Loving The Church Enough To Leave It

Leaving-Church

If you don’t like what’s happening in the Church, what are you doing about it?

That’s the familiar refrain I hear from Christians who take offense at criticisms of the religious institution known as the Church. They’ll accuse me and those like me of being angry malcontents; serial complainers who have no real desire to make things better, who simply delight in publicly dragging Christianity through the mud.

They write us off as heretics and haters and claim that we have abandoned our faith and rejected God.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

What they don’t understand (or conveniently choose not to understand), is that it is precisely our enduring love for the Church, one we see as already well submerged in the mud that compels us to speak. It is our very passionate and persevering faith in God that stirs us to engage in a spirited fight for the things that bear God’s name.

We are trying to rescue something that we love from the hands of those who have hijacked it, hoping to recover something precious that has been lost.

We are stranded orphans trying to find our way home again.

And it often feels like a lost cause.

Those who accuse us of mischaracterizing what we’re critiquing don’t realize that we totally get it. 

We get that the Church is not a building, that it is formed by the wonderfully flawed people who fill those buildings. We are those people too. We are still firmly the Church even as we struggle to exist in it or engage with it.

In truth, we are being the Church as much now in our discontent and wrestling as we ever were before.

The problem is, organized Christianity is no longer truly in the hands of all the people. Like so many riches in this world, it too is being hoarded and held by a small minority who tend to speak for themselves; who are prone to leveraging power and position and platform to control those who they deem to be inferior or dangerous or deviating from the norm.

“So what are you doing besides complaining?” people will ask. “Why don’t you be the change you wish to see in the Church?”

It’s a beautiful sentiment but one that usually comes from those who already feel comfortable, well heard, and quite influential in their churches; those who feel that things are pretty darn fine the way they are. But there are many good, faithful, thoughtful people in local churches everywhere who desire something more but feel both powerless and voiceless to do anything about it.

Being the change sounds like a really romantic idea, and in fact it is the aspiration and the dream of so many of those who claim faith and yet still struggle in faith communities. It’s also exactly why they leave those communities in droves every week.

As a pastor in the local church for the past twenty years, I’ve seen the darkest parts of what can happen when you seek to speak into the injustice and dysfunction you see in organized religion. I’ve experienced firsthand how the few influential preservers of sameness (those intolerant to dissension and deviation) can force someone to the fringes of a community and ultimately out of it.

Walking through that incredibly disillusioning time taught me some valuable lessons about why the Church often struggles to welcome necessary evolution.

Whenever people in any venue have power they will fight like hell to hold onto it. Whenever there is a comfortable core, that core will usually not want change to come because when it does it reshuffles the balance of power, it sends ripples into areas of atrophy and ease and routine, it shines a floodlight into every corner of what a church is doing and asks whether or not it should be doing it.

Most of all through my struggle to bring change to the Church, I learned that if someone in a relative position of influence on pastoral staff, finds themselves bridled and silenced and shunned as they ask difficult questions or challenge existing givens, the average anonymous person sitting in services often doesn’t have much of a shot. At least not in many settings, not when the deck is stacked and the systems organized to protect status quo, and those who gain the most from it.

Being the change in the Church or anywhere else for that matter, either requires influence or numbers, and those are both resources that organized religion excels at hoarding and controlling.

For all the prayer gatherings and Bible studies and religious trappings, most church staffs, lay leadership teams, and the lion’s share of the governing bodies in local churches operate pretty much like the ones you find outside them. They too, are far too often shaped by nepotism, political pressures, friendship alliances, and good old-fashioned bias. It just happens.

If you don’t believe me, try me. If there is an area in your local faith community where you believe you see financial waste, leadership failings, moral blind spots, neglected people groups, or any other deep and unmet need, speak into it respectfully, lovingly, and directly and see what happens.

You may indeed end up impacting the culture around you or changing the perspective of the leaders there or bringing long needed honest conversation to your people. That would be a wonderful thing. That would truly be something worth celebrating.

