I have come to the conclusion that we are all very afraid of facing what is wrong with our churches – and thus, an entire body of messages has sprung up by which we attempt to – and succeed at – confusing ourselves and others in their process of attempting to find a group of believers to be a part of.
It starts off simply enough. You could be a new believer, who has never really been part of a church. Or you could be a believer who has had to move to a new geographical area, and is looking for a church to connect with. Or, you could be someone who neither of these things apply to, but who for whatever reason just wants to join a new congregation.
Now, I have to say, if you are in the latter category: you haven’t just gotten saved, and you haven’t just moved geographically – but you are looking for a church – you’re already in a bit of hot water. Because you’re already smack dab in the middle of all of the rhetoric that has built up over the years that is designed to keep you from doing exactly what you are hoping to do: ‘shop’ for a church.
First of all, if you’ve already been going to a church, it is a generally agreed upon concept by most people out in Christendom – although not stated explicitly – that you are really just not supposed to leave your church. At all. Ever. For almost any reason. Except when you have a good reason to leave. But don’t worry, because when push comes to shove, we have made sure that you NEVER actually have a valid reason – at least not by our measure of validity – to leave your church.
Not sure what I’m talking about? Then tell me if any of this sounds familiar:
“You shouldn’t be looking for what you can get out of a church, but what you can give.”
(This is a nice spiritual sounding phrase which effectively means that any belief you have about what a church should offer to your spiritual life is completely illegitimate as far as your church hunt is concerned. )
Good teaching? No – you aren’t allowed to need that. That’s too selfish.
Worship times that help you engage with God? No – you aren’t allowed to need that either. Because worship is a lifestyle, not something you do on Sunday with others. (Side note: please do not think you can skip church to go “worship with your life” without coming on Sunday morning. Even though the Sunday morning worship time is not real worship, you still need to be there.)
Community and friendship with others? No – that isn’t something you are free to want for yourself. You need to GIVE friendship, not ask for it. (And by the way, when you start learning how to be a friend, everyone at this church will be your friend too. If that hasn’t happened yet, it’s because you haven’t learned how to love others yet, so keep trying.)
People to share life with? Wait, are you telling me you’re at church because you’re lonely? How entirely selfish of you. You should be complete in Jesus without needing other people – and – again, learn to love others.
Opportunities to use your gifts and make a meaningful contribution to the body? This might sound all noble, but I assure you, if you want to use your gifts it is rooted in selfish ambition and that is definitely not a good reason to decide which church you should be in or not. Unless, of course, the types of gifts you want to use are financial. Please, in that case, give all the gifts you are reasonably able to give. Or, if your gifts are manual labor or some sort of hospitality/service gift – yes, yes, then definitely, use your gifts here. We appreciate that. In fact, it’s even OK if you burn yourself out. Because after all, church is about giving – not receiving. So please, give, give, give until you have nothing left to give – because it doesn’t matter if you are refueled at this church, you still are not allowed to leave. Church is about giving, not getting.
A chance to question things and be taken seriously? What, are you looking for a church for contentious whiners? I mean, come on. Learn to submit. Take up your cross already.
When it all comes down, it doesn’t matter how toxic or lifeless or visionless or warped or unengaging or cliquish or empty your church is – you may not leave it. There is NEVER a valid, good reason to actually leave a church.
If there is something wrong at your church, it is your job to single-handedly change it. Never mind that you aren’t allowed to teach anything at your church – if the teaching is bad, you can change it. Never mind that you are not allowed to lead worship at your church – if the worship music is bad, you can help change it. Never mind that you’ve prayed and asked for things to change in how your church serves others and you’ve tried to lead the way but no one has followed – if your church doesn’t have a meaningful sense of vision, and community reaching that vision together – YOU are supposed to change it. Never mind that the pastor doesn’t want the changes you feel are needed – it’s your job to stay there anyway, and either just submit to him, or somehow help change him. No matter what, you have two choices – either submit to things that make your heart groan with pain and longing, or, change things when you are given no position nor authority to do so (which actually sounds a lot like the opposite of submission, if you think about it) by some mechanism that hopefully you can figure out.
Look: my point in all this is not to suggest that every single time something in your church isn’t the way you would hope it to be, that you should get up and flee. But I hope I can get people thinking that we’ve cast these church decisions into a realm of extremes…where people are trapped in a litany of one-size-fits-all rhetoric of “always” and “never” when it comes to what they can feel is an appropriate stewardship of their time, effort, and connection with a group of people.
Some churches, sad to say, need to die. When they close their doors, the people in them will find better churches to be part of. It is unhealthy and codependent to stick around and prop up a church that is so dysfunctional that every week you are there, you want to leave. Even if that church should not die, even if its meeting the needs of some people, it’s obviously not the place for you. Get up. Get out.
People worry that they’re leaving a church for the wrong reasons. If you’re leaving because you just can’t handle all the great spiritual food, all the great people who truly care for you and pour into your life, and just hate the gospel, well, maybe you need to leave that too. If it’s a truly good church you are leaving where the power and love and presence of God is touching you and others in a consistent, constant way, and you can’t stand that, then I doubt that sticking around longer is going to change you. Maybe if you leave God will wake you up some other way, because obviously even the great church isn’t doing it for you. But really – is that really the kind of church you are thinking of leaving? Really?
Let’s kill this lie once and for all that the church isn’t for getting, it’s for giving. Because if the church represents Jesus here on Earth, are you really wanting to preach a gospel that says the christian life is about what we do for Christ, not what He has done for us? Really, truly?
I think the truth of how things really are meant to work in the body of Christ is that our giving should be the overflow of what we’re getting. The church should be a dynamic feedback loop where the overflow of the Spirit and all the riches of Christ are pouring into us through the body and we’re pouring those riches back out at the body and so together, we’re all increasing and growing together in Him, “as every joint supplies.” (Ephesians 4:16 is the direct quote, but the entire book of Ephesians is a great treatise on how the body is supposed to function overall.)
It’s incredibly crazy how the church preaches that we shouldn’t be “lone ranger Christians” and how we need each other, but then when you say you aren’t getting what you need, you’re told you need to be the lone provider. It’s unhealthy, it’s manipulative, it’s deceptive, and it’s just plain wrong.
There are great churches out there. If yours isn’t one, then seriously reflect: are you in a position to change that? Has God truly called you to that? Or are you taking responsibility on yourself when really you need to find people that you can grow alongside of, that are on the same journey as you and you’re all in this together?
We’re all called to be stewards of the gifts we have. If your church is a place you can band together with others to use those gifts so that others are blessed, then dig in, and stay. But if at the end of the day, not only aren’t you using your gifts in any effective way there, but you’re also not getting any of your spiritual needs met, then you’re in a bad, bad situation. You’re neither increasing in Christ nor are you helping the body increase. And all of us are called to do one or the other, or both, for our entire lives in Christ. Find somewhere you can either get fed, feed others, or do both – and move on. Do it for all of us – because we are ALL the church.
(Post script: someone after reading this post told me that they didn’t like the “defense of church consumerism” presented in the post. Thus, I wrote another post called, “A Defense of Church Consumerism” just to make sure the point I am making is driven all the way home.)