Monday, July 26, 2010

When Should/Shouldn’t we leave a Church!

ChurchBuilding I have been pondering this thought a lot recently and have been meaning, for some time, to write some of my thoughts down about it. It probably would have been a very controversial post for a number of reasons that I will not go into on a public space (but I linked to a nicely balanced viewpoint on the subject below, instead of getting myself in trouble ;-) ). People come and go in a Church congregation for many reasons, it is just the way it is. We cannot force people to stay though the reverse may occasionally be necessary. However recent events have made me think about what are ‘legitimate’ or positive reasons for leaving a church and what should be considered ‘insufficient’ or negative reasons.

There are two broad ‘categories’ of people who leave churches. Those that leave and do move on to another church and those that leave, effectively never to return. I think very broadly speaking those that move on to another church would be considered true believers and those that leave and don’t return to the body of Christ ‘could’ (emphasis on could) be considered to not have been true believers. They partook in Christian stuff for a while but were never truly submitted and regenerate.

Please don’t hear what I am not saying. I want to make clear it is only for God to know who are His unto salvation, sheep, and who are not, goats, to use a biblical terminology. We are not to go through our churches looking to route out goats in the congregation. However it is clear from scripture that there should be fruit in a persons life if they are saved and it ‘may’ be a sign of a persons not surrendering their life to God if they show no long term fruit (but by no means the only reason). There is much more that could be said about that but that is not the point of this post (No doubt I will be accused of being judgemental etc….). But where do I get the distinction and my line of reasoning from? Well the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13. More on that below to give insight into why people may leave the body of Christ for all intents and purposes permanently.

Reasons to Leave a Church

  • Category 1 – Those that move on to another Church. This has been written HERE far clearer and probably less controversially than I may have written it. So that link is really the answer to the question posed in the heading.

    leaving-arrivingWhat is clear from this is that there are actually few ‘good’ reasons to leave a church that you have committed to in membership and much of the time leaving has more to do with your own wrong heart attitude and pride than any actual perceived ‘good’ reason. Harsh I know but the list given under ‘Insufficient Reasons’ are all basically wrong attitudes of the heart and pride fuelled.

    That being said God is Sovereign and if a person decides to move on whatever the reason then they should go with blessing in the hope that God will use them and bless them wherever they end up. We also must examine our hearts to make sure pride and self righteousness is not causing us to think negatively towards that person. They are still our brother or sister in Christ irrelevant of church choice.
  • Category 2 – Those that ultimately fall away/leave never to return.

    Looking at this second group of people is really a deviation away from the question in the heading which is mainly in regard to those that move churches.

    However it is a sad truth that over the now 21 years of being a Christian I have seen so many friends, who, for all intents and purposes appeared to be saved, turn their backs on God and His church. People that when I became a Christian and joined the youth group, seemed to be so on fire for God. Some even going on mission trips to foreign lands etc… People who I looked up to and who taught me much about God as a new believer. They Challenged me where I had incorrect thinking or actions and seemed to worship God far more enthusiastically than I did. Many of these are now living lives with no participation in the Body of Christ and with no active spiritual relationship with God. Some are even hostile to the church, full of criticism and accusation.

    Much of the criticism may in fact be true. It is true that often the late teen early twenty something age group is not catered for well in many churches. The transition from youth to adult in a church is often a difficult one. When the temptations of the World are suddenly opened up in all their life sucking glory. Suddenly the young person is no longer closely shepherded by the youth leader and can be cast adrift a bit if there is nothing in place to help the transition into the main adult congregation.

    However is it equally true that much of what is given for reasons to walk away from God are simply thinly veiled excuses to go and do your own thing. A heart truly submitted to Christ, yes can and does rebel and can live that way for a time, but will ultimately realise that living this way is foolishness and totally unsatisfying if you have truly tasted the Life Christ offers.

    It has always saddened me deeply seeing this, especially people I considered good friends. I of course don’t know their position before God. But I do know God is the father of the prodigal and will always welcome stray children home. I pray that they return and surrender to God again and that God reaches into their lives and brings them face to face with His awe inspiring majesty and beauty.

    Going back to the Parable of the sower. Where could these folks fit in with Jesus’ teaching. They seemed to respond to the Gospel so they are not the seed falling on the path, Matthew 13:4. So they must be either the Rocky Ground or thorny ground.

    [5] Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, [6] but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. [7] Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
    (Matthew 13:5-7 ESV)

    But what does that mean. Who are the Rocky ground people and who are the thorny ground people? Jesus interprets this parable for His disciples.

    [20] As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, [21] yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. [22] As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
    (Matthew 13:20-22 ESV)

    My understanding of these two is that the rocky ground people are those that give a response to the Gospel upon hearing it but that it is only a head/heart response. There is no spiritual soul regeneration within the person by God. Therefore they appear to be saved and do all the Christian stuff but having no root turn their backs when either pain and sorrow and hardship strike or simply find the shiny temptations of the world apparently more satisfying than Christ because they never truly saw Him to start with.

    The Thorny ground people I think are actually saved and have their soul made alive in Christ but ultimately bear no fruit because they never get much further than being saved and settle there because they are deceived  into being satisfied with the things of this world rather than with God. We all are to a point in this category and all go through our lives making idols of things other than God. I think it is a warning from Jesus to not be satisfied with trivial Christianity but in order to bear fruit we must be buried in and stand on the deep roots of the word and be nourished and empowered by the Holy Spirit as we are gradually Sanctified.

    Now the above two may look quite similar and only God knows the difference. They may leave the church for any number of reasons. Be it hardship in life or the hot potato of suffering, a relationship, sex, money, career but all ultimately because they have never truly been captivated and fallen in love with the beauty of Christ.

As I have said already ultimately only God knows the state of a persons heart towards Him and we must not go around making judgements about the actions and heart of our fellow brothers and sisters wondering if they are really saved. Be FAR MORE concerned with our own hearts and work to removing the huge planks in our own lives before judging the speck in someone else's.

So there you have a brief look at why people leave a church and may or may not return or go elsewhere. Hopefully I haven’t said anything too out of line or controversial here!!

1 comment:

Alastair said...

I am one - I left one particular tradition and was led to another when I started exploring the wider traditions of the Christian Church and embarking upon my first Theology degree.

When I was in London I discovered that on average larger Evangelical Churches have an 80% turnover per annum, yet broader Churches have very little turnover. Most big churches have lots of new people come in every year which often disguises the fact that lots of people have gone out too. As you know I'm just a wishy washy liberal, but I do spend a lot of time with folk who, like me, have moved away from those roots either to a broader view of faith or who have because of this experience left behind church altogether - I do realise I am in the minority, in that I have stayed in the Church at all (even if those in my previous church consider me now to have rejected 'the elect' because I have moved on).

My greatest sadness in encountering people like this is that they have usually only been to one kind of Church and decided (partly because it's the message preached from the front) that that is the only way to do Christianity, and it's not for them! There's so much more than is presented in any one Christian tradition, and even after thirty years of my own journey with Jesus I'm just beginning to see something of the depth, width, height and breadth of the love of God as shown throughout the ages in traditions of all kinds.

Thanks for your thoughts and reflections, Andrew, always appreciated (even when sometimes disagreed with)!