The question in the title of this article came up in a lecture today by one of my professors at seminary. However, he just mentioned it in passing as he was speaking about churches and covenant membership. His point really had nothing to do with the need or responsibility of church members to communicate with their pastor regarding God's calling to move elsewhere, yet, it was mentioned. It caused me to think about this more deeply.
Any pastor who has stayed at one local church for any length of time (let's just say, five years or more) knows of the inevitable church member exodus that occurs at times (hopefully not all at once.) Members choose to leave the church for various reasons. Sometimes, these reasons are biblical, godly, and right. Sometimes...well, they fall in another category.
Does God Call Church Members to Leave?
The answer to the above question is "absolutely." God often calls his children to places of service in other churches. We have seen this in our church as individuals or families have moved to help launch new church plants, help revitalize dying churches, join a community church where they live and work, and even to join a church near their home following a work transfer or relocation.
However, God sometimes gets blamed for church transitions that have little to do with his calling. This may be due to building frustration within the church body, personal embarrassment, disunity, disappointment regarding certain ministries, not feeling one's needs are met, not being fed spiritually, or just a desire for change for the sake of change.
When It's Right to Leave
Yes, there are times when leadership in the local church goes off course doctrinally and biblical fidelity has been forsaken. Sometimes leaders have been revealed as unrepentantly immoral. When there is no shifting or righting of these wrongs, I believe God does release his sheep at times to a new under shepherd (pastor) and flock (church.)
The reasons people leave the local church are as unique as the individuals who make up the local church. Sometimes, unrepentant, found sin becomes the catalyst for the pending good-bye. Paul's address to the Corinthian church addresses this, so it's not just a modern issue.
Things to Think Through Before Good-Bye
As I think through the process of seeing church members leave, much comes to mind. At this point, here are some things I've gleaned regarding this inevitable reality:
- God calls His children to serve where He wants them, without seeking their vote for approval (this goes for pastors and church members.)
- There is no perfect church. If you find it, don't join it. You'll ruin it's perfect record.
- There is no perfect pastor. Believe me, they're as flawed as anyone and need much grace and mercy.
- Your pastors are not omniscient. They do not know what you're feeling unless you tell them. Yet, the way you tell them may not be heard if done without grace.
- Church is supposed to be family. It grieves me when new members never fully engage or become part of the family story. It also grieves me when family members seemingly disappear, or walk away angry.
- Disunity is easy. In church. In family. In life.
- Changing churches in search of the perfect youth ministry, children's ministry, men's ministry, women's ministry, missions ministry, coffee, music, etc. will leave you always on the move.
- Abandonment of the gospel and ignoring biblical truth, doctrine, and orthodoxy by pastors and church leaders disqualifies them from leadership. If they refuse to repent, God will likely release you from that fellowship (unless he wishes to use you for a revival of biblical fidelity in that house.)
- Seeking a church that matches your current political ideology will likely leave you with theological gaps in your life.
- You may not be remembered for how you came into the church, but you will be remembered how you leave it, if done so with vitriol and anger. (from Carey Nieuwhof.)
- "I'm not being fed" may be the most overused reason excuse given. Take my advice, don't say it. If it's true, it's perhaps the most non-constructive thing you can say. On the other hand, it may just reveal that you desire being spoon-fed biblical milk rather than served spiritual meat, complete with your own knife and fork.
Everyone Eventually Leaves
This is truth. There is no one who remains for eternity as a member of their local church. You will either leave your church because you have been relocated due to work, school, or circumstance, because you are called by God to serve Him elsewhere, because you just desire a new church for whatever reason, or because you have died.
Thabiti Anyabwile wrote an article a number of years ago titled "5 Things to Do Before Leaving Your Church." The five things are:
- Share Your Thinking/Reasoning with the Leaders
- Resolve Any Outstanding Conflicts
- Express Your Appreciation for the Church's Ministry in Your Life
- Say "Goodbye" to Friends and Family
- Be Honest with Yourself about Your Own Efforts, Motives, and Failings
These are just the points. I recommend you read the entire article available at The Gospel Coalition here. Remember, the church is family ... and family life is not easy.
"Parting is such sweet sorrow." - William Shakespeare