When it’s time to go: The what, why and how of leaving church

People leave churches all the time. They may do so gradually or suddenly, they may do so thoughtfully or on a whim, and they may do so with godliness or with great unholiness, but the reality is that people do leave. Pastors may not like it, but some of us have to face the fact that the reason our church isn’t growing is because no matter how carefully we’re welcoming and integrating newcomers, all we’re doing is keeping pace with exiting ‘oldcomers’!

Church leaving is a pervasive and regular occurrence, and it has no small impact on the Christian communities of which we’re a part. Yet despite the weight of the issue, it’s not something we reflect on thoughtfully too often. So that’s what I’d like to do with you in the space of the next couple of pages—to think God’s thoughts after him, with a little bit of objective distance from the frustration and confusion and grief associated with people leaving church.

What church is

To begin, we ought to reflect on what the Bible tells us about what church is. We’re thinking here primarily about the local church—partly because that’s what chiefly concerns us when we come to a question like this, but also because the local church is what the Bible has in mind the vast majority of the times it uses the word ‘church’.1

So what is the local church? Let me run my working definition past you:

The local church is a family of believers who gather in a habit of love, who depend on each other in service, and who listen to God in humility as his word dwells richly among them.

There may be lots of other things we’d want to say from the Bible about the marks of the local church—that it is subject to the authority of godly leaders (e.g. Titus 1:5-9); that it is radically concerned for its own holiness (e.g. 1 Cor 5); that it is expectant of the outsider’s presence when it meets (e.g. 1 Cor 14:22-25); that it practises the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (e.g. 1 Cor 11:17-34); that it is marked by prayer, prophecy and praise (e.g. 1 Cor 11:1-16; Col 3:16); and that it may include men and women exercising different responsibilities when they gather (e.g. 1 Tim 2). We might want to mention all those things. But more fundamentally, the essence of what church is seems to me to be summarized by the working definition I’ve just given. Let’s break it up and think about it one idea at a time.

A family of believers

While outsiders may be present when the local church meets, church is not fundamentally for the outsider, but for the believer. The local church is what God forms when people in some sort of geographical proximity are all united with Christ by the gospel—because when people become Christians, they are impelled by the Spirit and taught by the word to meet with others. So when two or three (or 80 or 90) all love Jesus and start meeting together, they form a church. This is the pattern we see in Acts—a pattern that the rest of the New Testament assumes.

Moreover, because the Christians in any given place are all in Christ together, they are a family; they are all adopted children of the same heavenly Father. They are invited by the Scriptures to consider each other as brothers and sisters with Christ and with one another. So the local church is a family of believers.

Gathering in a habit of love

Yet this family does not simply gather once; the local church gathers in a habit of love. Their gathering is not like a school reunion, which may happen once every 10 years (provided someone is motivated to organize it). Their gathering is more like a regular family meal or outing. It is assumed that family members will want to be there, and it’s assumed that attendance takes some priority for that hour or two over other options.

Furthermore, because it’s assumed that the family will gather regularly, the writer of Hebrews urges the believers not to neglect their habit of meeting together (Heb 10:25): they love each other and they meet regularly because of their mutual love and in order to express their mutual love.

Depending on each other in service

Furthermore, when the family or local church gathers, they recognize their interdependence. The members of the local church depend on each other in service. The Bible likens this family of believers to a body in which each part or member relies on the other so that the whole body, under the authority of Christ, grows and honours its head (e.g. Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12:1-30; Eph 4:1-16; 1 Pet 4:7-11). Every member is indispensable, and while each may serve in different ways by God’s gracious gift, the service of every one is for the edification of the whole. This is the pattern of mutual ministry (or service) that the New Testament outlines again and again, and the pattern that caused the New Testament writers to urge every believer to speak the truth in love and to “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24). This is the essential character of all Christian service, since all Christians need this sort of encouragement.

Listening to God in humility as his word dwells richly among them

However, the family doesn’t just depend upon each other. Primarily they depend upon God—listening to him in humility as his word dwells among them richly. When they meet, they know by faith that God is among them and that the word of his Son ‘dwells richly’ in them (Col 3:16). Indeed, it has always been the case that God’s people gather to hear him speak (see Heb 12:18-24), and because his voice is their light and life, they listen humbly. God’s word comes to the local church meeting through the public reading of Scripture (1 Tim 4:13), through the exhortation of preachers (e.g. 1 Tim 4:13, 2 Tim 4:1-4), through the songs the believers sing to one another (Col 3:16), and even, at times, through words spoken publicly by some of the members (e.g. 1 Cor 14:26-40). It is these great realities that cause Paul to say in 1 Timothy 3:15 that the church is “the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth”.

