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running-for-the-doorJim 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.

Originally published by Tabletalk, April 2012.

And the follow-up: When You Should Flee Your Church

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11 thoughts on “Running from a Bad Church Situation May Hinder Your Spiritual Growth”

  1. JR says:

    All of that is true enough; however, I do believe that if leadership changes its focus and philosophy in a radical shift without proper regard for the long term members questions and concerns, it is best for those who are dissenting to move on at that point. Even if they are seeking personal spiritual growth by staying, being in conflict with the leadership and the rest of the church rarely results in anything good long term. So, if the church is experiencing a “radical” changing of the guard or shift in ministry philosophy, I would not try to convince dissenting couples or individual church members to “stick it out”.

  2. Dawn Kalsbeek says:

    I am thankful to read this because there are things in here that I needed to hear. However, we did just leave our church, very reluctantly. Yes, there have been many difficulties and a very rocky path recently but the current pastor (whom I continue to pray for) feels that hell is not an eternal state and also doubts the existence of Satan. I cannot sit under his teaching. Is that reason enough to leave? We have since found a church where God’s Word is held as authoritative and inerrant. The congregation is alive and thriving!

  3. Nick says:

    This article would be best accompanied by a complementary article, on when leaving is appropriate. The comments above (shift in core doctrine, radical change in leadership) indicate potential cases where leaving is okay. But one could also imagine situations of abuse, or applications of double standards, would also apply. Here’s hoping to see the follow up in the near future.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      The follow up article is linked at the bottom of this one.

  4. Russell says:

    Great thoughts! But I do believe there are valid reasons for some people to leave. If they are being spiritually fed and they are doing all they can then they should find the church they will feed them so that they will carry forth Gods call on their lives.

    I do agree that there are those who leave for wrong reasons, but should not encourage them to stay if they feel not being used or fed in a situation. We should encourage to pray to see if staying is an option and then seek through prayer Gods plan. It’s just not that easy to say stay but yes we need to encourage seeking wisdom from God!

  5. Brad says:

    This is a very naïve article. It pretty much ignores what’s going on in the churches. So many are turning from the Bible to the culture instead. Others, like the one we left, have become businesses and country clubs, always begging for money to feed unnecessarily expensive facilities and large staffs. They’ve departed from what a church should be. And so we depart from them, as I believe Christ would have us to do. Life is too short to stay in such churches. We shouldn’t be associated with them. Loyalty to a denomination rather than the truth is what happened to the Roman Catholic Church. People should have left it by the millions, 500+ years ago.

  6. whatistruth says:

    What about when you question those in leadership on basic biblical principles an they tell you if you don’t like is you can leave, I think you should run!

  7. Dave says:

    I appreciate this article. We are actually in a similar circumstance and it’s really made me stop and evaluate my desire to just leave and start over. I never have thought about staying in my current church as a means of God growing me and my family there. Thank you for this timely article!

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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