Every now and then, the reaction I get from an article or blog post takes me by surprise. Whenever you write something, you expect people to respond. If you like the mutual sharpening that takes place in the marketplace of ideas, you enjoy getting feedback, pushback, encouragement, and even criticism.

In the April 2012 issue of TableTalkI have an article titled “Not So Fast,” in which I encourage people to be extremely cautious about leaving their church fellowship for an easier situation across town. In mid-March, as the printed version began arriving in people’s mailboxes, I started receiving letters in the mail and e-mails from readers.

A good number thought the article was spot on. A good number thought I was needlessly judging their situation from afar and minimizing good reasons for leaving a church.

I’d be curious about what readers of Kingdom People think. Am I too harsh here? Am I failing to take into consideration the complexities surrounding church hopping?

Here’s the beginning of the article with a link to the full version.

Jim and Sandra were longtime members at Christ Church. They gave generously — of their time, their talents, and their financial resources. Christ Church was known for being evangelistic and putting a priority on God’s Word. And Jim and Sandra were fulfilled and thriving there.

But the day came when the pastor let Jim and Sandra down. A series of bad decisions critically wounded their confidence in their leader’s wisdom. They were hurt, confused, and disillusioned. They began to toy with the idea of going to one of the other strong churches in town.

When Jim and Sandra (not their real names) asked me about leaving their church, I said, “Not so fast.” Since then, I’ve counseled a number of couples and individuals in similar situations. And whenever the issue at hand does not concern biblical fidelity or theological compromise, I usually give the same caution about leaving a church: “Not so fast.”

In a culture of consumerist expectations and values, even people in strong, Word-centered, gospel-proclaiming churches can think of church loyalty in terms of payment and receipt. “We pay our dues and expect a certain return” is the unspoken mindset. So when things get difficult, reasons to leave begin multiplying: “I’m not being fed here.” “I’m not on the same page with the leadership right now.” “I’m not being useful here. Perhaps I could serve better if I were somewhere else.” The list goes on.

It’s true that there are plenty of Christians whose lives don’t resemble Christ’s. There are pastors who abuse their authority or lead poorly. There are churches that implement changes quickly, without the consent of key leaders, which then breeds disunity and quarrels. Leadership fumbles, personality conflicts, relationship breaches — they all exist in the church. That’s why, for many churchgoers, the temptation is strong to seek refuge and peace in another church across town.

But what if the choice to leave a difficult church situation will actually short-circuit your formation as a Christian? What if your desire for a better congregation will stunt your spiritual growth? Does God use uncomfortable church situations as part of His process of sanctifying us?

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20 thoughts on “The Gospel, Sanctification, and Your Difficult Church Situation”

  1. Seni Penitani says:

    What about those of us who are attending churches which are leaning more towards liberal theology, where the gospel is twisted and you feel you are not fed there spiritually yet we have close friends(brothers/sisters in Christ) in those churches? Are you suggesting that we keep on suffering there? It seems your article put all churches in one category assuming all churches are the same.

  2. Trevin Wax says:

    I say at the outset “whenever the issue at hand does not concern biblical fidelity or theological compromise…”

    1. Seni Penitani says:

      Ooops!!! I missed that!! thanks

  3. Darius T says:

    Trevin, I don’t think you’re being too harsh in the least. I actually think it is something akin to spiritual adultery to leave one’s church for invalid reasons. I expounded on this more on my own blog last year (http://dariusteichroew.blogspot.com/2011/01/spiritual-adultery.html), and would welcome your thoughts on the subject.

  4. Rick Lowhorn says:

    Great article. I think about Paul’s letters especially to the saints in Corinth. In all his sorrow over their wrongs he never says jump ship and leave. Today people leave the church for anything. One that really troubles me is the issue of “our church just doesn’t have as good a children’s or youth or small group ministry.” They should listen carefully because God is not saying leave but to cleave. Thanks Trevin. It is so good to hear younger brothers speak significant truths as you and so many others are doing.