But if not, if you encounter intolerance or silence or worse, you may be called to leave and find a group of like-minded individuals, and to go and create the Church that you do not yet see but believe should be.

That is what so many are doing right now. They are doing it this very Sunday.

They are exiting the building but not jettisoning their faith on the way out.

They aren’t throwing the baby Jesus out with the stagnant bath water. They are rediscovering what it means to be in spiritual community, and doing it in ways that have yet to be defined or modeled where they have been. That doesn’t make them apostates, it just means that they have outgrown the restrictive box their faith has been kept in and want something better fitted for the coming seasons.

For those of you who are comfortable and thriving in a spiritual community where you are, please remember that they who leave are not necessarily the enemies of the Church. In fact, it may be their love for the very best of it that often pushes them to depart.

There are indeed some wonderful faith communities out there. If you’re part of one, by all means stay and nurture it. Work in it and support it and challenge it and stretch it. Love it well.

Absolutely keep engaging the Church where you are, in the church where you are, as the Church that you are, unless and until you find that you are unable to affect it in a meaningful way.

Then, you may have to love the Church enough to leave it.

 

 

 

 

 

61 thoughts on “Loving The Church Enough To Leave It

  1. Very well said. It took me many years to finally realize the church left me and finally walk out the door. My heart still breaks over what you described so well, but it was made clear to me years ago that I was not the one to bring change.

  2. What if they are more comfortable with their sins and would rather worship a false Jesus and believe a false gospel rather than assembling together with the saints and loving their brothers and sisters? Sounds like you are advocating idolatry…

    • Andrew, I believe John is advocating a more grassroots & personal church experience. Like Jesus advocated. In homes. With people closest to us. And with a missionary heart, like Paul but on a smaller, more personal scale. John’s issue here (and mine) is when church becomes big business & pastors become CEOs.

    • Yes, that’s exactly what I see happening in the church sunday after sunday after sunday. People sitting in the pews, comfortable with their hatred of other people, wanting to outlaw homosexuality, wanting to hurt the poor and suffering, worshiping the false Republican Jesus™ instead of the Jesus of the gospels are totally comfortable in their own sin. And the fact that they sin in groups, with their “loving brothers and sisters” doesn’t make them any more holy than people who just can’t be a part of that cult worship anymore. There is idolatry going on, but it’s on the inside of the churches where they worship money and capitalism instead of the creator of the universe.

    • Did you read the article??? It is hard for me to believe that you read this trying to understand what the author is saying and came up with that comment.

    • ::sigh:: It sounds like you are advocating pride and self-righteousness. Those sins are far more comfortable than whatever “sins” cause people to leave the church seeking true fellowship and connection with God.

        • You should be fed-up with the millions and millions of Christians (Conservative,Liberal and otherwise), who have “trashed the Church” by their hatred, bigotry, judgmentalism, selfishness, greed, etc.

          Maybe there’s more wrong with the Church than Liberals.

          Actually, not maybe at all.

          • Let me pack my bags, it looks like you want to take me on a guilt trip…

            Im fed up with churches compromising on the Bible, pastors who are cowards who will not stand up for Biblical truth, letting the culture dictate what the church should do, paying lipservice to the exclusivity of Christ, mocked the gospel by affirmig LGBT sins when the Bible does not, people who are hypocritically denying the inspiriation of the Bible (unless it suits their cause), the judging of “the judgers”, the greed, the selfishness of not warning people that they can die and spend eternity without Christ if they do not repent and trust Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

          • Trouble with you John is that you say lofty things like “We are all flawed” but refuse to forgive people with certain flaws with full expectation that your flaws will be forgiven…if you truly think you have any….im not sure you really do. This is not as Christ would have it. Your “fatique” and “discontent” with people and etc…. is really distrust in God in my opinion. He is, as always, in control. His ways are not your ways….He isnt running things as you think He ought. Your many posts make that clear.

