“Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” – Eph 5:8(b)-10
A few weeks ago a friend passed along an article titled “5 Really Bad Reasons to Leave Your Church.” I wrote a response to the article, but have yet to publish it. I was concerned that someone reading the post may have felt it was commentary on my own recent decision to leave my church of over 13 years. Indeed, I haven’t posted anything for several weeks now because I was concerned about just how to address the issue. Bloggers (like preachers and pundits) tend to write about what they’re thinking about – so I was hard pressed to write something and not touch on leaving the church. Yet, I also was well aware of the potential to write something divisive, which is not at all what I want. But, as I do hope to continue blogging, it seemed that eventually I would have to write about the subject … so here goes.
My wife and I joined the church in the fall of 2000. We had just gotten married and moved to the area. We visited several churches but felt strongly that this was the right one. (Oddly, there were even churches we tried to visit but failed … when we got their listed addresses we found no church – once a residence, once a general store, and once an empty field. Back then you found church locations in the phone book … can you imagine?) At the time the church was called Crossroads Assembly of God, a fast-growing congregation of about 50-70 folks.
We quickly shot up to the 150-person range and had to find a new facility. The facility change led to a name change as well and we became Twin Rivers Church and Assembly of God. Somewhere along about 150 or 200 people the growth stalled out and we started what would be a rather long decline back to 40-50 people. So be it. I don’t want to be caught in the position of measuring success or failure of a church by its attendance. Plenty of false religions and heretical teachers have success – and that should not serve as an endorsement. Furthermore, the Lord Himself went through some serious “congregational declines” during His earthly ministry, and this should not serve as a measure of failure. I’m far more interested in the souls that were saved, the lives that were changed, the relationships that are formed, the “doing life together” that comes as being part of a community of believers.
We made a lot of friends over those years. People came and went. Some of them we still have relationships with and some we don’t (but we value the time we spent together). We laughed and cried together. We celebrated major events in each other’s lives; graduations, marriages, the birth of children and grandchildren. We mourned our losses together. Over the years we buried Adam, Karen, Chizoba, and Ethan – and Dayl too (though not a part of our church, her daughter was and we considered her family all the same).
In 2009 the longtime pastor left for a position at a new church and we went about hiring a new pastor. That’s never a fun process, but we did our job with diligence. We traveled far and wide, listened to a lot of preachers, conducted a lot of interviews, prayed a lot of prayers, and finally made a decision. (Interestingly, on his way out, the former pastor pulled me aside and told me that what this church needed, and what this community needed, was a young pastor with a lot of energy – and that is surely who we hired.)
The church grew again, back up into the 150-200 person range and we found a new facility. Once again, the facility change came about the same time as a name change – the church would now be “The Cause Church.” Safely into the new facility, my wife and I decided it was time to leave.
“But why?” Well that is the question isn’t it. My pat answer will be “God told is it was time to go” – and I mean it very sincerely.
“You mean God sent a thunderbolt out of the heavens and a booming voice told you to leave your church of 13 years?” Not exactly. But when someone says “God told me to [fill in the blank]” it doesn’t have to mean expressly that an audible voice beckoned from on high to give direction. He has told us a great many things in those 66 books we call the Bible.
“So this is all based on something you read in the Bible?” I’d like to think that all of my major life decisions are based on, or influenced by, what the Bible has to say. But I also believe that God is active in our lives, and that a man can ask wisdom from Him and receive it without reproach (James 1:5). And as we prayed, and read our Bibles, and watched the unfolding of events, and tried to discern what is pleasing to the Lord (Eph 5:10) it became clear that it was time to depart.
“But there had to be a reason.” Sure. Even in the midst of “God told us to go” there is likely an impetus. I mean, Jesus told the disciples to go to the uttermost parts of the earth, but they largely hung out in Jerusalem until Titus sacked the city in 70 AD (and then they did what He told them to do). In the end, I’d say that the pastor and I disagree over the validity of some teachers that are employed in various aspects of the ministry. (But, again, that may just be impetus – we left because the Lord led us away.)
In particular, I have a strong aversion to anything that even hints of “Word of Faith” teaching, which I find to be New Age Mysticism wrapped in a veneer of misinterpreted scripture. Thus, I find teachers like Joyce Meyer (and many others) to be quite off-putting. Having suffered a great many things being taught by Word of Faith preachers when I was a young Christian, I find myself unable to participate in a ministry that is not equally repulsed by them. (The pastor has told me that he likes Meyer and would have her preach in the church if he had the opportunity. One wonders what she might preach.)
I want to be clear here that it is OK for Christians to disagree, even on matters of theology. When I was younger I knew a lot of “fundamentalist” types who held that Catholicism was not a Christian denomination, and thus that Catholics weren’t Christians. I find this rather absurd. Catholics and I will disagree on a great many theological issues and yet I have no reason to think they are not Christians. (Only God knows if they have repented of their sins and have faith in Christ – if they have “believed and confessed” as Romans 10:9 says it.) In the same way, WoF adherents and I will disagree on a great many matters of scriptural interpretation. I find many of their teachers to be outright heretical. And yet, there can certainly be adherents of WoF who are simply confused but not “outside the faith” (I like to think that I was one such person in earlier times). We will hold their teachings up to the light of scripture, but only God knows their hearts.
And what shall we do when we disagree? Well, we can try to work it out (this should be the first thing, actually). And if we can’t come to agreement? Well, perhaps we can go along even if we disagree (some things really are small things). But what if that doesn’t work out? Well, we can go our separate ways and wish each other well.
Abraham and Lot parted company so there wouldn’t be any quarreling between their herdsmen. Paul and Silas parted company (but not the faith) because they had a sharp disagreement. As a father of four I can tell you that there are plenty of times that I come in a room to find my children fighting (often over some trivial injustice). In many situations I don’t pronounce judgment, exact justice, and set things right – I simply tell them to go be in separate rooms so they won’t fight.
And so too with us. It is OK for Christians to decide that they are not able to get along peaceably and simply part company. It is OK for us to realize that we cause more harm than good if we keep trying to resolve issues instead of just parting ways. But how shall we part? It is hardly feasible for church leadership to abdicate their responsibilities over a disagreement with a parishioner about a matter of theology. The only plausible solution is for us to go.
Honestly, we should have left over a year ago. Sometime in the late 2012 time frame seems like the right time to have made a departure. But late 2012 was a tough time. I had just buried my sister and father; and I have a policy of not making major life decisions (like leaving a church) in the midst of grief. First-off, we tend to make bad decisions in those times because we are looking for any way out of pain. Secondly, in such times it is important to have a pastor and a community that you can connect with (and the pastor and church were very helpful in that time).
I had also hoped to delay the departure until my family could relocate, thus covering the departure as part of the move. Again, I do not wish to be disruptive. Alas, we have yet to buy a new house, and we could stay no longer – the Lord made it clear that we were to go (and has made it even more clear since departing that we did the right thing).
And so we have left the church, but not the faith. And we will continue this journey through life together with the Lord’s leading.
As a final note I will caution the reader that I will, in future posts, touch on issues of church and theology. It would be wrong to look at these as directed at my former church. I can only imagine that those issues will come up, but they surely won’t be incorporated into every post I ever write on church.
I should also note that God’s plan for one is not necessarily God’s plan for all. Peter once asked the Lord what He would require of John, to which Jesus responded “what is that to you?” (John 21:22). Just because I say that the Lord told me and my wife to leave the church (and made it exceedingly plain) it does not mean that I think others should follow suit. Everyone should follow the Lord, try to discern what is pleasing to Him, and work out their own salvation (Phil 2:12).