  5. Trevin,

    I thought your article was great. As a young pastor people leaving the Church always bugs me. Maybe it is because a Shepherd always wants to gather people.

    It is especially hurtful because many people don’t leave unless they feel justified. They justify their leaving by making a laundry list of complaints about the church and often the pastor. Ouch!

    As a new Christian I resolved to never leave a Church badly. So far I have been able to live by that. The last Church I left (due to geographical relocation) the congregation gathered around me to bless my leaving!

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      I love the picture of a church blessing members out to serve in other places. Beautiful!

  6. Marc Mullins says:

    What a great thought to keep in the back pocket when counseling brothers and sisters as a pastor. We all know this will happen when there is any change in a church, so this message should be a call to leaders to anticipate it and in truth and love counsel and teach on commitment in covenant relationships. Lord willing through teaching, prayer, and counselling by the leaders we will see church’s become faithful the gospel communities and not spiritual shopping malls where people come and go when they get the products they want.

  7. Trevin,

    I read the article and thought it was spot on. Too many people leave churches for reasons of the flesh and not of a leading of the spirit. Great discernment must be given in situations of trials and in situations of peace.
    Our people are let down by us as pastors when we do not do the work to help them rightly discern scripture before, during and after trials because we are in the middle of contemplating our staying or going in that church.

    Your article strikes to my heart right now as my family is going through a great time of ministry and asking is it time for us to go or bury our heels in and serve.

  8. Your article is perfectly balanced. I have been guilty of using those excuses and leaving a church in the past, but have since come to see the shortsightedness of that mindset. Now that may be because I am now assisting in leading a church…

    I preach and teach that membership in the body is akin to a marriage. Just as you would fight for your marriage relationship, you should fight for your church family relationships. I am not preaching an abstract philosophy.

    Our lead pastor made several fumbles (choosing methodology over relationships) roughly a year ago and we have since lost a chunk of our leadership team. These men were my very good friends and I miss them dearly, but I am not willing to write my pastor off as a lost cause. In fact, the painful lessons he learned from that experience has now made him a much better pastor.

    I would urge anyone thinking about leaving a church to have patience and practice integrity by bringing their offense to the pastor. The one thing I could not stand was the folks leaving with made up “spiritual” excuses so they could avoid conflict about heir real issues.

    1. Paul t says:

      Mike,
      The offense should be brought to the pastor if he is approachable, and if he patterns his ministry after the instructions of I & II Timothy and Titus. However, I think this article overlooks the great number of cult like, and abusive men that fill the pulpits of “Bible believing” churches. Some men are truly implacable, and set themselves to destroy any one that they even suspect is getting in their way. They resort to such things as public humiliations, psychological games, deceptions, and other forms of brutality. They do untold damage to precious souls. Anyone in such a church should run as fast as they can. Those who have been is such churches for any period of time have already sustained spiritual damage that they may never be able to recover from. Their only hope is the haven of a loving assembly in another place. I know whereof I speak, because I am one of the wounded.

  9. I certainly agree that we shouldn’t leave churches for such “comfort” reasons. God can and works through those things and humbles us. However, as you said, there are legitimate reasons to leave. I used to attend a church where slowly, but surely and sadly, the teaching deviated to prosperity gospel and man-exalting. I prayed and I stayed as long as I could, hoping that I was being an example, but alas I felt compelled to leave. The leadership accused me and judged me, as was expected, but later I found that others had seen the light and left too.

    I didn’t badmouth the church when I left, people, on their own, came to the same conclusions; they were preaching another gospel. Thanks for the article!

  10. Cody says:

    I agree with what you wrote, Trevin, and have come to the same conclusions when tempted to leave my own church for an “easier” situation. It’s funny how many of these excuses I’ve had – “I’m not being fed” or “I can’t submit to the direction the leadership wants to go” or whatever. When I find myself complaining about my church’s shortcomings, the Holy Spirit always seems to pin it back on me (classic Spirit). Yes, maybe I’m not being fed, but I’m also not faithful in feeding myself in daily Bible reading, meditation, and prayer. Yes, maybe the leadership is heading in a poor direction, but I also find that I’m not as faithful as I should be in praying for them.

