Jim and Sandra were longtime members at Christ Church. They gave generously — of their time, their talents, and their financial resources. Christ Church was known for being evangelistic and putting a priority on God’s Word. And Jim and Sandra were fulfilled and thriving there.
But the day came when the pastor let Jim and Sandra down. A series of bad decisions critically wounded their confidence in their leader’s wisdom. They were hurt, confused, and disillusioned. They began to toy with the idea of going to one of the other strong churches in town.
When Jim and Sandra (not their real names) asked me about leaving their church, I said, “Not so fast.” Since then, I’ve counseled a number of couples and individuals in similar situations. And whenever the issue at hand does not concern biblical fidelity or theological compromise, I usually give the same caution about leaving a church: “Not so fast.”
In a culture of consumerist expectations and values, even people in strong, Word-centered, gospel-proclaiming churches can think of church loyalty in terms of payment and receipt. “We pay our dues and expect a certain return” is the unspoken mindset. So, when things get difficult, reasons to leave begin multiplying: “I’m not being fed here.” “I’m not on the same page with the leadership right now.” “I’m not being useful here. Perhaps I could serve better if I were somewhere else.” The list goes on.
It’s true that there are plenty of Christians whose lives don’t resemble Christ’s. There are pastors who abuse their authority or lead poorly. There are churches that implement changes quickly, without the consent of key leaders, which then breeds disunity and quarrels. Leadership fumbles, personality conflicts, relationship breeches — they all exist in the church. That’s why, for many churchgoers, the temptation is strong to seek refuge and peace in another church across town.
But what if the choice to leave a difficult church situation will actually short-circuit your formation as a Christian? What if your desire for a better congregation will stunt your spiritual growth? Does God use uncomfortable church situations as part of His process of sanctifying us?
Whether your church situation is terrific or terrible right now, it’s the gospel that should direct and shape your decision to leave or stay in a church. Circumstances aren’t what matter most. Covenantal commitment to the body of Christ is what counts. And our commitments must be grounded in God’s unflagging commitment to us because of Jesus Christ’s work in our behalf.
“But you don’t understand. The people in my church are really messed up.” True. But so are you. So am I. We are all sinners, saved only by the grace of a merciful God. We are all being slowly transformed into the image of Christ, and one way that God forms us into the image of His Son is to place us in hard situations where “loving one another” seems unnatural and costly.
If Christ remains committed to us, in spite of our continual failings, why should we not remain committed to Christ’s bride? In a difficult church situation, what looks more like Jesus: to hop to an easier church situation or to stick with a local congregation through the dark days?
Many people think their church’s problems are an obstacle standing in the way of their spiritual development. Usually, the opposite is true. It’s their commitment to their church, in spite of its problems, that is making them more like Jesus.
“I’m not being fed here.” Perhaps God is challenging you about your tastes and preferences.
“I’m not on the same page with the leadership right now.” Perhaps God is teaching you the virtue of willing submission, even when it doesn’t come naturally.
“I’m not being useful here.” Perhaps God is removing certain activities from your life, so that your focus turns from what you are doing for God to a greater emphasis on the relationship you should be cultivating with God.
The grace of God is transformative. We are predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son. The heartbeat of every Christian should be to look more like Jesus. Just as the facial expressions and physical characteristics of two spouses begin to reflect one another after many years of marriage, we should look more like Jesus every day. But this transformation will not occur unless we stay committed to Christ’s people, challenging and encouraging others as they challenge and encourage us.
Discipleship is like a rock in a rock tumbler. The rock is shined the more it bumps up against all the other rocks and water. Over time, the process turns a rock into a gem. It’s easy to want out of a “rocky” church situation. The process of refinement is never pleasant, after all. But it is in our bumping up against the difficult trials in a church body that we are refined into beautiful gems that reflect the glory of our King.
Jim and Sandra thought long and hard about switching churches. And they stayed. Five years later, they are thankful they did. Their ministries are thriving. The difficulties have passed. And in the twinkling of their eyes, I can see flashes of Christlikeness that weren’t there before the storm. I’m glad they stayed.
And the follow-up: When You Should Flee Your Church