Monday, February 18, 2008

Still Thinking

A few days back I wrote a brief post on how I was thinking about leaving my church. It was partially in response to other bloggers who were having the same thoughts. My post prompted several very thoughtful responses in the comments section From Jared, Brian, Nancy, hennhouse, Lois, and Dan. It is Dan's comment that I think I want to respond to at length. First, here's what he had to say:
The phenomenon of leaving a church is largely a Western contrivance. It simply doesn't happen in other parts of the Evangelical world. David Wayne at Jollyblogger once asked a Ukranian pastor about this and that pastor said he'd never heard of people leaving one church for another.

One thing I believe the Lord is calling us to in this age is to stay with our churches. Part of our character building as Christians is to work out our differences with other believers. One reason the Church in America is so contentious is that we split rather than work it out. That's not in keeping with the Scriptures.

Good reasons for leaving?

1. Moving to another location out of the area, obviously.

2. Genuine abuse, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual.

3. Rank heresy on a continuing basis. But even then, this should be addressed at both a local and denominational level before one leaves. If one approaches the local leadership and they refuse to budge, then one approaches the denominational leadership. If the denomination refuses to do anything, then one has a good reason to go.
Dan's thoughts cause me to consider a little more deeply why I am thinking of leaving my church. I greatly respect Dan's wisdom (I've been reading his blog for a long time now), but I want to see if I can justify my own thinking on this matter as against Dan's counter-argument. This is not a matter of polemical sword-crossing, as I'm sure Dan understands. I want to emphasize that this is part of a process for me. I'm working out my own thoughts, not insisting on their correctness so much as testing them. In expressing them more clearly (I hope), perhaps I will discover that they simply don't hold up.

Dan, I think it's probably true that a cultural atmosphere in which many Christians seem to accept frequent church-switching as a routine part of the Christian life is not a good thing. The absence of long-term community (as opposed to fleeting and ephemeral instances of pseudo-community) is a real problem in our society. The church should present its own clear counterculture to the fleeting and ephemeral: something stable, long-lasting, and exceedingly patient. [Something like the Roman Catholic Church?!]

The church I presently attend began in the early nineties and over the years it has been almost entirely made up of people who switched to it from other churches. So in a sense we exist, we are what we are, because of church-switchers; some of these switched for the reasons you list above, but most because they were simply hungry and dissatisfied and lonely in their churches, thinking there must be something more to church-life than what they were experiencing.

I came to faith in the middle of life, having had absolutely no church background. The church thing was entirely new to me, and I didn’t know what to expect. I chose a nearby Lutheran church simply because it was nearby, and because it had midweek services (in those days I always worked on Sunday mornings). In other words, for reasons of convenience. I enrolled in an inquirer’s class and eagerly accepted everything I was taught there. My wife and kids saw a change in me and they started coming too. My children were baptized there and all seemed well for a time, but in the end (skipping the many gory details) we chose to leave for Reason #2 above. It was a very dark and nasty scene. We simply needed relief.

But even when our reasons for leaving correspond to one of your 3 requirements, that still leaves us in the position – whether we like to call it this or not – of church-shoppers. Most of the others who left that Lutheran church (there were many) struggled to find another Lutheran congregation. They had been Lutherans all their life, as had been their forebears. They were not about to abandon their historic confession. But me, I had no such loyalty. Anyway, I had come to question some of the things I’d learned at that church, especially regarding the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Having come to faith as a result of an experience that was plainly either madness or a supernatural intervention, I decided to look for a church that did not impose limits and sanctions on the Holy Spirit. But again I can’t say I made a thorough search and prayed the matter through. I attended a Vineyard church, wept like a baby, had hands laid on me, and realized that this was the place I wanted to stay. I was broken and needed healing. This seemed like the place to get it.

That was eight years ago. A lot has changed. The original pastor left. The church transitioned to a new pastor with a new approach. And most importantly, I have changed. [Question: why is it okay for pastors to leave, but not the ordinary members of the church?] It will be no secret to anyone who reads this blog from time to time that I believe that much of the contemporary church, in all its flavors and manifestations, has come unhinged from Christ. The conviction that Christ should be the anchor, the true North, both source and target of all that we do as a church, is something that has gradually become clear to me. Also, I have discovered that there is a counter-movement within the body of Christ to re-identify ourselves as a people of the Gospel. If I’m hungry, that’s what I’m hungry for. It took me a while to figure that out, but I know it now.

