how you are more like Christ because of the time spent there. I would tell stories of specific retreats or camps or service opportunities where your life (or those of your family) was changed because of the church and its leaders.
2. In this letter, I would not gripe or complain. I would not talk about the stuff I don’t like or decisions with which I disagree. This is not the place and time to do that. If you have honest concerns about the church, it would be wise to address that at a later time and with the hope that it will benefit the body of believers that are remaining at that community of faith. Be careful to only address Scriptural issues and not personal preferences in this second meeting.
3. In a short paragraph, I would say that “our family has decided to attend and serve in a different church for this next season of our spiritual growth.”
4. I would end the letter by assuring the pastor and leadership that they will never hear our family down talk the church or bring up anything bad about the ministry. I would make sure that you encourage the pastor to share your letter with anyone who questions why you are leaving the church.
5. THEN, and this is most important part, I would not mail or email this letter. Rather, I would set an appointment with the pastor and hand-deliver the letter. I would read it aloud to him…or ask him to read it in my presence. I would re-state my love for him and profound thanks for the ministry he has had in my life.
6. Then I would walk away from the meeting and keep my promise. I would never speak negatively to anyone about that church. In fact, when people ask why you left, I would simply say…“God changed my life at that church, and we are excited about this next season of spiritual growth” and leave it at that.