When Should I Leave My Church?

Church is meant to be sacred space– a community where you share joys and sorrows with other believers, a sanctuary where you worship God and hear His word preached, and a place where you use your God-given gifts to serve others. In short, God intends his church to be a place that nurtures your relationship with Jesus, and helps you grow to maturity in Christ.

But what happens when you aren’t sure that your congregation is a good fit for your family? Perhaps the preaching or worship style seems ineffective or irrelevant, maybe there aren’t ministries fit for you or your family, perhaps the community emphasizes certain things that aren't central for you, or maybe there's a conflict with a fellow believer that has made it difficult to worship together. What do you do?

Weigh Your Concerns

We live in a consumerist age where we have the freedom to secure whatever goods and services we feel will suit our wants and desires. Often, we bring this mindset to church, seeking out a congregation that will meet our needs–and then leaving for another when minor concerns arise. We even call it “church shopping” when looking for a church to call home! Unfortunately, leaving at the first sign of trouble can short circuit our spiritual growth by denying ourselves the opportunity to work through potential problems. So, your first step when you question whether a congregation is a good fit for you is to weigh whether or not your concerns are valid.

A Biblical Preacher?

Your preacher may be too long-winded, or she may not preach for long enough. They may be too young and inexperienced (leaving you hungry for more substance) or they may not be the most effective communicator. You may feel they are too long, or too short; they tell too many stories, or not enough. However, these are usually inadequate reasons for leaving a faith community. Rather, you ought to ask yourself whether your pastor is faithfully preaching scripture each week. If they are faithfully explaining the biblical text, and calling people to trust in the finished work of Jesus, this is what defines a “good” preacher. True, he or she may not be as winsome as the preachers you hear on podcasts, YouTube, or even at the church down the street. However, the Holy Spirit is pleased to bring change through the “foolish message of the cross” (see 1 Cor. 18) even when delivered in unimpressive ways.

Worship Style

Maybe you joined your church when they were singing more traditional hymns, but now, the organ and the choir has been replaced with guitars and a praise band. It’s true that worship is meant to help us express our hearts to God, and when the music style changes, it may be harder to feel as though the worship is expressing our voice. It’s important to keep in mind that diverse churches will often have a range of preferences when it comes to worship style. The variety of worship styles might even mean that your church is especially healthy! And, keep in mind that ultimately, the more important question is what God thinks of our worship; are the words honoring to God? Is the worship done in spirit and truth? These matter more than personal preferences.

No Place to serve?

You might have a passion for serving the hungry, but your church has no such ministry. Or you feel passionately about discipling young people, but there’s currently no opportunity to do so in your church. Should you leave your congregation for a place with more opportunities to serve? No! In fact, this may be a key moment for you and your church to start a new ministry! Romans 12 reminds us that the Holy Spirit has given all believers gifts, and the presence of gifts without a place to serve is an opportunity for growth!

Avoiding Conflict?

Perhaps it was something said behind your back that got back to you. Or maybe it was the way that a youth leader treated your daughter unfairly. Or perhaps a disagreement on a theological matter created friction. When conflict comes, it can be tempting to make a hurried exit from the church. But when we leave a church at the first sign of conflict, we miss a God-given opportunity for growth. The Apostle Paul speaks to two women involved in a heated conflict in the Philippian church (Philippians 4:2-3. Rather than an opportunity to part ways, and find new churches, Paul urges the church to work as the family of Christ, resolving their conflict in a way that displays the hope of the gospel. Conflict in the church will happen, and it’s usually not pleasant. But when it takes place, it’s better to view it as an opportunity for growth. Reach out to the person with whom you are having a problem (involving your pastor or elders if necessary) and make every effort to resolve your differences.

Good Reasons to Leave:

While there are many reasons not to leave a church (even when your church may not be meeting all of your expectations), there are some legitimate reasons when it’s time to leave your congregation.

A Lack of Healthy Spiritual Food

The lack of unhealthy spiritual food in your church is as serious a problem as a lack of healthy food in your pantry. It is one reason to seriously consider finding a new church home. Our spiritual nourishment should never be limited to just a service on Sunday, yet communal worship is a valuable part of our spiritual diet.

When your pastor preaches messages that reduce the gospel to mere good advice, or when they encourage you to draw on your own strength to work harder, and try more, or when your pastor does very little to preach God’s word, you will, over time, find yourself spiritually malnourished. Importantly, some of the preachers that are popular, and well-loved in the world may in fact be neglecting their preaching of God’s word.

Entertainment-Focused Worship

There are many styles of worship, and a wide range of preferences that can be God-honoring in our worship. What helps one person voice their love for God may, for another person, be less than effective. However, a line is crossed when worship becomes human-centered. When a worship service focuses on the performers or emphasizes emotionalism, and it begins to resemble a concert or a sporting event, the proper focus of worship has been lost. Worship is meant to be focused on God. When it is aimed at entertaining or impressing worshippers, it may be time to consider finding a church where the worship is focused on encountering God.

Abusive Patterns

Sadly, the church is not immune from the ugly realities of abuse. Recent years have exposed patterns of evil behavior among those who are called to shepherd God’s people. God calls Christians to hold one another accountable for their actions (Matthew 18:15-20). Sometimes the abuse is sexual, but sometimes the problem is abuse of power, or bullying, or manipulation of those under their care.

Pastors who resist correction or accountability, who intimidate, who threaten those under their care, or use their positions for personal gain should not be in positions of authority. If you have done your due diligence to speak truth and hold leadership accountable without success, it may mean that you need to leave your congregation for your own spiritual health and in order to grow to maturity in Christ.

We are not meant to approach church the way we may patronize our preferred restaurant, showing up as long as the food is good and the service acceptable, at least until the next place opens up down the street. No, scripture shows us that the church is a body (see 1 Cor. 12 and Romans 12), of which we are members, organs, and limbs. That means that leaving our congregation is never something that we do lightly, because to do so would be a little bit like amputating and arm or a foot. However, there are times when such a separation, as painful as it is, may become necessary, just as surgery can be necessary. When you are wondering whether or not it’s time for you to leave your church, prayerfully evaluate your reasons and your motives, and seek God’s guidance as you move forward.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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