Why, When, and How to Leave a Church – Part 2
In part one of this three blog series, we covered the subject: WHY do people leave churches (statistically)? But we’ve yet to discuss the questions: WHEN is it appropriate to switch? And How should we make such changes?
Uprooting your family at the wrong time can be a traumatic thing if God isn’t in the move. The Psalmist wrote that if we’re “planted in the house of the Lord, [we] will flourish.” That’s why my wife and I are quite emphatic that families make it a tradition to be in church whenever the doors are open. There’s a huge body of research that shows when families are diligent to keep a deep variety of friendships through consistent church attendance, they are far more likely to be healthy in a broad number of areas. And in an era that constantly thrusts weekend sports, jobs, etc., above church, it’s not surprising that these types of Christian families experience higher risk factors.
But setting aside these obvious saboteurs, quite often, we kill our family’s ability to flourish due to thoughtless church-switching. So, what are some good reasons to switch churches?
When to leave:
(1). When a church hasn’t grown in 5 yrs or more:
There’s no reason why a church shouldn’t be growing today. “The harvest is plentiful.” Indeed, in almost every city on planet earth, there are churches that are flourishing (even in hostile environments). In fact, Jesus said, if we’re connected to him (John 15), that we will experience growth. This may not be “fast growth” (say, 20% growth each year). But, healthy churches generally grow by at least 5-10% a year.
There are a few exceptions, of course. For example, if you attend a small town church (say, under 50,000 population), or live in a city with a totally devastated economy (E.g., unemployment over 20%), then slow growth is not necessarily the church’s fault. People and staff also come and go in clumps (or family clans). But don’t assume that, just because your favorite “family clan” is leaving that there’s a huge systemic problem at the church. As I mentioned in part one, when there’s a change in senior pastors or organizational structures, it’s probably healthy that 10-20% of churches’ attendees transition over the next five years. Obviously, if a church has lost more than 10% of it’s people in a single year (with none of the above mentioned issues)… there’s probably a major leadership blind-spot that needs to be addressed. But I wouldn’t let a single year or two be a deal-breaker. However, if a church hasn’t grown in five years, in my opinion, it should start setting off major alarms.
Keep in mind: There’s a serious stewardship issue you need to be aware of. You’re going to stand before God and answer for how you stewarded your resources (time, energy, money). At Substance, we’ve had seasons where we can plug-in over 22 unchurched people for every $1000 of outreach money spent. That’s a great investment-return for an American church. But, someday, if that ratio turns into complete mush, I certainly hope you’ll leave Substance for a church that’s on fire. I certainly would. Indeed, growth is a sign we’re connected to Christ (Jn. 15).
(2). You should consider leaving when your kids are totally disengaged from God at your church:
Parents everywhere want their kids to love the Lord; but, quite often, these same parents ignore their kid’s voice when it comes to choosing a church. You, who are mature, should be able to feed yourself almost anywhere. After all, mature Christians shouldn’t go to church to receive anyway. They come to serve.
But young people don’t fully understand this yet. They need extra attention. And if you ignore them now, you’ll be spending the rest of your life interceding for their souls later. That’s why, at Substance, we’ve committed to always allow our youth to define our Sunday morning culture. As I’ve aged, this can get uncomfortable. Yet, nothing is more reassuring and fulfilling than seeing a church full of charged up young people.
Don’t misunderstand me: No matter what church you go to, your kids are going to experiences the ups and downs of friendship. You have to be constantly vigilant about facilitating relationships with and for them. Sometimes, you can outsource your kid’s needs to another church. But don’t get all weird and stuffy if they choose a different church than you. Just be glad they’re choosing a church, period.
(3) You should consider leaving if you don’t feel any “divine chemistry” with the senior leaders:
Very few churches tend to grow after their founding pastor leaves. The exception to this fact is when the non-founding pastor stays for longer than 10 years, AND, the church has a decent form of government that allows the new pastors the ability to slowly rotate their leadership teams. Of course, even this doesn’t guarantee growth. But, the average American church can take around 6-12 years after a major pastoral transition before it enters into another growth cycle.
