Have you ever felt like going to church isn’t encouraging anymore? Maybe the sermons are dull and the conversations you’re having with people consist of the same old small talk. Perhaps you feel like you’re not really growing anymore in your walk with God. Maybe you find yourself thinking, “Hmmm, what about that cool church in the next suburb?”
But changing churches is a significant move for Christians. What are the biblical considerations we must take into account when thinking about leaving a church? What are some of the reasons to do so specifically mentioned in the Bible, and what are some of the grey areas? Before we get into any of that, however, we need to look at what the Bible says church is and what it is for.
What is church and what is it for?
When the Bible talks about the “church”, it generally refers to a local regular gathering of God’s people. The church is the community of God’s people united in Christ where Christ is present through the preaching of his word. You can say we’re a family with God as our Father as the Bible describes our relationships with each other in filial terms: for example, the apostles greet their readers as “beloved brothers” numerous times (e.g. Rom 14:10-23; 2 Thess 2:13; Jas 1:16), and Jesus calls those who do the will of God his brothers and sisters over and above his natural family (Matt 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35). This means that when God calls us to love one another and spur each other on, it carries on the filial vibe.
Furthermore, the local gathering is a visible representation of the invisible reality of all of God’s people gathered before God’s throne in worship and praise (Heb 12:18-24). It is testimony to God’s mighty power, reconciling people to himself and to each other through Jesus Christ, effected by the Holy Spirit (Eph 3:8-12). It is about God bringing near those who were once without hope, alienated from God and his people, through the blood of Jesus Christ (Eph 2:12-13; 2 Peter 2:9-10).
When God’s people gather, it is to meet God in his word. The word is preached and spoken to each other for mutual encouragement so that we grow in faith, love, unity, and godliness (Eph 4:11-16; Heb 10:24-25). As we gather, we show to the world and the heavenly realms God’s wisdom and love in bringing such a diverse people together and giving them purpose, hope and life (Eph 3:10).
When should you leave your church?
Given this glorious picture of what church is for and what it’s supposed to be like, is there ever time when it’s good and right to leave yours? Here are three good reasons.
Firstly, you should leave if your church is engaging in false teaching. I’m not saying you should leave when you suspect there’s a bit of it; leave when you’ve done all you can to point out the falsehood (including speaking to the leadership about the falsehood and how it impacts the congregation) and seen no effort to change (cf. 2 Cor 11:1-15; 2 John 7-11; Rev 2:12-29). A church that spreads false teaching is not one you should be part of.
Secondly, you should leave if you do not see any church discipline. By this, I mean sin is not being dealt with in the congregation so that it goes on to impact other people in the church (1 Cor 5; Rev 2:18-3:6). For example, in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul calls upon the church to discipline the sexually immoral person. The reason for doing so is twofold: it’s for the good of the sinner—that he may see the severity of his sin and repent (v. 5)—and it’s for the good of the congregation—that they might not follow him in his sin (vv. 6-7).
Thirdly and finally, you should leave if you are given the opportunity to serve God elsewhere. The church sends people out to serve. This could be sending them to be trained as missionaries or sending them for theological training. Take Timothy, for example: he left his home to go with Paul, and later on, Paul left him at Ephesus to serve the Ephesian church and other churches too. If God has called you to serve him somewhere different, you should obey.
What if I’m not feeling fed and encouraged?
Often, however, our desire to leave church is not because of false teaching, lack of church discipline or God’s call. Often it’s because we feel spiritually malnourished and discouraged.
Here we are moving into a grey area: this is not something explicitly mentioned in the Bible. Your church may not be functioning the way that it should (i.e. people are not being mutually edified). But at the same time, we can’t expect all churches to be perfect.
When we feel that we’re not being fed and encouraged, a good place to start is self-reflection: ask yourself, “How may I have contributed to this?” For example, do you feel bitter towards the leadership for some reason? Have you closed yourself off to relating to others at church? If you disagree with the direction of the church, why is that the case and have you spoken to anyone about it? If you’re not serving in the church, why is that the case? If you are serving, then, how does that contribute to your feeling of wanting to leave? The reason why reflecting on serving is helpful is because many people feel disengaged at church since they’re not serving in some way, or they feel like their gifts are not being used to build up the church. After some self-reflection and prayer, reach out to the leadership to talk through your issues. Remember, church is family: there may be ups and downs and hurts, but we’re still family—a people who are one in Christ. This means our first response is always to try to make things work.
Self-reflection and reaching out to the leadership could make a positive difference to church and to yourself. It could also reveal that your motivations for changing church are ungodly. It is not a sin to change church, but it can be done in a way that is divisive and undermines the leadership. So if you have taken all reasonable steps to try to make things work, then perhaps it is time to explore other churches where you could serve and be edified.
(For further reading on this topic, see Simon Flinder’s little booklet, Time to go: the what why and how of leaving church.)