    • To quote the author:
      “They write us off as heretics and haters and claim that we have abandoned our faith and rejected God.
      They couldn’t be more wrong.”
      and
      “They [i.e those who leave] are exiting the building but not jettisoning their faith on the way out.
      They aren’t throwing the baby Jesus out with the muddy bath water.
      They are rediscovering what it means to follow Christ in community in ways they have yet to be defined or modelled where they have been.”

      • To quote Paul the Apostle

        5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

        The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 8:5–8.

        Does it sound like a regenerated person can just bail on a church for stupid, petty reasons?

    • One of the comments above suggested that folks who leave the traditional church are forsaking the assembling of the saints. Far from it!

      They are now choosing to gather together in smaller groups when they can find each other, that is. Now the group can best follow the Holy Spirit rather than another man!

      Young people want to be involved in the discussion, not just sit through lectures that are so broad in scope that the message either misses its mark because a people group doesn’t fit that perspective or a much needed message never gets taught at all because there is to much diversity sitting in the audience!

      “…and they met house to house sharing everything.”

  3. Another brilliant perceptive universal post! My dad was a minister – he would hug you for the things you wrote here. And so could I.

  4. I’m starting to lose count of how many churches I have left, but the authority structure that allows for the power to be wielded by the Pastor, Elders, and Deacons has caused trouble in more than one of them. In one church, an elder used his authority to push for more teachings that explained how the authority structure of the church is the same as the one in marriage. In another church, the pastor declared himself to be the head of every committee and he also began to focus on similar teachings, basically reducing the good news of the gospel to a metaphor for marriage. Year after year the focus seemed to be about authority and marriage (which applies to few) and less about the fruit of the Holy Spirit (which applies to all.) When they invited me to a ‘Covenant Marriage’ Bible Study, I declined. I decided that I had enough of the message that I wasn’t a true Christian because I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids. As I understand that authority structure, I ranked really low – as I was the opposite sort of person than the people the tended to promote or let rise up the ranks. So they didn’t feel that they had to listen to me, and I couldn’t find two or three people who agreed with me to bring the matter up to the pastor – so I was never heard. It was difficult to leave the denomination I had known all my life, but getting out of there was the best thing for me. Now when there’s a conversation, people ask me my opinion and consider my point of view I feel included and accepted as I am. That never happened in my old church.

  5. In response to andrewrams3y: Yes, of course there are people that leave the church for bad, for selfish reasons, and also because they find the church too demanding. I don’t think anyone would rule out that possibility. However, reread the message John has posted. I don’t believe that those are the folks he is talking to here. He is speaking to the folks that love THE CHURCH. I capitalize it because I am speaking there about the church that Jesus preached about. When they find that their church gets to be too unlike the one that Jesus taught, then there is a time of soul-searching, to see what me must do to go forward to pursue Jesus’ image of what church needs to be.

  6. I came back to the Church after a long absence, properly received by our bishop. I have always loved the Church, believed, and drawn on my faith in dire straits, though I was without church membership for years. I began attending a small church for communion and help to cope with serious medical and emotional issues in my husband which I hoped could be helped. I was looking for spiritual direction, meaning how best to cope with the huge changes in my life without becoming bitter and resentful. One brief audience with the rector who simply made sympathetic humming sounds, and I was turned over to Stephen’s Ministry which was not adequate to address my issues on a spiritual level. They listen, they do not counsel or offer advice. I have felt anger and disillusionment towards the rector who seems to shun involvement. He seems to be indifferent and not interested in pastoral help. I confronted him about this and he said he did not feel I needed pastoral counseling. This has been very hard for me to put to rest, I am still angry about it. I see this priest as a narcissist only interested in his popularity on a superficial level with the congregation. He avoids painful situations. I have left this church. We were pledging members. Has anyone experienced this kind of rejection by a man “of the cloth?” I am not a whiny, wimpy woman. I am strong by the grace of God. I simply needed help in dealing with challenging changes which threatened to destroy my husband, and me.

