It happens too often. A college student is struggling spiritually because she's struggling with her church. There's no pastor - though leadership has been "searching" for years. There's no community - all her friends have slowly left after youth group. There's no vision - they're just trying to survive. Worst of all, there's no growth - not just numerically but within her own soul.
Therefore it's understandable that she's struggling with her church. She's lonely, has no peers and is spiritually dying there. But when you ask her why she doesn't just leave, she winces. "But I grew up there." "It's my home church." "I'm a youth teacher." "They'll fall apart without me." In other words, she's staying only out of loyalty, guilt or service.
Some pastors may commend her for her loyalty and even encourage her to stick it out. But not me. I know it's controversial, but I'd probably encourage her to consider leaving.
Staying at a Dying Church
Yeah I know this is controversial to say. The church is supposed to be a "family" and we're not supposed to leave family. I get that. I also understand the importance of commitment. After all, where would the early church be if Christians fled at the first sign of trouble? And I also know we live in a consumeristic age where Christians tend to shop around for churches.
By no means am I advocating someone to leave their church at the first sign of trouble nor am I endorsing individuals to church hop. Rather I'm talking about the faithful Christians that grew up in a church but now finds their soul dying in this church. I'm encouraging this Christian to consider leaving their church because, quite frankly, their church is dying.
And by "dying," I don't mean their church is going through a season of struggle. All churches experience seasons of ups & downs. However when a church is only experiencing seasons of "downs" - then it may be safe to say that it's dying. And I guess it's frustrating for me to see time & time again how parents and pastors guilt people into staying on a ship that's clearly about to sink.
[Some practical features of a church that's dying: No leadership + No vision + No community + No growth. One of these features will hurt a church but shouldn't cause someone to leave. But all of these combined will make your church feel less like a hospital (where people get better) and more like a hospice (where people just die).]
Why You Should Consider Leaving
In situations that I just described, I don't think people should feel guilty leaving their dying church. After all, your love for Jesus is more important than your loyalty to your church. It's not worth having your soul wither and die just so you can say you stuck around till the end. Now could it be that you're being selfish for wanting to leave? Sure - and there are ways to discern this. But I think it's a mistake to presume anyone who leaves a dying church is automatically selfish.
Usually the main people who object to this are singles who have grown up in a dying church. They'll emphatically say, "You need to be loyal." What I usually say in response is this: Wait till you get married. Sure it's easy for you to rough it out. But when you meet a girl and you bring them to your dying church, that'll make you think twice about playing the loyalty card because now it's not just about you.
And when you get kids - the game completely changes. Now you're thinking about your children and how you can raise them up in the Lord. Are you really going to have them stay in a dying church with likely no chance of growth? Most parents know better - which is why you rarely see any parents stick around in such churches.
Questions to Consider Before Leaving
I'm aware that the heart is deceitful and that Christians may abandon ship prematurely. So how do we guard against this? Here are some questions I'd encourage people to consider
1) Have You Talked With a Respected Christian Outside Your Church?
Is your church situation bad or are you just being whiney? One way to find out is to share with someone outside your church and see what they think. You may find that your church struggle is pretty normal everywhere - or that your situation is pretty bad.
2) Have You Shared With a Leader In Your Church About Your Struggle?
I think it's unfair if you have issues with your church but never raised them with your pastor or a leader. Share with them your struggle. Give them a chance to explain before you decide.
3) Have You Given Your Church a Fair Shot?
You can't say your church has no community if you never attend their community groups or that you're not growing if you don't go to their bible studies (unless your church offers neither). Can you say with a clear conscience you gave your church a fair shot?
4) Have You Been Praying About This Consistently?
If you haven't been praying about this at all, you're angst is probably being driven more by your emotions than by the Spirit. And you'll probably leave the wrong way.
5) Are You Sorrowful About Potentially Leaving?
Mixed with struggle, there should be sorrow whenever leaving a church - no matter how unhealthy that church is. If there isn't any grief, you're probably leaving for wrong reasons.
Again I'm aware I'll get flack because pastors aren't supposed to say stuff like this. I'm also not exhorting people to recklessly abandon their home churches. But I guess I've seen too many Christians sticking it out in dead-end churches because people guilt-trip them into staying and then later seeing them eventually leave that church anyways...except now they're just more jaded about their faith.
Of course there may be a lot of wrong reasons for a Christian to leave their church - this requires a lot of discernment. But I guess I'm arguing that there may also be a lot of wrong reasons for Christians to stay at their church - and this requires a lot of discernment too.