People desire to leave their local church for a variety of reasons. Some are frustrated with their pastor’s preaching or someone in their community group. More often, people simply want to do ministry differently than what their church is currently doing. This frequently leads to frustration and even resentment.
For example, in training leaders around the globe, I often find that many people believe in the idea that gospel communities on mission should be a primary organizing structure for the local church. It excites them. They read the Book of Acts and believe that it describes these types of communities as God's desire for us as his people.
They go through trainings, they listen to resources online, they read articles, and they often come up to me after I teach and say, “I’m ready, but my church just doesn’t seem to get it. I think I am ready to leave and start something new. What do you think I should do?”
First, this is a big deal. This isn’t something that I, a mere human, can truly answer for anyone. But, instead of just staring at someone and making it awkward, I feel like something should be said. Plus, it seems that there is a mass exodus from local church families around the country. Instead of serving a local church, people are leaving to start stuff on their own, living life as a silo without the family of God at all. Some are leaving the faith altogether. (Check out this article on church attendance. I know this doesn’t speak to the issue exactly, but if people are giving up attending a gathering altogether, these numbers do speak into it in a general sense.)
I want to give you some quick insight if you are frustrated with the ministry approach of your local church.
Church Family Is Not an Option
When one wants to give up on the local church altogether and do it on their own, they’ll have to look back to the Scriptures and start asking some questions. At the very least, they must see how God has always formed his people, and for what reason.
We see from the beginning that Adam and Eve were in community with God, and that one of their main purposes was to be fruitful and multiply more image-bearers of God’s glory. Not only that, but God was the one who informed/formed Adam and Eve of their image (stating that they were "very good" before they did anything good or bad). He was their Lord.
When people became what they were not what God intended to be, he sent a flood to destroy mankind. You'll notice what he told Noah and his family afterwards:
And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1)
God then called Abram out of his land, to be a great nation and to create a large family. Then, God made Israel a nation. In both instances, God’s intent was the furthering of the image of what he was like (not because they were great or large in number as Deuteronomy 7 points out).
God then takes this same understanding into the New Testament. Jesus calls us his Church, his flock, his body, his new family to show off who God is and what he is like. Then we actually see this life lived out in the culture and context of the church in Acts.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
I love this passage because it speaks to what God intended for his people to be all along. Not only so, but it comes right after the Spirit comes upon his church at Pentecost. As we continue to read through Acts, and then the various other letters in the New Testament, we see this church life lived out among God’s people, empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit.
This understanding of being in community, empowered by God for the sake of the mission of God is all throughout God's story. And these are just a few examples.
Who is God and what is he like? One of the aspects of God is that he is triune in nature, meaning, he lives in community. One God in three persons. So, when we live in community, we are pointers to who God is and what he is like.
So, if you plan on leaving the church altogether, you have some serious questions to answer based on the Scriptures given to us by God.
My Church Doesn’t Get It
I started living out missional community life back in 2007 as a youth pastor. I didn’t know what it was called then, but the way I formed the group with our leaders and youth, it’s exactly what we were doing. We had the entire families involved, and the group was growing with believers and unbelievers. It was amazing. We did this for about a year and half, but then I was told by the Senior Pastor that the church didn’t support it because it wasn’t the traditional youth group he was used to. So, not only did they ask us to stop, but they asked me to step down. I was totally cool with it, because I told him I didn’t want to get in the way of the church’s overall vision for how God had called them to.
At that point, he asked me to head up our community groups to see how might be able to implement some of the aspects of what I was doing in the youth group for the church as a whole. I started to implement, but it just got out of hand. I started to get angry and I reacted in ways I wish I could take back. I was purposely preaching, teaching, and leading in ways that I knew was against the local elders’ views. Instead of taking them my thoughts and asking for their wisdom, I just acted. Even though I think the ways I was leading were more biblical, it was doing it in a way that was rebellious.
I’ve learned a lot from that experience. I’ve also learned a lot from others that have done a much better job than I have in submitting to their elders, as they desire to live as a gospel community on mission.
