How to Know When to Go

Dear new believer,

The biggest mistake I made in leaving the first church I was a part of was I didn’t leave soon enough. I know that sounds awful, but let me explain.

The last time I wrote, I shared that during my time attending and serving in this church—which at that point had been the only one I’d ever been a part of—I knew there was a time coming when my family and I would no longer be a part of it. As my convictions about doctrine and the doing of ministry continued to develop, I found myself, more of than not, holding to a position out of alignment with theirs. I’m not saying either was right, or one was bad and the other was good.

It’s just that we didn’t fit.

One Sunday in the fall of 2008, the associate pastor was preaching—and I mean preaching. There was a fire in his words that I’d never heard before or since. He spoke from Acts on being sent into the world to spread the gospel, and how God used persecution to disperse the early believers so the gospel would go forth. I was right there with him through the whole message, and as we prepared for the closing song, I had this strange feeling that I needed to ask to be sent out.

The whole time as we sang, it nagged at me. “Ask to be sent out. Ask. Now.”

I didn’t.

And I really wish I had because within a few weeks, I was probably the angriest churchgoer you ever did see. The preaching had never been particularly stellar, but it seemed to take a turn for the worse as the church began employing the language and ideas of a bunch of hip guys who hate Jesus (or the Jesus of the Bible, at least). I would go and listen to the message and on the way home would be venting about everything that was wrong with what I heard. I constantly felt anxious about even going on Sunday and was eager to skip. My wife and I both agreed this had to stop because we didn’t want our kids thinking I hated church (which I don’t) or that I think pastors are untrustworthy (which, again, I don’t).

There are a number of bad reasons to leave a church: You don’t like the music. You had your feelings hurt by someone. You don’t perfectly agree with the preaching. You’re bored and want to see if the grass is greener elsewhere. None of those are particularly good reasons to leave. In fact, in most cases, they’re down right terrible ones. But there are some really good reasons to leave, though for the sake of time, let’s focus on three.

You may find that you simply can’t submit to the church’s leaders in good conscience. This is especially important for anyone who serves in a formal or informal teaching role, like a small group leader. If your views or convictions are truly just too different, it’s better to leave and find a church you more closely align with than stay and risk becoming a source of division. This is a valid reason to leave, and one where it’s possible for everyone to part as friends.

However, if the sheep are not being shepherded, it’s almost impossible to leave on great terms. That’s because it involves a failure on the pastor’s part.

You’ve probably noticed that the authors of Scripture frequently use the imagery of a shepherd to describe the role of a pastor:

A shepherd cares for his flock, meeting their needs and tending their wounds. He leads his sheep to green pastures where they can find good food. He protects them from danger. And so on.

And so it should be with a pastor who has been charged with keeping watch over your soul (Hebrews 13:17). A pastor “feeds the sheep” by preaching the Scriptures, week in and week out, in season and out of season, whether it’s convenient or not. They also encourage you to feed yourself by helping you to recognize good spiritual food: teaching sound doctrine, encouraging you to read good books and teaching the discipline of spiritual discernment.* They oppose heresy in all its forms and, when necessary, warn the congregation of the ravenous wolves seeking to devour them.  

That’s a huge part of what a pastor does. And perhaps ironically, virtually every list I’ve seen about bad reasons to leave a church has said it is not a good reason. But this is what theologians call poppycock. A pastor’s job is to feed you, and to help you learn to feed yourself. If that’s not happening, then you may find one who will.

Finally, if the gospel is being diminished or God himself is being misrepresented, you must leave. The final Sunday I attended my old church was one in which this happened, with perhaps the most dreadful butchering of John 3:16 I’ve heard to date—one that presented God as having no anger toward sin and sinners, only love and acceptance for all (this despite John 3:17-20).

Now, the truth is, knowing the leaders there, they actually know the gospel and believe it. But they’d bought into the notions that the swill peddled in the Christian bookstore put forward. They were trying to inoffensively welcome people into the kingdom of God. And while many people left unoffended, I doubt anyone left saved.

Even so, I was done.

I came home, and told Emily I could never subject my family to the teaching there again. And we didn’t. That week, I told the pastor we were going to leave. It was a polite meeting, but I could tell right away that he was hurt that we were leaving. This was the man who had baptized Emily and me, after all. The man who had performed our wedding, and counseled us through those tumultuous first months as believers. And though we are polite to when we see each other today, we do not seem to have a warm relationship.

Had I obeyed the prompting I felt that Sunday in 2008, perhaps things would have been different. Perhaps I would have stories of how grateful I am that they encouraged me to obey what I was sensing from the Lord. Instead, I have my regrets.

Leaving was the right move for me. But, I didn’t leave well. Should you ever find yourself in that position, I hope you will not make the same mistake. 

* For a great read on this subject, check out Tim Challies’ book of the same name.