Finding a church that "fits" is not an easy thing, but sometimes it's the staying in a church that can be the real challenge. Passion for Christ, well-intentioned idealism, and just-plain-human needs for connection and a sense of value can all intertwine, at times, to lead us toward discontentment with our church. We have an earnest love for how things should be . . . and when our church doesn't measure up, that glowing exit sign lures. Sunday after Sunday, we may wonder, Is it time for me to find a new church?
But before you go . . .
Your reasons for pondering a graceful adieu (or maybe even imagining a confrontational, drama-filled departure) may be valid. Your church has problems. Your church isn't what it should be. Your church isn't what you deep-down long to be a part of. But even when there are legit reasons to hit the road, first stop to consider: Might God have more in mind for me here than I can see on the surface? Consider these reasons for taking a hike—and the avenues of spiritual growth they offer:
1. "_________________ (fill in name) drives me absolutely crazy, annoys the heck out of me, and makes me furious. I don't want to be frustrated every time I come to church!"
There are inevitable frustrations in a community of people—differences in mannerisms and opinions, little comments here and there. And then there are those people. The ones who drive you to levels of irritation you never thought possible. The ones who, week after week, somehow manage to vex, irk, perturb, or infuriate you in a brand new way. The ones who get your blood boiling and make you want to head for the door with Road Runner speed (lest you erupt in a volcano of tell-'em-off words or actually act out that imagined swift right hook to the jaw).
You don't want to feel this way about anybody, but you especially don't want to feel this way at church! Yet sticking it out in community even with "those people" can teach you patience—what the King James Version aptly calls "longsuffering"—like nothing else can. (Longsuffering isn't a virtue we can just "try" to embody—it is a virtue that is shaped in us through trying experiences.) It is in and through the trials of doing life with annoying people that we get the opportunity to obey this exhortation: "Make allowance for each other's faults" (Colossians 3:13) or as the NIV renders it, "Bear with each other." In all the irritation, these brothers and sisters challenge us to deal Christianly with our anger (Ephesians 4:26–27), to be humble rather than a proud know-it-all (Romans 12:16), and to take an honest look in the mirror at our own, big 'ole planks-in-the-eye (Matthew 7:1–5).
2. "I have a problem with the leadership."
Maybe it's the preaching—long, boring, uninspiring sermons, perhaps peppered with one too many political comments or annoying gender-stereotype jokes. Maybe it's a decision made by the elder board or pastoral staff. Maybe it's a policy, a personality, an opinion, or a character flaw. Whatever it is, it's left you in a tough spot: Rather than feeling inspired to follow your church's leadership, you're balking. Your sense of respect for your leaders has eroded away.
But if you leave now, you'll miss a powerful opportunity to commit to prayer that's hard. To real, empathetic, and loving prayer for your church's leaders. Not "please-change-this-about-him" prayer or "please-call-the-pastor-to-a-different-church" prayer or "please punish so-and-so for ruining our church" prayer—but to committed, earnest prayer for their struggles, their lives, their own spiritual well-being. God will and does work through these kinds of prayers, not only in the church leaders' lives, but also in changing your perspective and demeanor. It helps you to not respond through complaining and stirring up conflict (Philippians 2:14) but to instead live as a community member who brings joy and hope to your church leaders (Hebrews 13:17). Praying for your leaders—even those you've got a problem with—better enables you to "honor those who are your leaders" and to "show them great respect and wholehearted love" (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13).
3. "I don't like the (worship, children's, youth, women's, and so on) ministry."
Much has been written about the "worship wars" and veritable church schisms over the use of "rock" music (or even, dare I say, early 80s-Gaither-choruses). But often these discussions trivialize the deeper reasons why an issue like this can propel someone out the doors of a church, never to return. For most, I don't think it's as simple (or petty) as not liking a style of music. It's usually about a deeper spiritual need that is simply not being met by the church.
A deep desire to worship God with others, when thwarted by a musical style you cannot truly connect with, leaves a painful spiritual hole in one's life. And the same can be said for other church ministries that, let's be honest, just don't get it right. For example, it's a good desire to want your kids to have a great experience in children's ministry or youth ministry—and when they don't, it leaves a gaping hole (and it hurts). We can have many good and faithful desires for vibrant women's ministry or service to the needy or whatever it is that our church just doesn't do well, and we may experience a sense of profound spiritual loss when that desire is not met, week in and week out.
But if we view this gaping hole in our church life as a reason to bail out, we're missing a critical chance to be a contributor rather than a receiver. Perhaps that ministry frustrates us so much because God is drawing our attention to it, goading us to get in there and serve! We can choose to minister, to get in there and do something about it. Scripture's allusions to the church as a functioning body are particularly apt here (see 1 Corinthians 12:12–27). Rather than high-tailing it out because of an area of weakness, like a healthy body, we can nourish that area and strengthen it, remembering that "as each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love" (Ephesians 4:16).