And here’s the point, if I knew back when I was first looking for a church eight years ago what I know now, perhaps I would not have chosen the Vineyard. I know also that if I were looking for a church now, I would not choose the Vineyard. I would spend a lot of time looking, I would drop in on a lot of congregations, and certainly more than once for each. In other words, I would make a thorough and patient investigation of the local church options, not leaping to anything without a good deal of thought and prayer.

But here I am. I attend a church in which I’m not entirely in sympathy, but which I have to admit is trying hard and is led by a conscientious pastor whom I respect for many reasons. There is much to honor here, and outright heresy is certainly not being preached. I have no desire to argue anyone into doing things differently, or to convince the pastor that the course which he has forthrightly set ought to be changed. Am I really doing so much harm by asking, might there be a place for me somewhere else where the Gospel message is preached every Sunday, and Christ is exalted above every human agenda? The church I’m in now was a kind of spiritual emergency room for my wife and me eight years ago. We were healed here, and we have been taught much here. But in a world where there is no capital-c Church (for better or worse), but only many churches with many agendas, approaches, emphases, and foci, is it not proper to look for the one in your community that seems (as far as you can tell) to be aligned most truly and forthrightly with what you read in the New Testament?

I resonate to the words of my old friend Lois, one of the commenters mentioned above, who along with her hubby (Hi, Rick!) chose to find a new church. Lois wrote:
We CRAVED the word of God. WE CRAVED the preaching of the gospel. We were starving and wasting away spiritually.... Was it difficult to leave? Yes. Were we sad to leave our brothers and sisters? Yes. Did we have to go? Yes. And the Lord has made up for all that we had to leave behind.
In closing, I need to emphasize once again that I am not so much on the verge of leaving my church as mulling the matter over. I'm giving it a lot of thought. And I value the thoughts of everyone I have so far interacted with on this matter.


Jared said...

If I were single, I'd be staying.

I've used that rationale in any event for about six years.

I think Dan's reaction appears to assume any reasons beyond those he listed are about convenience and preference. What I'm doing is not convenient. At all. And it's only about preference in so far as I prefer for my family (my children especially) to grow up in a church community that exalts Jesus. I have to think about them, not my own ambition to stick it out.

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I am passionate about reform from within. But care for my family has to take precedent over my own spiritual stubbornness.

Your friend Lois's words are wise. They capture both the biblical justification for leaving and the sheer agony that decision can be.

Anonymous said...

do you want any of my thoughs on the matter?

Bob Spencer said...

Nancy, you're very sweet to ask. The answer is, of course I do!

BTW, I've also been blessed by some of the links you've suggested lately.

dle said...


Thank you for sharing. Let me say to begin that I have appreciated your wisdom and heart contained in the various incarnations of the blogs you've written over the years. You're a solid man of God and I have great respect for you.

In response, I can only share what I am learning.

I gave three good reasons for leaving in the comment I posted last week, but there is a fourth. I'll get into that in a moment.

When it comes to the Church, I am convinced that my generation must step up. My wife and I have talked this over a great deal and we both understand that those of us between 35 and 50 are the leaders now. The Lord has raised us up to lead. We must lead.

Many people in my our age group are following a course of continued adolescence. Sociologists have made much of the slacker generation that doesn't want to grow up. We have the same problem in the American Church today. It's nearly pandemic. Too many of us want someone us to teach us. Too many want someone else to guide us. Too many want others to be responsible for us.

But it can't be like that. We have to be the leaders. Those of us in that 35 - 55 age group must stop relying on anyone else but God to lead us. The people looked to Moses and Moses looked to God. We have to be Moses right now. We have to lead.

Whatever church God has placed us in, we must be the leaders. If the church is off track, then we must help lead it back to where it should be. If it isn't meeting essential needs, then we must put ourselves in places to fill those needs. We must lead. The time for adolescence is over.

If we can't lead in the churches we are in now, then something is wrong. We're either not stepping up or we're not stepping out. Nine times out of ten, we're not stepping up. Not stepping out is more rare.

And that brings me to the fourth reason.