  7. LOVE the mental image this phrase created, and hope one day to find “a traveling collection of oddly shaped pilgrims walking shoulder to shoulder in search of the Promised Land.” I’ve found a local church that’s doing ministry right, but their worship style isn’t a good fit for me, so for now I am worshiping in one congregation and serving in the ministries of another. (Being divorced renders me unable to serve in my own church, you see.) Posts like this really speak to my heart, and give us great food for thought and for meaningful conversation in our congregations.

  8. What do you make of a rector who, when asked for spiritual help, puts you off. I mean in the sense of you’re looking for guidance to handle a very hard situation involving caregiving to an ill spouse. You meet with said rector who appears uncomfortable. You are looking for spiritual guidance to handle the resentment and anger that caregivers invariably encounter. And the guilt about those emotions. You have also asked this same priest to help find a solution for a fellow church-goer who is in an intolerable situation and at the mercy of State subsidized housing. My husband and I were formally received into this church by the bishop, the said church-goer was not, he was penniless and did not join the congregation. We picked him up and brought him to church at the request of church members who had briefly done so. We became concerned about his living situation. His health was at stake. The rector’s response was nil…indifferent.
    I have never experienced disillusionment such as when I asked for pastoral counseling and was told by the rector he didn’t think I needed it. This was soul shaking for me. I feel this man is a narcissist, only concerned with his image on Sunday, indifferent to the real spiritual needs of his flock. Do I feel guilty about harboring those judgments? Yes, I do. No one is perfect. However, to be turned aside by a priest in one’s hardest trials is more than I can comprehend. Thoughts, anyone? I think there is such a creature as a celebrity priest.

  9. John
    Thank you for this.
    One could argue that this sort of experience is one of crucifixion and should be seen through to the end, however when it turns pathological and moves one away from, rather than closer to, G-D and the integrated self, (touchstone of decision-making from Ignatius of Loyola) the loving thing is to move on and do the work of letting go and forgiving. Same in marriage.

  10. Your perceptions appear spot-on to me; fortunately for myself, our church is quite progressive and continues to evolve. Many of our oldest members opened their ears, eyes and minds to the hermeneutics of people like Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Matthew Fox and Walter Bruggeman. It is most gratifying to witness our parish evolving into followers of way.

  11. “bridled and silenced and shunned as they ask difficult questions or challenge existing givens…”

    Check. And I’m not on staff, I’m just in the congregation.

    “or any other deep and unmet need, speak into it respectfully, lovingly, and directly and see what happens.
    You may indeed end up impacting the culture around you or changing the perspective of the leaders there or bringing long needed honest conversation to your people….But if not; if you encounter intolerance or silence or worse, you may be called to leave and find a group of like-minded individuals, and to go and create the Church that you do not yet see but believe should be.
    That is what so many are doing right now. They are doing it this very Sunday.”

    Double check.

    This is exactly what we have experienced. It’s so painful. It’s NOT loving. As I shake my head in wonder at their reaction, I have to conclude that you are right. The people with power will fight like hell to keep it. As sad and shocking as it is, at the end of the day, I can’t and don’t want to be a part of that. That is not my Jesus.

  12. “I’ve experienced firsthand how the few influential preservers of sameness, intolerant to dissension and deviation can force someone to the fringes of a community and ultimately out of it.”

    Me too 🙁

  13. If you are a member of a Christian fundamentalist or conservative evangelical church, my best advice to you is to simply leave and never come back to that church or any other church like it. Instead, walk away and find a new church where you will truly be loved, feel more comfortable, and not be spiritually abused. Many such churches are out there. Seek and ye shall find. Here are a few litmus tests to help you:

    1) Ask the potential pastor if he and his church believe in “Biblical inerrantism.” If he says yes, run away fast.

