All of us in pastoral ministry have met with people who want to leave our churches. The precipitating cause, or reasons, may be any one of a number of complaints, hurts, or differences. Sometimes I've responded to these sessions with grace, gentleness, and compassion. Sometimes, not so much. Let me be clear that I'm not speaking about people who move away or people who have a real doctrinal or moral difference, but people who for one reason or another are not satisfied at one evangelical church and would rather go to another church in the same community.
Now, I believe people are free to go anywhere they want, no arguments there. But here are five things I think should be considered before you leave one church for another:
1) Remember that your leaving will hurt people. That's just the nature of relationships in community. All of us remember those times in our youth when we were romantically interested in someone and that person said to us, "I think we should see other people." Usually, this is liberating for one person, while the other is crushed. All of us in church leadership have had people come to us and say that they are considering leaving our church to attend another church in our town, and often this is not for a major doctrinal or moral issue. The first thing to remember, when leaving, is that, as Neil Sedaka sang in 1962, "breaking up is hard to do". What may seem to be a joyful new step for you will result in sadness for those you leave behind. Those people left behind are people who invested time and tears in you and your family, who taught, and guided, and served, and prayed, and took your calls late at night, and visited you at the hospital, and taught your children, and helped with your bills, and so on. Now, that's not intended to induce guilt, but rather to make sure you count the cost in terms of relationships. Leaving a church to go to a new one may seem liberating to you, but to those of us left behind it sure feels a lot like rejection. Which leads to...
2) Be careful about saying that the Lord is leading you to do this. He may be, but nobody really believes you when you say it. First, that's a conversation stopper. Who's going to argue with what God told you? Secondly, very few people leave a church when they are completely happy with it. When your needs are being met, and your children are happy, and no one has hurt you, and you enjoy the worship and ministry times, and people are listening to your ideas, then you're not getting on your knees and asking, "Lord, are you leading us to leave this church?" It's when something has turned sour or tiring or disappointing that you ask that question. And then you look around and begin to have what we call "a peace" about leaving, which we say is "from God", giving the thumbs up to our departure plans. It's best to be honest up front and talk about those things that are problems for you and don't over-spiritualize the issue and shift the responsibility to God as if out of the blue he told you to go check out some other churches. (See Jeremiah 23:16ff.) Sometimes words are used to conceal rather than reveal true intentions. "The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool." (Proverbs 10:18.) Such people may speak with flattery to the leaders of the church they are leaving, but in speaking to others their more candid thoughts come out. This is not good, as well, for the health of the larger Christian community.
3) Talk sooner rather than later. Sometimes I'm invited to meet with people who say they are "considering a change" (which may be doctrinal, or church membership, or even ending a marriage) and they say they are "really praying about this", and would like my counsel and advice before they make a change. As we wade into things I come to realize the decision has already been made and they're meeting with me for one of these two reasons: a) to see if I've got a really, really (I mean, really) good reason up my sleeve for them to reconsider their plan (which I usually don't have), or b) to soothe their own conscience in thinking to themselves -- and saying to others -- that they "sought counsel and advice" from others before making their decision, which was, in fact already made. This is just a way to "check the boxes" so that they appear responsible. But in nine cases out of ten I've found that the train has already left the station. Some will even say repeatedly along the way that they are not planning to make a change, and then they leave. Or you feel like you’re not really getting to the issue at hand, because they are giving you some reasons they are leaving, but not the main one. It’s frustrating, I’m sure, for all involved. "Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another" (Ephesians 4:25 ESV). Of course, it is important for us who are leaders to be approachable, humble, and understanding in this process (1 Peter 5:1-3). I am thankful for those who do come to talk with leadership, but I do wish it could have been earlier in the process and with more transparency.
4) You really can't belong to more than one church. Some people feel they can keep their relationships, fellowship, and involvement in more than one church. They're big on the universal church, but not so much on any one local church. You go to one place maybe for the worship, maybe another for the teaching, another for various ministries. What can make this more difficult is when those who have left still expect access to the first church's space, support, or pastoral time. The problem with trying to be involved in more than one church, is that you end up not being a good member in any one of them. You're not really available for long-term service, you're not under anyone's authority, you're not really accountable to anyone, you're not being known, you don't have to pay the bills, and you don't have to stick around to work things out when the going gets tough. It's a lot like dating a number of people (or churches) and not really being committed to any one of them. Rather, we are told, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17 ESV). We must avoid the consumer church mentality. The local church is not merely one stop-and-shop in a mall of options.
5) It may be hard to come back. You can, you know, come back. And you would be welcomed, even up to seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22). But for many it will still be hard to return if or when the other church doesn't work out for you. It's awkward showing up again to your old church, especially if you didn't get good closure on things before you left, and you told others that the Lord was leading you out. (See #2.) Some of the people you left behind may have moved on with their lives and relationships, and it may be hard for you to fit in again. They may not be sure that they can trust you to be committed to them, especially if they had been hurt. (See #1.) I see this often enough, that is, people cycling through a different church every two or three years, unable to stay in any place very long, and unable to backtrack and work through their problems. After going to a number of churches they finally end up at home, watching church on TV by themselves. That's really sad. Yet, if everyone is humble about it, yes, people can return and start over. That's grace, and that brings glory to the Lord: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7 ESV)
Here are a few articles that may help on this topic...
"When it’s time to go: The what, why and how of leaving church" (Matthias Media)
"7 Bad Reasons to Leave Your Church" (Christianity Today)
"5 Things to Do Before Leaving Your Church" (Thabiti Anyabwile)
"When do you leave a church" (Founders Ministries)
"When Should I Leave My Church?" (Tim Challies)