If we are thwarted in every way at a church we are a part of, if that church is falling down in too many things and will not accept our leadership, then perhaps it is time for us to step out. And by stepping out, I mean starting a new church.

That does not mean going to another church and repeating the "feed me, teach me, take care of me" model that too many people are pursuing, but standing up and leading.

I would also say this: If we do not have the blessing of our current church to go forth and lead in a church we start, then we should not leave until we have it. God is Lord of all. He either gently guides or He removes the impediment by force. A church will bow to one or the other. Time is the key here. If you are not released now to lead a congregation, then wait. God will either give you the blessing of your current church's leadership to go out and lead or He will remove the offending leaders who are preventing your leadership. He is faithful to those who seek His working in this way and are humble and ready to lead.

If your current church is not guilty of any of the previous three things I mentioned in my last comment AND you have proven yourself a leader within that church, then I would say that the restlessness you feel has one natural outcome: Go and lead a new church. Be the leader God is calling you to be. Otherwise, stay where you are and learn to lead within your current church.

Christian leadership has its own troubles that are unlike the troubles faced by the average person in the seats on Sunday. We need to lead, so we need to learn about dealing with those troubles. The best place to do that is where you are. If you have learned those lessons and God has blessed your leaving, then leave your current church and plant a new one that you lead.


Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree Dan. I Corinthians 12 describes the body of Christ. We are not all called to be leaders of the church. We are not all apostles, prophets, teachers, or miracle workers. There are those in the body who are sheep and need leadership.

I think there are other reasons to leave than the four you've mentioned. I think the failure of many in the modern church is not in the leaving, but in being so quick to leave. I think that we will find that if we stay in our local church, the differences and problems we have are quick to dissolve.

I know that I disagree with the leadership in my church sometimes, but have often found it to be related more to my own pride and arrogance than anything else. My family and I have thought about leaving before, but we have not. We want to be surrounded by people who embrace God and have a heartfelt desire to learn about Him and often we don't feel that is happening. We're not moving, there is no abuse, and no heresy. We're non-denominational, so there is nowhere to go other than the pastor, and he's leaving in May.

I'm not comfortable with the statement of "if that church is falling down and will not accept our leadership, then perhaps it is time for us to step out." Should we be foisting ourselves upon leadership, even if we are not called to lead?

I'm not attacking you Dan, I'm just trying to present another opinion. I'm firmly in the camp of not leaving a smoking crater in the middle of someone's comments section.

David said...

I've been struggling with the church swap thing for a while, due in part to what I see as a hardness of heart on the part of our little body to practice true repentance. We are called not to forsake the fellowship of believers, but what is provided as an example in the NT is far removed from what most of us consider "church." In short, I don't believe that the mainstream church experience is the fellowship of believers. So in that respect, most of us have forsaken the fellowship of believers long ago and didn't even know it.

If I've come to the conclusion I can do two things: Be transformational in my current place, and/or seek out true fellowship. I'm trying to do both in my current situation, and it's really hard! I've found others of like mind, but there are so many barriers to our joining together in fellowship, some I put up myself, others I know come from the accuser, and some are simply life. But perseverance is the key.

dle said...


We all know the 20/80 rule: 20 percent of people in a church do 80 percent of the work. That's largely because people won't step up and be leaders.

If you've been a Christian for more than ten years and are continuing to grow in love with the Savior, then guess what? You're a leader.

The lack of growth we see in the Church in America is largely because we lack real leaders. Too many Christians are prolonging adolescence and refusing to step up. They're content to sit and soak week after week. But that won't work. That's a lack of maturity and a lack of understanding of who they are in Christ.

Clay, you are called to be a leader. We all are. The days of being children are past. It's time to lead. You can do that in your church or you can be one of the small few in the West who are needed to plant a local church. Or you can sit on the sidelines and let other people do the work. But if you choose that latter option, don't expect blessing in your life. God wants leaders. He changes the world through leaders.

So let's lead or get out of the way.

Bob Spencer said...

Much to think about here, thanks to all the strong content in these comments. I'll marinate a little more on what you've all had to say and get back to you soon. Thanks for the excellent conversation!