    2) Ask the potential pastor how old the Earth is. If he gives you something approximating 5,000 – 10,000 years instead of billions of years, run away fast. Both the pastor and his church are idiots, and you will be abused with more idiocy as a member of that church.

    3) Ask the potential pastor if he believes in the “dispensations.” If he says yes, run away fast.

    4) Ask the potential pastor if he and most of the members of the congregation consider themselves to be religious and political conservatives. If he says yes, run away fast.

    5) Ask the potential pastor if he considers his church to be a fundamentalist church. If he says yes, run away fast.

    6) Ask the potential pastor if his church is in any way affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention or any other kind of Baptist organization. If he says yes, run away fast. Some of these churches deal in lies and deceit. They know the word “Baptist” turns peoples’ stomachs, so they are very careful to leave that word out of the church name so people think they are an okay church when they are really not an okay church. They want to suck you, be really friendly to you, and then when you feel all warm, cozy, and settling in, all the bullshit suddenly jumps out of the closet at you and says: “BOO!!! GOTCHA NOW!!! YOU’RE MINE.”

    7) Ask the potential pastor if Jesus Christ, his words, and his deeds are at the center of the church or whether the Bible is the center of their church. If he says the Bible, then run away. You want a church that is centered on the person of the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

    Do your homework and refuse to be a victim. Use these litmus tests. If a church you are evaluating fails one or more of these litmus tests, run away and keep looking until you find a church that does not fail a single one of these litmus tests. The real Jesus that you never met and never experienced at your old church will be waiting for you there.

    Christian fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches are works of the devil initiated for the first time circa 1895 in the United States. Look what they did to this poor guy:

    http://brucegerencser.net/2015/05/leaving-the-ministry-dealing-with-guilt-and-regret/

  14. And those of us who leave church are in fact being the change. Jesus himself was a non-conformist who came to change The Church, and look what what we did to Him? My most spiritual moments reading the Gospel are when I experience Jesus at the personal level…the woman at the well, Matthew, Peter, Zacheus, Last Supper, the thief on the cross. When pastors & staff lose that personal focus & touch, we can be wounded. Not the way of Jesus. One of my fondest church memories is my pastor, his wife, my wife, & me bringing church to the home of our friend who was too sick to attend worship any longer. That’s church.

  15. After hearing a message at our church titled “Fish or Cut Bait” calling all to get involved in the church on a deeper level; my very new Christian partner went directly to our Pastor to ask if she would be welcome to get involved. He told her in no uncertain terms that she was welcome to attend services and Bible studies, but she could not get involved on a deeper level. As a Christian whom had been attending Church for over 40 years, I had known what the answer would be and I sobbed during the entire meeting. I was devastated that my Church would so blatantly reject this woman that I had so recently helped lead to Christ. Thankfully ten years later we both remain strong women of faith yet without a Church home. Thank you John for helping us remain confident in the fact that our faith is real and true and that we are not “reading the Bible wrong”.

  16. Reblogged this on When Church Hurts and commented:
    I would also add that, unfortunately, in most churches to bring about change, one must have the ability and influence to control funds in such a way that leadership takes notice. This is a well written post that I hope those who know me personally read and take to heart.

  17. My experience sadly aligns with the phrase, “you strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.” As the Body of Believers, we focus on issues which receive almost no attention in the Scriptures (marriage, homosexuality and abortion) while ignoring the major themes (mercy, justice, humility and our relationship with money). I struggle to be a part of the dialogue in the congregation but recognize my work in social justice and equal rights gives me a profoundly different perspective than the suburban middle-class people who make up the majority.

    Keep writing, John — we need your voice!

  18. No organization–even an organized church body–should have a top-down power structure inhabited by only a handful of decision-makers or, worse yet, an ancient book to keep the pew-dwellers unified. Much better to use a grass-roots approach where all points of view–from Adolph to Zadong–can be heard and implemented.