Unfortunately, many churches amplify this problem by ignoring something I call the divine chemistry principle. Part of the reason why churches grow so fast with their founding pastor intact is because, everyone in the church is there because they have “chemistry” with the senior leader. I.e., The “leadership unity” of the church is strongest in the early phases of a church. But, as leadership transitions ensue, people start feeling called to the “house” or other sacred cows more than “the pastor.” And, statistically, this creates a rather precarious situation for church growth.
To explain this another way, a lack of divine chemistry can create a rather awkward marriage. Imagine if you married someone who repulsed you; yet, you married because you loved their house and their Aunt Susan (because the Lord told you that you’d have a house like that). And you loved your odd spouses’ second daughter.
Hopefully you’d never go through with such a dysfunctional co-dependant type of marriage. After all, such a marriage is not likely to produce a lot of healthy kids. (Hopefully I don’t have to explain here how kids happen). But they usually come from “chemistry.”
The same is true when people are “called to a church” more than its “senior leader.” It’s a marriage of co-dependancy… held together by political alliances and sacred-cow ministries. Creativity, efficiency, and risk-taking end up taking back seat in these types of situations – which ultimately decreases the odds of growth and happiness for everyone. That’s why, it’s imperative for Christians to ask themselves the question: Am I called to the senior leader(s) of my church?
At one church that I took over, the first thing I did was encourage church members to check out other churches. Yes, this drove a few of our board members crazy (due to the potential financial implications); but, it was one of the healthiest things I ever did. Like Gideon’s army in the book of Judges, I believe God can do far more with a smaller group that’s filled with unity, than a large group full of politics and sacred cows.
(4). You should consider leaving when you’re unable to meet your fellowship needs… Or, when your ministry calling is totally incompatible with the church:
Friendships are one of the greatest statistical predictors of spiritual growth – not church services. Thus, when it comes to spiritual health, it’s kind of silly when people switch churches over “formatting issues” or other forms of theological nitpicking.
Don’t misunderstand me: If you’re bored to death in church or the pastor is decidedly into heresy, it’s time to look. But, people who leave a church because “they prefer 6 songs instead of 4” or, because “they prefer expository messages vs. topical messages” usually have their spiritual priorities screwed up. As I illustrate in my book Pharisectomy, these things have very little statistical impact on transformation. Even more, mentalities like these usually reveal a self-centered orientation – sometimes an idolatrous addiction to pet-doctrines or church service formats.
However, Christian fellowship is something that needs to be prioritized when looking for a church. Studies show that if you don’t have several best friends in your church, you have very low odds of growing in Christ. So, it’s important to think “beyond the church service” when choosing.
In some cases, our lack of fellowship can be remedied by being a bit more relationally aggressive. For example, at Substance, we have more people attending our small groups than our church services. Yet, despite our robust fellowship opportunities, there are still people who fall through the cracks. Some people are too busy or too introverted to experience healthy fellowship. Sometimes, personality flaws can also sabotage our fellowship options. But ministry ownership and small group involvement is a discipline that every mature Christian needs to develop. Sometimes you have to visit 8 small groups and volunteer opportunities before you find your tribe.
But let’s be honest: Some churches are ministry or fellowship “dead-zones.” The church may not appreciate your obsessive passion for mime-evangelism. Or, the church may not have fellowship that fits your season of life. Keep in mind: Every church has slightly different strengths and weaknesses. Some of them may actually desire the passions or diversity you bring to the table. But don’t try to force your agenda where it’s not welcome. Remember that, staying in such an environment will not only frustrate you, but it will eventually frustrate them.
So, if it’s time for me to leave, how do I do it?
Keep in mind: leaving a church doesn’t need to be a traumatic thing. In part three of this blog series, I’ll explain HOW to make church-transitions a positive, God-inspired change. But in the meantime, stay full of the life of God. Because the fruit of the Holy Spirit should follow you no matter what community you call home.