Anonymous said...

hi bob!

i think the word chruch has as many definitions to different people as the word Christian does.

i had come to a conclusion that i do not want to dedicate my self to a denomination. i realize that any group that comes together becomes a denomination of sorts. but, i want to be only comitted to God of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit and to the body of Christ and not to a denomination.

there is the whole body of Christ of which some are alive and some are no longer on this earth. to me that is the church of Jesus.

i do love the church of Christ, the body of believers in Christ. i am a part of the body.

i do not belong to a denomination. i was raised in a methodist denomination. i sometimes attend gatherings of people that do belong to one. i also attend a women's bible fellowship that is open to anyone of any background.

also i have come to see that there is no perfect group or gathering of any kind. i think that we are just more comfortable with one form of brokeness over another. where ever we go we must always have it right in our own heart the reason why we are there. to be responsible for our thought and actions while we are there...about our selves and about others.

and as far as leading. the best leaders are followers. the people that are following Jesus and walking in the Spirit and prime examples to other believers and non believers. people learn best by seeing someone that is being a true Christian. Loving God and loving others speaks volumes. if each of us really lived what we profess to believe in our everyday life as well as in our meeting with other believers then i think that there would be a lot more unity and a lot more souls won for the kingdom of God.

so i agree with you Bob.

and actually, i see you as a leader... by your loving God and others and staying in the faith by walking in this life in the Spirit of God and by living out your belief in Jesus and in God's word.

The Spirit works through you.
keep the faith and continue to seek God. Listen to what the Spirit is prompting you to do... and pray always. you have signed up for a journey with God.

Alexander M. Jordan said...

I didn't see my comments so I'm posting one more time)

Hi Bob

I found this interesting discussion on your blog by way of Dan at Cerulean Sanctum. Your thoughts about leaving church are vulnerable and also resonate with me, since my wife and I also made a tough decision recently to leave the church we had been attending to begin attending another church closer to home.

The church we were attending had sound doctrinal preaching, and was a small body in which many were functioning as leaders. Nonetheless, they were various factors in our situation-- primarily illness and distance-- which kept us from attending church often enough to really build close connections/friendships. Admittedly we also felt some disappointment that those we had formed relationships with didn't reach out to us more during our frequent absences. They never seemed to quite understand the serious nature of my wife's chronic condition. My wife especially, felt let down by this.

I don't blame the church, but my wife has lingering feelings of disappointment. She feels she reached out for help many times but didn't receive the care she really needed. For my part, I don't blame the pastors of the church. I think they were trying their best and gave what they could, given their own serious burdens they faced during the past year. So given their circumstances and our being out so often, it's somewhat understandable that we didn't get as much care as we had hoped to receive.

Now I understand and agree with Dan's main point that churchgoers should be leaders and not just receivers. Nonetheless, there are seasons during which we need to be cared for so that we may get through them and hopefully get on track towards leadership. This is certainly my desire at this time.

Also, we did not leave on a bad note, but met with the pastors and our small group face-to-face to thank them for their care for us.

It may be that we could have stayed and that things would have eventually improved. Certainly the church had many positives. Yet we had to acknowledge the present reality that our needs at this time necessitate not only going to a church closer to home, but one that is well-established and mature and can hopefully help us through this tough season. I truly hope too that as we are healed we will be able to give back much more, as we both long to do.

I trust that the Lord in His wisdom will lead you to a good decision.



Anonymous said...

i did not mean to write and prime examples...i ment to write are prime examples. i do not think that we are all perfect prime examples but can be broken and we can be humble followers and that following is a prime example in the living out of the faith.

Anonymous said...

the living of humbly serving God in Loveing God and others is a great need toward unity in the body. and when we get closer to putting our eyes on Jesus Christ and our own faith and how we can promote the love of God to one another (one another meaning everyone) then we will see more unity. a question is does God give His Love to perfect people or does God offer His Love to everyone? we do not have to understand everything to know that we are to Love God and one another.

and when we look for a group to worship with we are looking for a place to share is to give and to recieve...both.

Anonymous said...

and giving and recieving is not always what we expect it to be or what we want it to look like.

sorry if i am rambling.

Anonymous said...

and sorry for my is bad...i know.

Anonymous said...

Coming in late to the party, I know... :)

I'm glad that you took to the time to write a separate post in response to Dan. I saw his comment in your first post and wanted to comment but quite honestly I was a little perturbed and thought better of it. I'm impressed by your grace and humility in how you handled the situation.