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We mustn’t miss the significantthings God’s word says. The claims the Bible makes about the local church are nothing short of staggering. The Bible speaks as if belonging to a local church is an astonishing privilege. It teaches me that when I turn up to my local church, I’m part of the family of God—connected to brothers and sisters in eternal love. It teaches me that when I turn up, my spiritual needs should be met by those on whom I depend, and that, likewise, I am indispensably needed by others. It teaches me that when I turn up, I will encounter the God of the universe—the God who made me and saved me, and who made and reconciled all things—and that I will hear him address us in a way that enriches the gathering, changes lives and impacts the world. We often turn up to church thinking anything but these kinds of thoughts. Yet this is what we should expect when we belong to a local church.

These realities have, of course, all sorts of implications that are worth exploring and meditating on. But for now, we’ll focus our thoughts on the implications of ‘what’ church is for ‘when’ and ‘how’ we might leave it.

When to leave a church

What we’ve seen about what church is ought to be more than sufficient to persuade us that leaving your church is no small thing. It’s not like letting your gym membership run out, then signing up with another gym a bit closer to home. It’s not even like changing jobs and working with a new bunch of people on a new project. If what I’ve said is true, it’s more like changing families. Indeed, people need to think about it in those terms. Lots of people who change churches think of it as being more like changing gyms or jobs than changing families. That’s probably because they’re thinking about themselves more than others, or because they’re thinking about church like a consumer. But the Bible presses us to see the massive relational implications of changing churches.

The obvious significance of this is that changing churches is not a small thing to do; it’s huge. It’s never something that ought to be done lightly, thoughtlessly or prayer-lessly. In fact, it will be a rare situation in which it’s the best or the right thing to do.

However, there are some situations where changing churches may actually be wise. Let me mention five. My assumption is that beyond these five scenarios, our first instinct ought to be to discourage people from leaving. Beyond these scenarios, it’s hard to see how leaving church is likely to be the right thing or the best thing to do.

1. When false teaching has taken hold

Despite how politically incorrect the Bible seems these days, it is unambiguous about the fact that not everything we hear is true. Some of what comes our way is false, dangerous and evil. This is true even when we’re talking about things spoken by someone who claims to be a believer. This is even true in church! The Bible is replete with examples of Christians or churches who have (or who may) come under the influence of dangerous falsehood (e.g. 2 Cor 11:1-15; Gal 1; 2 Tim 4:3-4; 2 Pet 2; 1 John 2:18-27; Jude; Rev 2-3).

Interestingly, in some of these passages, the Apostle Paul alerts the Christians to whom he writes of the danger they’re in without urging them to leave their church. So I’m certainly not saying that as soon as people get a whiff of false teaching, they should take off. Instead, we ought to take our responsibilities for our church seriously, and do all that’s within our power in godliness to ensure that falsehood is suppressed and the truth lifted up. You can’t do that if you’ve joined a new church!

Nevertheless, there may be times when false teaching has taken hold of a church, and serious efforts to bring correction have proved fruitless. Then a person may decide to change churches. In this scenario, a Christian will leave their church with great grief, yet with the encouragement of the Scriptures, which take false teaching so seriously. They will leave because they know that the word of Christ is no longer dwelling richly there.

2. When unsuitable leaders are immovably established

The Bible also makes it clear that there are good leaders and bad leaders, and that this has been the case from ancient times. What’s more, the New Testament spells out very clearly what good leadership is (see 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus). It’s also clear that the lives of God’s people are deeply affected not only by the teaching of those who lead them, but also by the example they set. So where a local church is led by men or women who clearly do not want to honour God, submit to his word and model their lives on the pattern spelled out for leaders in the Bible, this ought to raise serious concerns.

Again, I’m not saying that at the first sign of weakness in our leaders, we ought to hotfoot it out of there. If that were the case, all our churches would be empty. Christian leaders are never perfect, and we ought to honour them and support them, despite their frailties and failings. After all, it’s their “progress”, not their perfection, that we ought to look for (1 Tim 4:15).

However, some leaders do get caught in unrepentant sin. Some leaders were perhaps never reborn in the first place. So sometimes there will be leaders in church whose influence is toxic, rather than edifying.

Even then, there may be opportunities to act in a godly fashion to reform or remove those leaders. But where that proves impossible, and where the church is largely being directed by such leaders, it is a godly thing for a believer to consider leaving. If they leave in such circumstances, it will be because they can no longer safely depend upon those leaders to serve them well.

