Jeremy Vanatta is the pastor and an elder of Southside Baptist Church in Lebanon, TN. He holds a PhD in New Testament from Mid-America BTS. He blogs at The Threshing Floor, where this article originally appeared.
Here’s an article that I’ve been wanting to write for years, but there’s never seemed to be a good time to do so because I always felt like someone who has left the church recently might think I’m talking about them. But I’ve come to realize that I’ll never be able to write this article if I continue to worry like this because there’s always people coming to and leaving the church.
DISCLAIMER: So, if you’re reading this and feel like I’m targeting you, then please understand that I have no one in particular in mind.
As a person who has grown up in the church and has now pastored for nearly ten years, I’ve heard a lot of people give their reasons for leaving the church. Unfortunately, most of the reasons have been, what I would deem, unbiblical. Here’s my top eight. If you have heard some different ones, feel free to leave a comment.
1. “It’s nothing personal.” This one I’ve heard in combination with some of the other reasons. I don’t think a person who says this really grasps what the church is. The church is God’s chosen people who has been set apart by His grace and redeemed by Jesus. As such, the church is God’s family that loves and serves one another. Therefore, leaving a church, even for biblical reasons, is a deeply personal thing.
2. “I’m not mad at anybody.” This one I’ve heard several times. Most of the times it was in months following an argument or disagreement with another church member(s). Seeing it in others and dealing with my own anger at times, I’ve found that the “I’m not mad” reason is really just a way to make us feel better about ourselves even though our hearts are bitter.
3. “There’s not enough activities for the kids.” This one ranks pretty high on the list among the most frequent reasons for leaving the church, primarily among thirty-somethings. While there is part of me that sympathizes with this one, my ecclesiology kicks in and reminds me that the Bible doesn’t place children/teenagers at the center of church life. When the corporate church gathers it is for the purpose of worship through prayer, preaching, and Holy Communion. “Activities” should be a natural overflow of our worship together and should manifest themselves in living our lives together outside of the corporate gathering. That may mean having an organized children’s/youth program or it might mean children hanging out together while Dad and Mom are hanging out with other church members.
4. “My kids don’t have any friends.” This is similar to the previous one. Again, I have some sympathies here having grown up in a church where I was the only kid who went to school in the next county over. The friendships I had through church were never as deep as they could have been had I went to school with them, but at the end of the day it’s still no reason to leave a church. The Bible doesn’t place children/teenagers at the center of church life. Besides, children are under the authority of their parents. Parents that move churches based primarily on their child’s wants are making a grave mistake. At the least, they are teaching their children that church is all about getting what we want out of it rather than finding ways to serve others. It’s a very self-serving attitude.
5. “I don’t like the preaching.” This is one that I’ve heard several times, sometimes referring to my pastor’s preaching and sometimes referring to my own! There’s nothing more humbling than being told “your preaching stinks.” Sometimes leaving the church because of the preaching is a good thing, if that preaching is unbiblical or if the pastor is biblically unqualified. But even in these cases, I would say that patience and loving dialogue with your pastor is prerequisite to you leaving. In my experience, most of the people who say “I don’t like the preaching” are under deep conviction of sin as result of the preaching. I’m not sure if I could say that anyone I’ve known who has used this reason had a passion for knowing and obeying the Bible.
6. “I don’t like the music.” This one is like the previous. If the music is unbiblical or the person(s) leading the music is biblically unqualified, then leaving the church might be acceptable. But again, patience and loving dialogue with church leadership is prerequisite. But in my experience, people who have left the church over the music have been generally selfish. They want the songs that they want played on the kind of instruments that they want without taking into account the preference of the rest of the church. Worship is not about “me”. It’s about “we,” God’s people gathering together to worship HIM!
7. “It’s just time to move on.” I’ve heard this one a lot over the years. It’s probably the most troubling because you generally know your fellow church members well enough to know that it’s really a cover for, “I’m not happy,” or “Someone hurt my feelings,” or something similar.
8. Don’t just disappear. This one is the most frustrating and probably the most selfish. For the church, it’s like having a limb removed without anesthesia because the person who leaves doesn’t prepare the church for the pain but simply cuts the body. I understand that some people have a hard time with good-byes, but no matter how hard it can be, love says “good-bye.” For others, they’re embarrassed about leaving, possibly because they have one of the other 7 “reasons” for leaving.
In the end, a few minutes of good-bye tears will be much more therapeutic than the days, weeks, or even years of bitterness that can result from just disappearing from the body. My suggestion is that you talk to your pastor(s), your small group, and your closest friends about the possibility of leaving and ask for their prayers. This simple step can go a long way toward a less painful departure.
In light of all of these reasons people give for leaving a church, might I offer some biblical reasons one might leave?
1. The Word of God is held in little esteem. The church may say it believes the Bible but few people are demonstrating hunger and thirst for it. The preacher may say he preaches the Bible but his sermons are really not much more than reading a text and departing never to return thereafter; or reading a string of texts that may or may not be related; or continually preaching “turn or burn messages” that appear more hateful than helpful.
2. The driving force is something other than Jesus Himself. The church may say Jesus is its main priority but it turns to forms of entertainment, manipulation, and various other shenanigans rather than relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to both attract an audience and convert a people for Jesus’ glory. Some may say this is too passive of a view. To the contrary, it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are enabled to be the church: preaching, teaching, worshipping, praying, giving, and serving one another. Jesus said that unbelievers will know that we’re His disciples by our love for one another (Jn.13:35), not by how entertaining of an event we can put on. [For the record, I’m not against programs and events, but I am against them if our trust is in them rather than the power of the Spirit]
3. The majority of interpretations of Scripture are rooted in legalism rather than grace. The church may say that it believes in salvation by God’s grace alone but the “air” may be thick with legalism: do this/don’t do that; shape up or ship out; turn or burn; be present every time the doors are open; you can’t wear this; you can’t drink that . . . .
4. Holy living is sparse at best. While legalism is satanic, holy living is Jesus-like. We cannot save ourselves or stay saved by being good enough, yet all believers who have been justified by faith will live a godly life by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The church may say that they believe in holy living by God’s grace, but the “air” may be thick with carnality–”holy” on Sunday but helly the rest of the week!
I hope this helps us minister to our fellow church members who are considering a church change. May God grant us grace to be biblical in our decision making when it comes to whether we stay or go.
Soli Deo Gloria,