    What I would like to hear you address is where we draw the line in issues of Biblical fidelity and theology. Is it straight up heresy like Arianism? Is it a more gray area like semi-Pelagianism? Clearly mode of baptism is one. What about expositional preaching (I struggle very much with this one since my church practices topical preaching and I cringe every Sunday almost)?

    Matt Chandler makes a good point I think when he says that theological issues that excuse departure are “hills you’re ready to die on”. What would constitute such a hill?

  11. Abby says:

    Trevin, I have been doing a two week review of your book Counterfeit Gospels on my blog. Thank you for the timely messages and the conviction it has brought to my own life. God bless you.
    Abby

  12. Cathy M. says:

    My husband and I have had serious difficulties in our church since 2005. Our first reaction was to leave, but we decided for a number of reasons to hunker down and stay. I agree with the idea you’ve put forth here; the challenges we’ve weathered have driven us deeper into the word and taught us many valuable spiritual disciplines. Sadly, some of our close friends and even our adult children have chosen to move to other fellowships.

  13. Einstein says:

    Trevin, I agree with you but wish you also spoke to people who already left — it can be hard to leave a church, some will guilty and other will doubt their decision even if it was God’s leading.

    One piece of advice that has really helped is to consider a third option — taking a sabbatical so that I have the wellness to assess my decision wisely.

  14. K. Smith says:

    ” ‘I’m not being useful here.’ Perhaps God is removing certain activities from your life, so that your focus turns from what you are doing for God to a greater emphasis on the relationship you should be cultivating with God.”

    That is what a friend tells me, and I used to hear from the pulpit that “being” right with God is of primary importance, and that the rest would fall in line when we have a right relationship with God. It’s funny how my wanting to take a step back and focus on that kind of stuff comes at the same time the pastor is all but suggesting from the pulpit that those who are not wholeheartedly serving God via a ministry in his church might not really be believers after all. We’ve been in the same church for 12 years, and we’ve not left until now because we feel the way you do in your article, and we’ve felt like the pastor and others have been working very hard to make real change. We felt like the preaching promoted growth and encouraged ministry responsibility while leaving the results to God. Now, the pastor seems to be using a bully pulpit in order to get results he previously trusted God to give. If we don’t have enough people serving in x area, he suggests it must be because people are not submitted to the Lordship of Christ, not because there are real problems that won’t be addressed until someone makes meaningful communication possible. While I don’t discount that this is possible in some cases (we’ve had long-time church goers make professions of faith in recent years), I don’t believe every problem is a spiritual one at heart, and piling guilt on people because of a church culture issue is destructive. Our church has resisted good communication the entire time we’ve been there, and it’s led to ministry burn-out, hurt feelings, and people hopping from one ministry to another until they just quit or find a job they can do solo. The communication is poor from the top-down, bottom-up, the middle, and from any other direction. That piece of information seems to be lost on the pastor right now. In recent months, the pastor has taken measures that I feel create an “us/them” mentality between the pew warmers and the people in service, which makes communication even more difficult. I personally have been reprimanded for asking questions, but when my husband later asked the same questions on my behalf, he was given an answer without condemnation. If I thought our church was returning to a stance where they tried to address these communication/commitment problems instead of using guerilla warfare on our individual relationships with God, I would probably stay (at least I hope so, but I am not sure I’d be that objective at this point). I can certainly say that we’ve stayed through thick and thin until now, and we wouldn’t have stayed this long if we weren’t committed to this church. In fact, we’ve stayed through changes that, while not aimed at us, have made our involvement there increasingly difficult. Discouragement is one thing; having my faith undermined is another.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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