3. When infecting sin is going unchallenged

The Bible also talks about the impact of serious sin on a church community. It likens it to a small amount of leaven that has influence over a whole lump of bread dough (1 Cor 5:6-8). That is why the Bible talks so strongly about calling sinners to account—not just for the sake of the sinner, but for the sake of the whole church community.

However, there may be situations in which, largely due to a failure of leadership, a person may find themselves in a church where sin is going unchallenged. Again, in that situation, there are possibilities for the person who wants to stay and keep standing up for holiness and repentance. However, if they are a lone voice in a community where people en masse have grown to prefer sin to repentance, there may once again be godly reasons to consider leaving. If they leave, it will be because people are gathering, but not in a habit of love. They leave because the church is no longer listening humbly to God’s word.

4. When a special opportunity for service or training arises elsewhere

The New Testament tells us about a number of circumstances when someone has left a church—either for a time, or permanently—in order to take up ministry elsewhere—or perhaps even to be trained in ministry. Timothy is a good example. We know he came from Lystra, yet he left there to follow and help Paul in his ministry (Acts 16:1-5). He seemingly spends the rest of his life in various churches as the needs of those churches and the urging of the apostle demands. Paul also speaks of the importance of the church’s ‘sending’ role in this sort of situation (e.g. Rom 10:15). That is why there will be times when people will leave their churches in order to take up a training or a ministry opportunity elsewhere. People may even leave—not to be sent to another church as such, but to go somewhere where the needs of the people are so great that no church has yet sprung up. In all these situations, it is a great privilege for the local church to send its member out with the promise of continuing fellowship in a whole host of ways.

This is not to say, of course, that there is ever an imperative to leave in this kind of situation. Given what we’ve already said, whenever someone leaves a church, they leave people who have depended on them for their growth. So it’s not as if someone could ever be needed elsewhere, yet not needed in the church where they currently serve. Nevertheless, there are moments when it’s right for us to acknowledge the surpassing needs of another place, or when it’s right for us to encourage someone on their way since they have the kind of character, competence and conviction needed to serve in leadership elsewhere in the years ahead. In those situations, we send people in joyful grief, trusting Jesus to meet the needs of his church by causing those who depended on the one departing to find others to depend on.

5. When your church is no longer local

Given what the New Testament suggests to us about the central place of the local church in God’s purposes, a fifth scenario arises in which it’s possible to imagine a person leaving their church in wisdom and godliness—that is, when a person finds themselves attending a church that is not (or is no longer) local to where they live. This may happen when a person has been attending a church that is a fair distance from their home for some time, and it is no longer viable to travel the distance. Or it may happen when a person has to move elsewhere—such that attending their church is no longer possible.

Having said this, I’d still want to say that, in some circumstances, a person should be encouraged to keep attending their church even if it does require a lot of travel. I’d also still want to say that, in some circumstances, a person should be encouraged to choose to live near their church, or to choose not to move house, simply because church is important enough to influence other big life choices, rather than the other way around. But there will inevitably be times when a person no longer finds themselves living near their church, and there is another good church closer by. In that situation, it’s possible for someone to choose (without any ungodliness) to relocate to a church that is more local.

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Now of course, life is inevitably more complicated than these five scenarios. The circumstances of any given individual may not fit neatly into one of these. In addition, I haven’t considered the situation where someone is asked to leave church because of their own unrepentant sin, the situation where someone leaves church because they no longer want to call themselves a Christian, the various ungodly or shallow reasons people sometimes have for leaving church, the complexities of relationship breakdown in churches, or the myriad situations in which someone may have a justifiable reason for leaving church that does not fit into one of these five scenarios. I have simply sought to lay out scenarios where I think the justification should be clear.

All this means that Christian people will not simply decide it is time for a change, and head to another church down the road. Beyond the five scenarios I’ve suggested, at the very least, Christian brothers and sisters should ask themselves some very hard questions before making any decisions about leaving church. The decision matters too much to be taken any less seriously.

How to leave a church

But if we presume a person has godly reasons for wanting to leave, how should they and their church community approach it? I’m assuming here that this is a decision that impacts many, and so the approach churches take will involve many people—the person leaving, the elders and pastors, and, no doubt, many others too. I want to make seven practical suggestions that I believe also flow from biblical principles.

