Knowing when it’s time to leave

Heart of Tuscany July 2013 089 - Copy

I’ve been part of four churches in my life. I’ve visited many more but I’ve only ever changed church when I moved city.

From birth to 18 I went first at my parent’s bequest and then under my own intent to the same church, it moved venue, morphed form, but it was the same church. It never crossed my mind that I would leave it but for the reason I did. I moved nearly 200 miles north and very quickly found the next church which would be my home while I studied. There was a year in London which I’ll come to soon, then back to Southampton for a couple of years at the church I grew up in, and back to London with over five years in the bank at my present church.

And in only one phase of my life have I thought seriously about leaving church because of something to do with it rather than my circumstances.

Recently I’ve had quite a few conversations about leaving church. It’ll crop up in different environments, some who I know well, others I don’t. Some go to my church, others might end up coming there. I also remember several in the past with people who had left my church and were going elsewhere or not really going at all.

After I graduated I moved to London. Having grown up in a church there was always an element of familiarity about the congregation, and at university there was the safety of crowds as we visited churches and decided which we would be a part of. There were special activities for students, special groups, courses, socials, buses laid on to get to campus and back. There were lunches and bouncy castles, worship nights and designated pastors. I was catered for.

And then came the prospect of walking into church alone, searching for a place of worship I would fit into, a place I would be known and know others. I went to a service I liked, a location that worked, one with friends and they were three different places. I opted for the first, a place a little distance from home but most familiar in style and substance. On paper it was a good fit. And yet, a year later I left London and my exit from church required no send off, there was no point of departure, I had already drifted far from the church, my attendance on Sundays required only the vaguest excuse to slip, and small group was a tyranny of small talk among people I never got to know.

It was a church I should have left earlier. Back in Southampton I felt at home, I felt like I belonged and I feared returning to London. When I returned to the capital in the summer of 2008 finding a church where I could settle was the most pressing of my anxieties. I had the same dilemma, the same lonely sense of walking into a crowd. For the first year, even as I took on responsibilities and leadership, I walked in and walked out, I connected occasionally with individuals but church was a difficult place. It was not home.

I don’t know when it changed but I know what happened. I turned around and realised that the people I worship with on a Sunday, the leaders who’s authority I respect and the friends I spend time with, times of prayer and times of pranks. I realised these people were the ones I wanted to be walking this road with.

Leaving church is not a question of doctrine or principle. It is at root a pastoral concern. There are good and bad reasons to leave church, and behind each good reason can be bad motives, and behind each bad reason a strand of good.

I first heard about “5 really bad reasons to leave church” when Hannah Mudge responded to it. Her substantive point is one I agree with, this has to be about responsibility on both sides, that of the pastor looking after their congregation and those attending looking for something more than the next thing to consume to make them feel better. Relevant reposted it and even more people were talking about it. 

Of his points, on not agreeing with everything taught, I have little to add, although it does pose the question of where does this end? Should we accept any amount of disagreement with what is taught? Sarah Bessey poses the question whether egalitarians should attend complementarian churches and presumably a similar question would work in the opposite direction.

His point about size is lacking in any nuance, big is not always beautiful, and nor is it always preferable to small. I don’t think it’s good for churches to despise growth, or go out of their way to avoid getting bigger, and I like big churches (by UK standards), but there are many valuable things about smaller congregations his comment ignores.

On conflict, again this is a point that requires nuance and we get a little bit. Conflict is a fact of life but there comes a point when it is detrimental to the life and ministry of the church and its members. If and where it can be resolved that is to be welcomed but it shouldn’t be held out as an an elixir that will one day come.

His other two points are basically the same, congregations are too consumerist and leave when they don’t get what they want. This is a problem that is legion across out culture and he is right to point it out. At the RZIM training day on Saturday Michael Ramsden addressed this point, when we treat church and its component parts as something we can use we devalue it. When we are only in it for what we get out of it we deprive the relationship of the very thing that makes it a relationship. When we do not connect, with God and others, when we do not commune, we use. And when a relationship becomes about use and what we can get out of it we start to question the purpose of the relationship in the first place. It’s an important point he makes and a challenge the church has to address.

But he overstates his point and misses the other side of the story. For each of his reasons there could be good motives behind them and bad motives. Leaving church is a pastoral issue and one not best dealt with by criticising people for consuming church. Otherwise the congregation becomes an object of use for the pastor and not a people with whom to connect. It can sound, as Hannah Mudge noted, rather like asking someone to stay in an abusive relationship.

Leaders of churches have a responsibility to listen to their congregation, if people are leaving, then maybe something needs to change. There is a responsibility on leaders to do more than tell their congregation to suck it up and stop complaining. Telling the congregation they can listen to podcasts if they’re not getting enough teaching suggests maybe teaching in a church service doesn’t matter that much. We should seek to serve the church and not just be served, but we should aim for more than that. We should search for a church where it is home. Where we treat one another as family. Where we grieve when one another leaves. When while we may give to the child who only comes to visit when they need bailing out of debt, we long for so much more.

Church cannot be about people stifling their criticisms or using the internet as a permanent addendum to the Sunday service. It must be about where frailty is welcome, from the pews and from the pulpit. When the teaching can be improved and the service strengthened. When size and shape are methods and modes and not metrics of success.

Church should be a home with all the honesty and the struggles and the tensions that any family has.

I never really criticised the church I was part of for a year when I first lived in London. I didn’t care enough about it. I wasn’t in relationship with it. I was consuming but not connecting. When we connect we care, and when we care we want to see things grow closer to how they ought to be.

UPDATE

It’s been pointed out that I don’t answer the question I pose, when is the right time, or the right reason to leave church? I think that’s because I don’t know, for me I know in hindsight I should have left one church earlier, not because there was anything particularly wrong with it, but because I wasn’t connected to it. But I can’t give you 5 reasons why you should leave a church. I think leaving a church is a hard thing to do, and often involves letting go of relationships. Ultimately, I think churches should be positive about their members going elsewhere if that will enable them to grow closer to God and into greater likeness to him. There’s a tension between listening to concerns, being committed to the mission of the church, and being willing to let people go. Also, there is departure that is about going onto something new, and departure that is about getting away from something. Both in their time have their place but are two quite different situations to address.