From time to time, I walk alongside someone wrestling through the question of whether they should start attending a different church group. I sympathize, because I have been there myself, and know that it can be a difficult decision. Staying can be hard, and leaving can be hard.
I’d like to share some thoughts from my own experience and the experiences of others I have seen, particularly about finding where we belong within God’s plan. Please understand that other perspectives are also necessary. This is part of the beauty of being in Christ’s body: we have different vantage points but Jesus Christ glorified is our central goal and together we can turn to Him to seek wisdom!
Three points before I launch into some questions:
1. I do not endorse selfishness or rebellion or the release to do whatever you please. But I will say that many people I have met who wrestle with the church question are not the selfish, rebellious kind, but are honestly seeking to find their spot in God’s kingdom. We need to remember that our man-made perimeters are not always as correct as we think…it’s easy to put our individual stripe of our denomination above every other church, which is neither accurate nor honest.
Of course we tend to prefer the way we were raised because we understand it, and that cultural loyalty is good in many ways. But we also can become guilty of a terrible denominational arrogance, forgetting Paul’s advice to view others as better than ourselves. Humility is essential regardless whether we are leaving a church or watching others leave.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
Philippians 2:3 (ESV)
2. Associating closely with a different group of believers is not the same as leaving God’s church. Too many of us make a huge deal out of leaving one group for another. Why should it be such a big deal? Yes, stress on relationships often occurs and that shouldn’t be taken lightly. But I feel this truth must be firmly established in our hearts: God’s church consists of Christians everywhere, whether or not they are part of a specific group. You do not need to feel guilty for completing your work in one area of God’s kingdom and moving on to another area. God’s church is not stratified the way humanity makes it out to be.
3. God’s call does not need to be fully understood to be obeyed. I think we too easily make Planning the Future Step by Step a god. Heroes of the Bible often obeyed God’s call even when that call did not clearly dictate each step over the next five, ten, twenty, or fifty years. And face it—it isn’t faith if we have everything neatly figured out before we take a step of obedience. Yes, we need to have a clear sense of purpose, but the details of our lives do not have to be worked out. We do not have to know the future to be able to make a good choice.
If God places an unshakable calling in your heart to leave a place, and you have prayed and asked advice from your spiritual mentors and feel no peace until you obey—then obey. Trust Him to shed light on your path bit by bit. If you stay too long at a church that feels draining to you, you run the risk of completely burning yourself out on Christianity. Ask yourself this: if I am not active in Kingdom work now, when do I plan to start?
Now, here are some questions you can ask yourself if you are trying to decide what steps to take. These questions are mostly introspective, with the goal of enabling you to bless others as you understand how God is working in your heart.
-Do I feel a call from God to move to a different physical location? This was a major part of my own story. Will and I lived in a sweet country home in a wonderful Mennonite community. Will taught school for seven years, and during those years we invested wholeheartedly into the community. So much so, that after seven years we were burned out.
After a year-long break from school, Will and I began feeling restless. Our lives felt achingly empty. We rarely had contact with people outside our church group, and we started wondering what our purpose in life was. (I wrote about a turning-point in my life here.) Trying to find out if our church had a vision that we could plug into turned out to be a dead-end street.
Over time, we kept feeling the call in our hearts to move to a town away from the comforts of our community. The beginning of the transition for us was about following a call to relocate. This was very helpful for us to keep in mind when doubts attacked and people questioned.
-Is God calling me to do something within my current church group? Being part of a certain group for a long time gives us significant advantages in understanding the mindset and culture. If you have been part of a group for a long time, you will understand their places of weakness and their strengths, and will be able to contribute accordingly. Relationships take time to build, and having strong relationships with people makes it much easier to nurture change. Being called to stay is no less noble than being called to leave.
Some friends of mine invested heavily into an Amish church for around 20 years before they finally left. The blessings they gave that church are immeasurable. Because of their faithfulness to their group, this couple accomplished more than many people do in a lifetime! We dare not underestimate the effectiveness of a long, slow, patient work.
-Is my church group well-suited to meet the needs of the people I am bringing to Jesus? When we are raised in a specific culture, we don’t find it difficult to meet the demands of our own culture. But bringing people in from other cultures and requiring them to do things that aren’t in the Bible should make us ask some hard questions. We must figure out what we believe about church rules, communion, baptism, and a host of other doctrinal issues.
For example, the pain in my heart was nearly unbearable when I saw or heard of new Christians sitting in their pew crying because they were not allowed to have communion as they were not church members. To see Christ’s body divided like that was intolerable to me. Others may feel differently, but I could not stay and see that need unmet because I knew that a primary job of Christians everywhere is to bring others to Jesus.
-Am I being fed spiritually at my church? This seems selfish on the face of it; and yet, it is not selfish at all. Our relationship with Christ is of extreme importance. We literally must be fed or we will die. If we stay at a church that does not nourish us spiritually, we will need to find a source of spiritual mentoring and teaching outside of the group to give us strength to stay.
We are fed by being challenged; both by receiving spiritual truths and by actively making disciples. If your church neither challenges you to spiritual growth nor allows opportunities for a platform of influence, you may not be where God wants you to be.
-Is my spiritual gift being developed and exercised in this setting? Sometimes we have a false humility about spiritual gifts, believing that it is wrong for us to acknowledge what God has given us. This is a twisted way to view what is truly a gift from God. Spiritual gifts are given to us for the benefit of the church, not for our personal acclaim. When we do not develop what God has given us, we rob His church of what He longs for the church to have. If we are not exercising our gifts, is it because the church is keeping us from doing it or are we the ones holding back?
If we can wrestle with these questions of our place within God’s plan, I think we will be able to glimpse the bigger picture and feel more confident in following what He has called us to do.
This journey is not about finding a perfect church group, but about finding out where God wants us to be working for Him and gaining access and tools to do that work. The restlessness we may feel in a specific setting doesn’t mean that church group is no good; it likely only means that we are being called to a different (imperfect) place.
Sometimes people who have been burned by a religious system simply need some time and space to heal before they can be active again. God is faithful to keep speaking to us in the damaged places, so that He can restore us to fulfillment in His work.
When God calls us to a new place, I believe we should make the transition as peaceably as possible. Often a lot of pain and mistakes are involved on many sides. Looking back at my own experience, I see things I wish I would have done differently. However, I am grateful for the ways that Will and I tried to keep peace–naming the ways the church community blessed us and thanking people both publicly and privately, speaking respectfully of the leaders, and maintaining friendships by periodically connecting with the people again. When going through the leaving process, it’s easy to want to run away from all the pain and never look back; but over the long haul, going back into the painful places in an attempt to recognize and validate friendships can bring healing.
Transitions like this are not easy, because decisions to follow Christ may cost us friends and family. The change from comfort to discomfort is hard, and we desperately need the Holy Spirit to help us navigate the turns. Yet Jesus works with our imperfections and desires, enables us to go out with joy, and promises to reward His followers both in the present age and also in eternity.
And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Luke 18:29-30 (ESV)
How have you discerned your place within God’s church? If you are not actively working in God’s kingdom, when do you plan to start?