Here is what I’ve learned for those who desire to do ministry differently than their local church:
1. Go to your elders/leaders, tell them some of the things that you are learning, and ask them for wisdom. Most likely, the elders/leaders at your church love Jesus and his mission. They have a lot of wisdom for you to learn from. Seek it and take it to the Spirit. Do not go into any meetings with your elders/pastors as a know-it-all, but as a learner.
2. Ask them if you can start living in this way, under their leadership. Ensure them you do not desire to leave, or take people with you. You want to live in this way to see if God might use it to be a beacon of light to the church, rather than against the church. See how you can be a submissive servant to the church, instead of seen as a grumpy dissenter.
What if I Need to Leave?
There are times where you will need to leave the church to either start something new, or to go and join a new one. Even though I highly recommend going to be part of another church where elders are established, I know this isn’t the reality for many. But, if I may, and if you are still reading, allow me to give you some further insight on this process:
1. Do not dump a list of “why you suck” on the elders when telling them it’s time to part ways. I’ve seen many a people who keep everything to themselves for years, then dump the last 10/20/30 years of things that they hate on the elders, and then leave. That’s just not loving. That’s like your child coming to you at the age of 18 and laying out all the ways you’ve disappointed them and then walking out of your house. Be open and honest with your leaders, but give them time to take it in and time to change. Maybe they’ll give you insight on the ins and outs of why certain things are the way that they are.
Have you ever been around a child that walks all over their parents, are totally misbehaved and you can’t believe it? Then you find out that they have a major behavioral disorder? Sometimes context and insight help us understand. So, I’d tell you that if you plan on leaving, don’t make the decision alone, but take it to the leaders ahead of time and tell them your concerns. Be sure to give them time and space to speak into what you are thinking and seeing. What if God used you as a catalyst for change? What if God used the elders/leaders as a catalyst for change for you and your maturity?
2. If you leave, don’t speak against your church. Think of the apostle Paul in this. When he dealt with the Corinthian church that was seriously jacked up, probably far more so than your church, he had a ton to say about how much he saw the grace of God in them. Look at this:
I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:4-9)
Only after all this does he enter into correction. But, know this: People saw Paul as filled with grace for those he walked with. Most that leave their church are just the opposite. They have nothing good to say and sound bitter, spew slander, and are outright hateful against the church.
Think of this, who does this describe more? God or Satan? Who are you pointing to when you take this stance against your former church? You are not helping the cause of Christ by calling them out and being bitter, but you are aiding the work of Satan in showing that we are just a bunch of embittered divisive haters, instead of a family of missionary servants who understand we all have flaws and are in need of a Savior. Speak of your former church as you’d speak of the very bride of Christ. See the best in them. I am not asking you to lie about them, but every church family must seek to give the same grace that has been shown to them in Christ. Point to that, not the reasons why you think that they are the very sons of Satan. Think through, “How can I further the mission of Jesus in the way that I speak about my former church to others?”
Listen, I know this is far easier to write than live out. But, we are here to make disciples of Jesus, not further aid the work of Satan to destroy the work of the Church. When we decide to make hasty decisions to leave the local church, or to speak against her, we do just that – we are aids for Satan’s work. This doesn’t mean that we don’t leave the church, but the way we leave can show how we can have healthy disagreements, part ways, and still love each other and hold Jesus high in our lives and words.
The decision is not an easy one when speaking of leaving. But, if you could ask yourself this:
How would I want my son or daughter leave my house when they get older? How would I want them to handle themselves? How would I want them to speak of us, their parents to their friends? What would I want the process to look like?
Start answering these questions, and you’ll be well on your way of leaving, if it’s a must, in a healthy, God-honoring way.
Seth McBee is the adopted son of God, husband of one wife, and father of three. He’s a graduate of Seattle Pacific University with a finance degree. By trade. Seth is an investment portfolio manager, serving as President of McBee Advisors, Inc. He is also a MC leader/trainer/coach and executive team member of the GCM Collective. Seth currently lives in Phoenix, AZ with his wife Stacy and their three children: Caleb, Coleman, and Madelynn. He is also the artist and co-author of the wildly popular (and free!) eBook, Be The Church: Discipleship & Mission Made Simple. Twitter: @sdmcbee.