    The people always know best, and it’s such a shame when they’re right and the ancient book and its guardians refuse to consider otherwise. Who do those churches think they are, anyway?!

  19. I could have written this post, it speaks so clearly to my own experience. I’m so grateful for the internet and writers like you who remind us that we’re not alone, even when we are the only ones in our respective circles who seem to see the ugliness in the institutional church, how poorly it represents the Gospel. I love Jesus but I could no longer pretend that the institutional church was anything other than a heavily marketed corporation whose highest concern was itself.

  20. I always appreciate your critiques on the church, John, because you are part of her. I think it is only those who are in the community and committed to developing her that have a right to critique her. I am part of the apostolic (missionary) community. And we have issues of our own! So I am happy to critique missions, and mission teams. Apostles are probably the worst community builders in the Kingdom (well, maybe evangelists are worse), so working with apostles and apostolic teams is like herding cats! And they love to critique the church……but need to get the log out of our own eyes. Thanks, John!

  21. John, thank you for understanding this concept. I haven’t attended organized religious ceremonies/church in a long time for many of the reasons you give here. I still have faith, I still have a relationship with God, for now. I’m struggling with my faith as I am working a 12 step program for codependence. It calls for me to trust my higher power or God as I understand him. But I live in a place where the Bible is wielded like a weapon and it breaks my heart to see how many have been hurt by this. Causing me to question the Bible and the concept of a loving God, overall. How can the messages be so convoluted and taken out of context? What are we supposed to do with something that was written so long ago, apply to today and expect anything good to come out of it? How can we claim favor with God when the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike? What’s the point? It seems more harm than good has been done for the sake of religion. And isn’t being good to get to heaven (I detest this concept) make God out to be like Santa at Christmas?
    If Hindu, Jews, Islamics, Buddhist all think they have the answer, who decides they are wrong? How do we know that our Christian God is really the only way? They have ancient texts just like we do.
    It’s been my observation that whatever you believe in, that will also be your experience. If you believe you can meditate and have conversations with Hindu Gods, you will. Same goes for all other religions. I know this from being friends of those who practice other faiths. Again, how do we know OUR God is the only one?
    As I said when I started. I am struggling. I don’t have answers but I do pray and look for clarity, none has come yet. I don’t know that I can walk away from Christianity as it has been my whole life, even before I was born. But the more I look around, observe and experience, I’m having a harder time believing.

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  24. The words ‘thank you’ just can’t express my gratitude for this article. It reached to the depths of so many truths, touched my heart and will help me to perhaps put into words the truth of how I am feeling to others who perhaps would not understand.

  25. “It tends to be governed more by corporate greed and self-preservation than by authentic interdependent community.”
    When has any organised religion ever been anything but greedy people shoring up their own power? Authoritarian systems are by nature, rife with abuse. Faith, spirituality, compassion and goodness can not exist in these systems. They are designed to cultivate and protect a hierarchy of the elite who make claims to some great moral authority. They want obedience, compliance and to stamp out questioning and dissent. Faith that can not survive questioning or dissent, that is maintained through fear or humiliation, is worthless in my opinion.

  26. It appears most of these bloggers would like to re-write the Bible to fit what they want to do and how they want to live. Heck yes, if it feels good do it. No consequences. People, there are consequences.
    Have you liberals ever heard of self-discipline?
    Submit yourself to the Lord. You are his human temple. Act like it, in Church and out of Church.

    • I like how you assume that only “Liberals” lack self-discipline, understand they are God’s temple, submit to God, etc.

      That’s quite a “plank eye” way to see millions of people, especially people whose lives you will never live or whose experience you will never have and wipe faith perspective you will never care to hear about.

      I would contend that you are also conforming God and the Bible to your own likeness, and that Jesus would never say anything as demeaning as “you liberals” (although he did call out the ultra-Conservative Pharisees quite bit).

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