In reading through the comments here, one thing I notice is that those who have left churches or are thinking about leaving are not taking it lightly. It's definitely not a matter of convenience or preference, as Jared so aptly stated.

And the same for us. It's a serious matter and one which has caused much angst and misgivings. Are our motives right? Have we done as much to address our particular situation as we can reasonably do? How do we minimize any hurt feelings? But after 5+ years of wrestling with the decision we genuinely feel it's time to look at other bodies meeting in our area. I'll also mention that we've had several conversations with our pastor over the years so we're not just seething in our own juices, so to speak.

I have to agree with you Bob(and Jared), that there are reasons for leaving which go beyond abuse and heresy. Will my kids see the gospel integrated into what they are learning or is it mere facts and moralisms? Does the pastor preach encouraging, Christ-centered messages or does he make you feel condemned because you aren't trying hard enough. Now facts, moralisms, and the occasional wake-up call are not necessarily wrong but it's not a good place to camp out. It's what I would call an error of emphasis. And if a church is constantly emphasizing tertiary things and Jesus is not front and center then it's not the best environment to be in long-term.

As far as being "released" for leadership, I just have to scratch my head on that one. Why in the world would we start another church when there may be another healthy body that we can be a part of? And to say that "God will either give you the blessing of your current church's leadership to go out and lead or He will remove the offending leaders who are preventing your leadership" is, IMO, a bit naive. God has allowed terrible situations and terrible people to remain in power where we might think they should be removed. I just don't this principle of Dan's in scripture anywhere. Don't mean to pick on Dan, necessarily, but I honestly can't get my mind around where he's coming from on some of these. Sorry, Dan.

Anyway, many blessing Bob as you try to make the best decision in your situation.

Alexander M. Jordan said...

I was also thinking a bit more about Dan Edelen's comments here. I certainly respect him as a blogger and writer. Yet I think he carries his argument a bit too far when he says that if one has made the effort to get one's current church to implement changes in a biblical way and it just isn't happening-- then you ought to step out and begin a new church. Huh?

How many of us are gifted in all the ways necessary to start a new church? How many of us are even called to start a church? Certainly I agree with what I think are Dan's key gripes-- that American culture fosters a receiver rather than giver attitude among church goers and that longstanding church goers ought to be mature enough to be leaders. Yet it's a big leap, I think, to go from that idea to suggesting that everyone who leaves a church should take on the responsibility of starting a new one (especially if they are not equipped to do so).

As for staying in a church where you are in disagreement with leadership over the doctrine, direction and policies of the church, I think it takes quite an individual to stay in there and effect change in that kind of situation. Some perhaps should do so. But we are fortunate enough in America to have the option of finding another church where we wouldn't have to fight the leadership and so we would be free to concentrate on joint ministry. If we have humbly and patiently presented biblical concerns to the leadership and there has been no response, are the only options to stay put or to start a new church?

Those are legitimate options but another sensible option is to join a church where you are already more aligned with leadership and can grow and get busy serving together.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone have any thoughts about leaving a church just because you're tired of going to church?

I love God - really - I'm just bone weary of going to church.

Alexander M. Jordan said...

Hi Anonymous:

I suppose most people have at one time or another felt as you do. Yet I think we're each of us called to be committed to a local body of believers. We're supposed to grow in the Lord together through mutual encouragement, mutual service and mutual seeking of the Lord (Heb 10:24-25, Romans 12: 3-13, 1 Cor 12, etc.).

No church body is perfect, of course, and there are times when even an excellent church may become stale, yet not meeting together regularly with other believers is to cut oneself off from the body that we are all supposed to be joined with, each one doing their part.



Anonymous said...

I relate to anonymous's post. We left church out of boredom too. We just grew so tired of sitting and listening once a week to someone giving a lecture, singing a few songs and going home again. And we didn't really feel like leading others in systemic boredom either.

How did Christianity go from "Repent (or change the way you think), for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, right within reach!" to "Come with me and let's go to a meeting." Since when did a two hour, highly structured meeting become the highest expression of the Christian faith? I don't know, but I don't buy it anymore, and I don't see it in scripture (even the ones quoted). Since leaving traditional church, God has connected me with other believers in new ways that I couldn't have imagined by His sovereign ability! And we experienced more fruitfulness on the "outside" as others came to know Christ, and learn how to follow Him.

