Caveat #1. By attractional, I do not mean big or “contemporary.” This is something I go to great lengths to discuss in The Prodigal Church — “attractional” is not code for megachurch or contemporary church. There are healthy big churches and unhealthy small ones, healthy contemporary churches and unhealthy traditional ones. Attractional is not synonymous in my mind with the kind of attraction that a biblical church — centered on Christ, teeming with grace, on kingdom mission — (super)naturally is. By attractional, I am referring to the ministry paradigm that has embraced consumerism, pragmatism, and moralism as its operational values. I am not referring to a church worship style, but of course this philosophy of ministry has big implications for one’s aesthetics and expressions in the worship service and beyond.
Caveat #2. Leaving your church is no little thing, even if your church is legitimately unserious about discipleship or membership, even if your church isn’t gospel-centered or just isn’t as gospel-centered as you’d like it to be. Nobody should leave any church lightly, and it should never be a Christian’s first impulse or first resort. A covenant lightly instituted might still be heavily held. Nevertheless, there are a few circumstances that might warrant moving one’s fellowship, and that’s what this list is about.
So, when do you know it might be time to go? You should (probably) leave your church if:
1. It is rare to hear anything from the stage resembling the gospel.
Evaluating this absence takes a lot of discernment. It is not simply about preaching style — topical vs. expositional, or what-have-you — but about the dominant message being presented from the primary point of communication. Is the dominant takeaway from the weekly worship experience the good news of Christ’s sinless life, sacrifical death, and glorious resurrection? Is Christ made the hero of every text and topic? Is the functional subject of the church’s message Jesus or man? Is the primary aim of the church’s message God’s glory and Christ’s fame or self-actualization, self-esteem, and self-worth? Is the Bible preached as authoritative and sufficient or is it used for quotes? These are all important questions to consider. This isn’t the only thing to consider, but it’s likely the most important thing. (And obviously you should leave if not only is the gospel rare but also repudiated, if outright heresy is being taught in the church or if the most influential voices speaking into the lives of your teachers and leadership are themselves false teachers.)
2. There is no meaningful membership process or pastoral care.
I remember serving in an attractional church where I discovered an unmarried couple living together were allowed to volunteer as leaders in the student ministry. An elder at the same church charged with providing premarital counseling told some engaged friends of mine that the Bible says nothing about premarital sex. I suppose I don’t have to tell you that not only are these incidents problematic but that they are symptomatic of an essential dysfunction in the church — unqualified leaders, unaccountable members, and inch-deep discipleship. Ask these questions: Does your church have membership? If it does, does it function beyond assimilating volunteers into areas of service in the church? Is there a ministerial structure in place that oversees and cares for the needs of members, taking responsibility for their ongoing discipleship, and disciplining them when they engage in unrepentant sin? Do you have any kind of beyond-superficial relationship with any pastor or elder or anybody else in leadership responsible for your spiritual well-being?
3. There is no significant attention given to life or discipleship beyond the weekend worship service.
In many attractional churches, all the energy and thought is poured into the weekend “experience” and not much is afforded other areas of growth and development. Some of these churches actually acknowledge this and will sort of confess they will take responsibility for winning lost people and maybe other churches can specialize in growing them up. Sort of a “it’s a feature, not a bug” attitude. But a church that exists mainly as an evangelistic event is barely a church at all. We are not called simply to make converts but to make disciples. If your church puts very little energy toward helping Christians at all stages of spiritual life grow in Christlikeness, it’s possible you have outgrown them and need to covenant with a church that functions more like the multi-faceted body of Christ.
4. You’re not in a position of significant influence.
It is a noble idea to want to stay and influence an attractional church toward gospel-centrality, but I have to tell you quite frankly it is very unlikely to happen. It’s not impossible, but it is improbable. It’s especially improbable if you are not in any kind of leadership position. You may think yourself a missionary for the gospel in your church — these people do exist, as sad and necessary as that is — but it’s more likely you will be seen as a divisive and disgruntled person. The gospel is divisive, of course, but if you are not in a leadership position to cast vision or in a position approximate to the leaders who do, the discord you sow will undoubtedly not be worth it. Even if you are in a secondary leadership position, if you represent a minority viewpoint among other leaders or you are not regularly trusted by those in authority over you to help steer the ship, as it were, you will have to face the reality that you are in that position to support and facilitate the vision cast by somebody else. You have not been hired to set vision but to help implement it. If you find that you can’t “play ball,” you will probably need to begin planning your exit.
5. The teaching your children are receiving in the church is training them to become the consumeristic moralists the church is currently reaching.
This was a key turning point for my wife and me once upon a time. As unsettled and as constantly discouraged as we were by our church’s emphases, we at least had the discernment to know what was unbiblical and unhelpful. Our daughters, however, did not. And while the local church doesn’t hold the sole or even primary responsibility for discipling children, it is incredibly problematic if the kind of teaching/training they receive at church runs counter to the kind of teaching/training you want them to have. If your primary parental discipleship of your kids consists largely of trying to “undo” or protect against what they’re getting in Sunday School or children’s church or the Fantabulous KidZone, this might be a good prompt to reconsider which covenant community you want supporting your development of them as followers of Jesus.
I know lots of people struggle with these issues and with this decision, because I hear from so many of them. The fact that it produces such angst in them is a credit to their heart for their brothers and sisters and for the gospel itself. Those of you who read this post and immediately are angered or irritated that I’d encourage this kind of critical thinking about the attractional paradigm need to stop for a minute and consider how many mature Christians — not pharisees, not legalists, not traditionalists, but mature, Christ-loving, church-devoted brothers and sisters — are becoming disillusioned by the places that are effectively starving them out spiritually.
I don’t offer this list as a handy-dandy airtight decision maker for you, but as a guide to important questions that will help you get beneath the unsettled feeling you’re already dealing with. Nobody should ever leave any church flippantly or angrily or divisively. But there are times to go. I pray the Lord will give you wisdom and discernment and a spirit of gentleness — and of courage.