  1. Pray. There is simply no excuse for failing to pray. We should pray for godly motives, for a right understanding of God’s will, for wisdom in decision-making, and for godly fellowship to be preserved both before and after the leaver leaves.
  2. Discuss it carefully. A Christian who is thinking of leaving church should talk about it with trusted Christian friends. They should also discuss it with the pastor/elders. Preferably, it would be good to discuss it before a decision is made, so that the wisdom of Christian brothers and sisters can contribute to the decision. Every effort should be made to be honest about the reasons why leaving is being considered. That may well involve saying or hearing some hard things. But leaving church is too significant a decision to gloss over key concerns.
  3. Listen well (particularly the pastors and elders). When someone is considering leaving or has made a decision to leave, it’s a critical moment for the leaders of the church to stop talking and start listening. If a church member tells the leaders that they are planning to leave because of false teaching, corrupt leadership or unrestrained sin (the first three scenarios I outlined), then it’s definitely time for a major stocktake! Such concerns ought to be heard and weighed with the utmost care. If the person who raises these concerns is right about the state of the church, then the issues are much bigger than whether one individual leaves. But even if a person is raising issues that may not be considered legitimate reasons to leave (e.g. “My needs are not being met”), there still may be some important things for the church leadership to hear and learn.
  4. Be as public as possible. Given the mutual belonging that characterizes church, it’s important that the whole family be aware of what’s happening. Because it’s not a small thing for a person to leave a family, making sure people are aware of some­one’s departure should not be neglected. This may be done in a variety of ways, and different situations will require different approaches. But as a general rule, I would encourage pastors to mention a person’s decision to leave in the public church meeting and, where possible, to explain the reasons.
    If the person leaving is willing, it’s great to get them to share with the congregation where they’re going and why, and for the church to pray for them. This may sound like a strange thing to say, but even if a person is leaving because they are unhappy or disappointed in the church community, I think it can be quite healthy for the leaver to be given a public opportunity to articulate their reasons. It may force them to think more carefully about it. It may also give the church community the ‘kick in the pants’ it needs. But whatever the scenario, a public explanation of a person’s leaving only serves to underline how significant we think it is when someone goes, and therefore how important we think the church is.
  5. Don’t be afraid to feel and express grief. When a person leaves a church, it is a painful thing. The fellowship is, in a very real sense, being torn. This, again, is because of what church is. So we ought not be embarrassed to feel the grief that comes in that moment, or to express it—even publicly. In fact, if you don’t feel grief, perhaps you ought to be asking yourself some hard questions about why.
  6. Keep encouraging and shepherding until the leaver is established elsewhere. Just because someone has had their last week at church with you doesn’t mean they’re already being well shepherded and encouraged elsewhere. It’s often quite helpful for a pastor to pave the way for a leaver to become established in a new church by getting in contact with the leadership of that new church in order to introduce to them the person who’s joining them. Moreover, it’s great when church members and pastors alike continue to express their fellowship with their brother or sister by praying, contacting and encouraging them, even after they’ve gone. Again, the nature of our relationships in church should mean that this happens instinctively.
  7. Be the sort of church people hate to leave. At the end of the day, it ought to be hard to leave a church—not because people make it hard for you, nor because a whole bunch of people are telling you why you shouldn’t, but simply because it feels like family—a family you love, a family upon whom you depend, and a family among whom you’ve met God, grown and been equipped for life in the world. So it would seem to me that our chief responsibility as church leaders or church members is to keep working at nurturing a church community that reflects the biblical picture as much as possible. Wouldn’t it be great if those who left our churches only ever felt like it was a heartbreaking thing to do?

May God strengthen us to be the kind of people who always know that leaving church is a big thing (not a small thing) to do, and may he strengthen us to be the kinds of churches that conform to his wonderful design for us—that is, churches people hate to leave.

Discussion questions

  1. “The Bible speaks as if belonging to a local church is an astonishing privilege”. Do you think it an astonishing privilege to be a part of your local church? Why/Why not? How does God’s word rebuke/correct/ train you in this regard?
  2. What changes could be made to your local church to make it more like a place that people don’t want to leave?
  3. What part could you play in making those changes happen?

Pray

  • Thank God for the gift of your local church. Thank him for the individual members of it.
  • Ask God to help you repent and change in order to keep on making a positive contribution to the life of your church.
  • Pray for anyone you know who has left your church recently: ask God to ground them in their new fellowship and to help them to grow to become more like Christ.
  1. On rare occasions, the New Testament writers seem to be referring to ‘church’ in a more universal or heavenly/eschatological sense (e.g. Matt 16:18; Acts 9:31; 1 Cor 12:28, 15:9; Gal 1:13; Eph 1:22, 3:21, 5:25, 5:27; Phil 3:6; Col 1:18, 1:24; Heb 12:23). I would argue that every other reference to the ‘church’ in the New Testament (about 100 of them) could refer or plainly does refer to a local church.