I know that if you seek Jesus, He will lead you and direct you in your decision. Regardless of what anyone's opinion is. End of story.

(I guess I'm part of that counter-current you described in your post).

Alexander M. Jordan said...

I would suppose that there is a fair amount of Christian liberty in how we structure the "getting together", but I also think that Scripture justifies including certain key elements as part of the "church" gathering that must not be neglected.

These would be, I think, the preaching and teaching of the Word with a gospel-centered focus, the breaking of bread, and prayers (Acts 2:42-45, 1 Cor 1:17). Also the sharing and generosity seen in the Acts 2 passage is something that is not often seen in our highly individualistic culture.

Speaking prophetically (which I think mostly means the explication/application of Scripture for the local body, as opposed to new "revelations") could also be a part of these meetings (1 Cor 14:29-32).

On the one hand, a regular structure probably can be helpful in that people know what to expect and thus can be prepared to contribute. On the other hand, static structure probably is detrimental to the creativity that the Holy Spirit may want to express in our gatherings. If we were more in tune with His leading there would probably be more spontaneity in the average service. It seems to me that most services, even in churches that are sound doctrinally, still tend to foster a passivity in the pews with the ones leading the service doing all or most of the ministry. A great need is for churches to learn to trust the Spirit more as He works through everyone in the body. How much more exciting it would be if all came to church with the expectation that God could speak through anyone, and that we too could minister. 1 Corinthians 14:26-27 says that each one has a "hymn, a lesson, a tongue, or an interpretation" and that all things must be done for "building up".

I think we desperately need to help everyone in the body to exercise their gifts, for this makes the service all the more beneficial for all, and if we believe Scripture, everyone does and will have something to contribute.

I think the boredom that some have mentioned here arises from services that foster passive spectators rather than active participants.

Anonymous said...

Curious posts "Anonymous" (both). I feel like I'm in a similar camp. I'm sure part of it is the drop-off in church attendance between high school and marriage that scholars describe, but it also seems to be a longing for something more pure and personal in one's Christian expression, i.e. not condensed into a couple of hours on one day and in four walls. Sometimes going to church for me is just so weird -- I'm expected to get cozy and "fellowship" with some strangers for a couple hours in a week only to never see them in the meantime?

Anyway... I'm kind of searching for something else, too.

Alexander M. Jordan said...

Hmmm. I sort of feel "anonymous" because my last 2 comments no one responded to. Ha ha.

Anyway I also relate to some of the concerns that Ben and the "anonymous" commentators were stating. The thing that concerns me though, is how is the longing for something more "pure" going to be met? I'm concerned about gatherings where people are supposedly trying to experience God in a more tangible, "pure" way but where the Word is being neglected (which unfortunately seems to me to be a trend). I began my Christian walk going to a pretty conventional Baptist church that I attended 15 years before trying more charismatic style churches for the next few years. During this period I became concerned with some of the teaching I was receiving at the charismatic churches. At the same time, I began a personal study of reformed teaching. I have come to believe in key principles of Reformed theology-- including Sola Scriptura-- the idea that Scripture, as interpreted by the Hold Spirit to our hearts, is sufficient to guide us into all the truth we need to live godly and fruitful lives. And that the Bible must hold the place of authority in our doctrine (how we live our lives) because it alone is the authoritative, objective revelation of God.

Of course, a church may be very sound in teaching along these lines, and yet, as Dan Edelen has been talking about on his blog, the "applications" may be lacking.

Certainly I long for a church where members really do take on one another's burdens and build one another up and help one another to experience God more through their modeling to one another of Christ's love. That kind of fruit is the Spirit's work and will only happen to the degree that we are abiding in Christ by obeying His commands. As to what forms of church will bring us to this fruitful place of godly obedience, again I think we need to think carefully and biblically to determine this. It is true that we are in a new covenant and now approach God through the grace that we receive in Jesus Christ. Yet God is still the same Holy God He has always been, so our approach to Him isn't something that we can just decide upon willy-nilly.

I guess my comments then have been to raise questions-- if one is leaving one church to go to another, what is our expectation and concept of church? And what is determining that expectation-- personal preferences, or the Word of God? Thanks for the provocative discussion.