Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Five Really Good Reasons to Leave Your Church

Recently, Relevant Magazine posted an article on their website entitled Five Really Bad Reasons to Leave Your Church. Essentially, it was a lament about the consumerist attitude that some take toward seeking a church, including "I'm not being fed," "I don't agree with everything preached," and so on.

As a pastor, I resonated with some of what the article was going for. It's important to remain in and contribute to a faith community, and if there are certain ministries there that you'd like to see offered, perhaps it's up to you to get it going. Being part of a church is as much about what you add to it as well as what you receive from it. So I think I understand the author's primary intent.

However, not everyone received the article that way. The reaction on Twitter in particular was incredibly nuanced and, oftentimes, polarized. And I understand that as well. While there does exist a certain contingent of churchgoers who hop from place to place and make the experience all about what they can get, seemingly without much consideration for anything besides their own felt needs, there is also a considerable group of folks who leave churches after a lot of prayerful thought and due to much more serious issues present there.

So it only seemed right to come up with another list of good reasons to leave your church. You certainly don't need my permission, but if I can help to give voice to some of this stuff with the 3-4 people who read this blog, then I might as well.

1. Abuse of any kind. My (admittedly limited) understanding of abusive dynamics is that they can be incredibly complex, and from the viewpoint of the one being abused, it can take a long time before one can finally muster the strength to leave such a situation. First, you truly have to realize and admit to what is happening, and even then it can be an emotional, spiritual, and physical battle to get away. There is often a lot of manipulation and guilt at play, and to finally stand up and leave can be a long, complicated process.

But abuse is abuse, and churches are as capable of it as any other organization or individual. Witness what the Catholic Church has been dealing with for the past decade. Consider the stories of emotional and spiritual captivity from former members of certain megachurches. Some churches--whether the way the system itself is set up or groups or individuals within--can be abusive places, and it may be under the guise of faithfulness, proper discipline, or outright denial about what they're doing. This--far and away, in my opinion--tops the list of good reasons to leave.

2. A very unwelcoming atmosphere. There's a reason why this commercial produced by the United Church of Christ a decade ago was received so well by so many:

It's because it spoke to what people had actually experienced.

There are churches of a single ethnicity that react poorly when those of another walk through the doors. Or those of a different economic class. Or those of a non-heterosexual orientation. Or [insert a million other differences that make people uncomfortable]. Even besides those glaring sorts of instances, there are churches that just don't welcome others very well. Granted, some desire and even work toward changing this dynamic, but others don't seem terribly interested. Some churches are incredibly closed off to outsiders in order to protect something that they think needs protecting, usually related to whomever holds power among the congregation.

My freshman year of college, I decided that I'd just walk down the street to an area church for Sunday worship. It was a large, fairly affluent UCC congregation that had a strong relationship with my school, so it seemed like a no-brainer. On two separate occasions during the Passing of the Peace, some people around me blatantly ignored me or refused to shake my hand. In the second instance, the person even said, "Huh, there's no one else around me to shake hands with." This instance was one of the last times I attended. Why stay in a church that isn't very interested in welcoming you into their fellowship?

3. You have questions, but nobody is willing to journey with you in exploring them. You read a book on evolution, think it's pretty convincing, and want to reconcile this new information with Genesis 1. You wonder whether Jesus would condemn people like Gandhi and Anne Frank because they weren't Christians. You wonder whether a story like Jonah really happened. The problem is compounded when you approach your pastor or fellow church members with these questions and are ignored, waved off, given a pat "just have faith" sort of answer, or become ostracized and accused of dabbling in heresy.

Such responses surely aren't going to make your questions go away. They only serve to keep people you thought you could trust from having to take them seriously. At that point, you may be able to let such questions go so as not to rock the boat any further…but probably not. So it may be that a new community where you feel more comfortable wrestling with such issues is worth seeking out. Trust me, they exist, and such questions excite and energize them.

4. Your needs aren't being met. There's a flip side to the argument that the original article makes about this point. His take is that if one brings up one's own needs, one is automatically deemed to be operating out of a consumer mindset or making the church about oneself. So, should a person who prefers hymns and liturgy stay in a place that only offers guitars and drums, and vice versa?

Simply put, certain styles are spiritually enriching and engaging to some and not others. The fact that someone chooses to leave a church because it's moving toward something more "contemporary" and upbeat and they find more meaning in the silence, story, and familiarity of something more formal, it makes much more sense to release them with God's peace than to accuse them of being selfish and abandoning their community. Forcing or guilting someone to remain while also refusing to offer what they need is a form of abuse (see #1).

5. You really are called to leave. Maybe you've been working for quite some time to change one of the scenarios mentioned above with little to nothing to show for it. Maybe certain changes to worship and ministries, necessary though they may be, are causing you to feel nudged away more and more. Whatever the reason, there really may come a point where you discern that it's time to part in the peace of Christ with this community that in the best of circumstances did help you grow, but wants to head on a path that you don't feel called to follow.

Maybe for this one you really do need to hear this from someone: you have permission to say goodbye and to move on to a different church. But make sure that you really do say goodbye, because it's most likely that the people there who love you are going to wonder about you if you just disappear. It's been my experience that people, when they leave churches, don't often explain why beforehand, and that can be to the detriment to those who remain. If they really listen rather than dismiss you as a "church shopper," it will hopefully give them a better awareness of themselves as they continue on in ministry.