There’s one more thing we ought to take a look at in this series. Sometimes you need to change churches. The census bureau tells us that on average, 1 in 10 Americans change residences in any given year, and many of those moves will necessitate changing churches. Sometimes a church closes. Sometimes an opportunity arises, one you feel compelled to take. Sometimes you just have to leave.
How to proceed?
First, when do you leave?
Most of the examples I’ve listed above are pretty straightforward—your boss transfers you to Poughkeepsie, or your church closes its doors. But sometimes people feel that they need to leave their church and go somewhere else. What are the appropriate reasons to do so? Others have written on this, I think with varying degrees of accuracy, but I’d like to suggest a few:
- False teaching. The church embraces denials of the fundamentals of the faith and will not change their thinking. Get out. Now.
- Unrepentant, unaddressed sin. If that’s going on, you confront, you call for repentance, and if they won’t listen, repent, and clean up the mess, you move on. And shake the dust off your feet.
- Violations of conscience. Paul says you have to listen to your conscience (1Co 8.7-13); I’ve written on that before. If you and your church leadership disagree about a matter, and you can’t come to a compromise or accommodation, and your conscience won’t give you freedom to follow their leadership, then for the sake of your conscience you need to be elsewhere. You wish them well, you don’t make a scene, and you most certainly don’t shake the dust off your feet. But you leave, for the sake of your conscience.
- Ministry need. Maybe there’s a church plant in your town that could really use the help. Your church can absorb your departure, and you talk it over with leadership, and they send you with their blessing. The Antioch church did that with Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13). The Spirit pulled Philip out of a highly successful evangelistic campaign and took him out into the boonies to find one guy who was looking for Jesus (Acts 8). My former pastor did that, and it involved moving cross-country. I’ll confess that when he first told me what he was thinking, I said I thought it was a bad idea; but I eventually came around. 🙂
What now? How do you decide where to find your next church family?
Well, you start with the non-negotiables. The Reformers spoke of three marks of a true church: the Bible rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and discipline rightly applied. Here’s my list:
- Doctrinal fidelity. Read their doctrinal statement (they do have one, right?), determine that you can subscribe to it, and see whether the preaching and practice support it.
- Biblical preaching. Probably it’s expositional, but topical and other forms are defensible if it’s solidly based on the Bible. Jesus used story-telling. 🙂
- Discipleship. Believers are being encouraged and helped to grow in the faith.
- Discipline. If you’re joining so you can get kicked out, then that has to be an actual possibility.
Then there are the preferences. These are important, but I’d be willing to join a church that wasn’t there yet but seemed to be on the way, or at least willing to move in that direction.
- Vitality. I judge this from the congregational singing. Is there worship? Is there joy?
- Prayer. Do they pray? Do they mean it? Is there broad participation?
- Evangelism and outreach. Are believers being encouraged and equipped to win the lost? Are they doing so? What does their neighborhood think of them? Is there an active missions program?
- Care. Do members care about and for one another? Is somebody looking after the widows? Will there be a place for you to serve where they need some help? (They all need help; the question is whether they recognize that or not.)
- Giving. Do the members support the church financially? Or does the church lurch from financial crisis to financial crisis?
Church life is really, really important. It’s one of the main reasons you’re on this earth. Find a good church, and embrace it. It’s part of the way God grows you in Christ and gives you victory.