In recent years, I have noticed the growing trend of people who leave their local church without any reflection as to whether their departure is a sinful one. To be sure, there are legitimate reasons to leave a local church. That’s what makes this article difficult to write; it’s a difficult task to get to the motivations of why people do what they do.
As a pastor, I have always believed that people should never feel forced to stay in a church where they are struggling. Departures may come for a variety of different reasons. Church leadership has to guard itself from cult-like behavior in seeking to put straightjackets on their members. I cannot imagine a more oppressing church environment than one that makes its members feel forced to stay in membership because the threat of discipline hangs over their heard for departure. This creates a bunch of joyless servants in Christ’s kingdom and has a deadening effect on the whole congregation.
A wise elder once compared a disgruntled churchgoer to a plant that did not grow in his kitchen window. He cared for that plant, watered that plant, faithfully tended to the plant, but it always looked tattered and wilted. One day the next-door neighbor offered to take the plant with the hopes that it would do well and the man, rather reluctantly, offered the plant to the neighbor. After a short time, the neighbor celebrated how well the plant was doing; it was vibrant, green, and producing new leaves. I’ve had to submit to this truth of Christian ministry more than a few times, humbling my own pride and recognizing that sometimes, though people leave for foolish reasons, they may flourish well elsewhere. That’s ultimately what we want for the sheep anyway.
Such a reality, however, does not excuse sinful departures from a local church. Pastors know all too well that people who come into their church sinfully running from their former church, it’s just a matter of time before the same problems resurface. The heart of the matter has not been dealt with. Further, it may be that a former church has neglected disciplining a member for unrepentant sin. As that member jumps to another local church, often unreconciled and bitter, and as this member celebrates the new church as the next best thing since sliced bread, the new church will soon realize how damaging the former church’s neglect is upon their own congregation. But that’s for another article.
With these things in mind, it’s important to think through what unbiblical departure from the local church looks like. Why do people, more generally speaking, leave the local church today? It would be one thing if a church is failing to preach the Word of God, or is compromised on some point of doctrine, worship, or an article of the Christian faith, or that there is some significant spiritual abuse by the leadership that is not properly being dealt with. These are legitimate reasons to speak with church leadership and depart the local church to a more faithful church, in an honorable, Christ-like manner. But, sadly, doctrinal conviction and spiritual integrity in the truth are not at the top of the list when it comes to church departures in our day.
In my experience, rarely does anyone sit down with their pastor and express their concerns when they want to leave. The days are gone of honorable departures and the leadership is often left with reports from other church members, often family members, that so and so is gone, was unhappy in some general way with the church, and is now attending the church down the street. This has become so common place that we rarely ask any more if such a rogue departure from the local church offends God.
Three Areas of Sinful Departure
Having served as a pastor for almost twenty years, I would categorize three areas of ungodly departure from the local church. First, family committmemts are placed over spiritual committments to the kingdom of God. Jesus warned about this problem frequently in his earthly ministry. For instance, if the husband and wife are not on the same page spiritually, or are divided themselves over the ministry of the local church, a culture of dissatisfaction and complaining can be easily fostered in the home. Once this critical spirit infiltrates the children’s hearts, the children may end up having little value for the church or the faith altogether. This all hits a breaking point in the teenage years and beyond, especially if the children walk away from the church or attend another church.
Family conflict, strife, and division in the home produces is one of the greatest reasons for ungodly church departure. While there may be legitimate reasons for a family to find another church, often, in these scenarios, the church is blamed for failing to minister to the family’s needs and unbiblical departure follows. Family is put first over the kingdom of God.
A second reason has to do with stylistic preference. Many people base their church attendance on questions of music quality, formality, programs, and a rated quality of friendliness among the people. They have approached the church as consumers and forget that the purpose of Christian ministry is reconciliation with God; a place of ministering the righteousness of Christ to the weary. People are willing to sacrifice what is most needful for their spiritual life and depart a faithful church, due to stylistic preferences, easily accepting false forms of worship.
A third reason for sinful departure has to do with conflict due to sin in one’s personal life, or with another believer in the church, or with the church itself. Unresolved conflict that results in a lack of forgiveness or bitterness in the heart are common recipes for sinful departure from a church. There is no shortage of scenarios that produce this conflict, but the inability to forgive and sacrificially love hinders one’s ability to receive the means of grace. Sinful departures are common when conflicts remains unresolved, although the true reasoning is rarely made known. Departures like this often come with superficial charges and petty reasoning. The heart of the matter is never really made known and the leadership is left in the dark as to the true reason for the departure.
Five Reasons to Stay in Your Local Church
With these things in mind, here are five reasons to encourage churchgoers to be faithful members in their local church:
1. Your church faithfully ministers the Word of God and the gospel to you and your family. The leadership is properly overseeing the ministry and cares to see you reconciled with God and comforted in the glorious salvation of Jesus Christ. Further, the leadership demonstrates sincere love for the sheep, they visit the needy, and care for the spiritual life of the congregation. If the ministry of the Word and sacrament and the shepherding care of the congregation is the priority of your church, you have found a rare gem in this present age.
2. Your church cares to see you grow in holiness and is willing to discipline you if you fall into sin. In Protestant churches, discipline has always been the third mark of a true a faithful church. A church that loves you will care for your spiritual well-being by demonstrating shepherding care through the oversight of you
3. God calls you to be sincere in your love for the body of Christ. It’s been commonly said that we don’t chose the people who sit next to us in the pew, but God does. Love requires, in response to the gospel, that we invest in the lives of those who are often most difficult and unattractive to us. It’s one of the saddest things to witness someone throw away their entire local church family for selfish reasoning. Is our love sincere and absent of hypocrisy? This is an important question when it comes to church membership.
4. God calls you to be a servant. This means that sacrificial love that imitates Christ calls me to forgive one another and become servants where God has placed us in a local church. This call alone helps us to check our motivations for involvement in the local church. Are we sacrificially loving our neighbors as Christ has in giving his life for us?
5. God calls you to be his witnesses, especially in the body of Christ. As the body of Christ is full of struggling sinners, each one of us called to encourage one another, and speak of what the Lord has done for us. The ministry is not just about you, it’s also about your neighbor. God choses to show his love for our neighbor through the very testimonies of his grace in our lives.