4. "I need a fresh start where I can meet new people and get involved in a (probably way better) community."
Being with the same old people, year after year, can get boring. The idea of "new" lures us—not only is the grass surely greener on the other side of the fence, but the people in that other congregation are surely nicer, hipper, more spiritual, more like us, and so on. A sense of spiritual wanderlust can make different feel adventurous and exciting while staying put looks dull and pale in comparison.
Sometimes this desire to start anew has a deeper motivation: They know my junk at this church and I need a fresh start somewhere else. Being in a congregation long-term means others know your story—even your huge mess-ups, your ongoing character flaws, your wish-you-could-erase-it regrets, and so on. Maybe they even know and are part of your painful conflicts with friends, your marriage struggles, your financial failure, or any myriad of deeply, deeply painful experiences. We so often want to leave dark experiences behind us, and when people are mixed up in those memories, we may want to leave them too.
But sticking it out with a community that knows us long-term—and may be intimately familiar with all of our ugliness too—carries with it the powerful blessing of sharing a testimony with others. It is in this context of long-term community (rather than new, fresh, first-blush relationships) where we see grace in action, where we gain a long-view spiritual perspective, where even our junk can be used by God to minister to others, and where others' journeys through darkness can powerfully witness to us the grace and healing love of God. Rooted in a community, we see others grow and change (and they see the same in us) as we embody together the transforming grace of Christ. We rejoice as we say, "And that is what some of you were" (1 Corinthians 6:11, NIV) and we live out together the life-changing hope and redemption and light of Christ.
Our culture of transience and anonymity may bring a sense of respite, independence, and excitement, but it also neuters our ability to live a fuller human experience. It's only in long-term relationships, where in community we've lived life together with all of its ups and downs, that we can understand true celebration and even authentic sorrow as we bear witness to marriages, births, ministry callings, losses, disappointments, diagnoses, and funerals. It is only when people truly know us and we really know them, junk and all, that we can really "rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn" and, over time, eke out a beautiful and sonorous "harmony with one another" (Romans 12:15-16, NIV).
5. "My church has hurt me."
Long-term friendships inevitably involve friends hurting one another. We speak unkindly, we neglect each other, we take painful slights to heart. This kind of pain is even more inevitable in the church, peopled by all sorts of folks—not a large, homogenous, just-like-you group of friends. Worse than just annoyance (reason #1), being hurt by others in church may repel us from the entire church altogether. It may be words that cut to the quick—misspoken comments about heart-tied matters like infertility, singleness, illness, fear, anxiety, shame, depression, death, divorce, or another loss. It may be a mean-spirited person who, like preteen squabbling, leaves you out or makes you feel lonely and unwanted. It may be that during a time of profound need, no one was there for you . . . no one noticed or seemed to care.
All these, and other hurts, are profoundly painful. They can render us weak, vulnerable, discouraged. They whisper temptingly, Give up. It's too hard. Leave.
But if we listen—if we choose escape over crossing that threshold again next Sunday—we miss out on what may not even look like an opportunity at all: the invitation to forgive. This is a hard invitation to accept. It's much more gratifying (at first) to let woundedness turn into bitterness, resentment, or a victim mindset. Blaming feels so much better. Avoiding feels so much safer. But Jesus—who was wounded beyond recognition—in his very moment of intense anguish, uttered words of forgiveness (Luke 23:34). And he calls us, in the context of our church community, to do the very same: "Forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others" (Colossians 3:13). This may be the toughest means of staying at a church, but it is also the most worthwhile. Embracing this difficult path of forgiveness is embracing the way of Christ.
Don't get me wrong: There certainly can be legitimate theological, moral, or practical reasons to leave a congregation and search out a new church home. But before you bail, first consider how God might actually be using your messed up congregation as a powerful spiritual tool in your life, refining your character and calling you to a higher degree of spiritual maturity.
Churches can be ugly and marred by sin and dysfunction, but we can love them enough to be first responders rather than escapees. Like Paul who did the frustrating, sometimes maddening, hard work of church-fixing (consider his ticked-off but loving fidelity to the Corinthians), even when it all blows up at church we can still choose commitment because of our passionate love for Christ and his bride. Sticking with a church community—even in light of the frustration, the exhaustion, the utter fed-up-ness it involves at times—is a means of maturation in our lives. It is in and through the sometimes trying relationships in a church family that the rubber meets the road and we have to put commands like these into action: "Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:31–32). It can be a hard-won maturation, a strange and difficult path of blessing. . . . But it's better than heading for the exit.
Kelli B. Trujillo is a TCW regular contributor and the author of several books and Bible studies. Join her to dialogue about spiritual growth and family life at KelliTrujillo.com or on Twitter @kbtrujillo.