There are better and worse reasons to leave a church. Are you moving to another city? That’s a good reason. Are you harboring bitterness toward someone who has offended you? That’s a bad reason. Does the church neglect to preach biblical sermons weekly? Good reason. Don’t like the church’s style? Probably a bad one.
So how should you respond to a fellow member who is leaving for what sounds like a bad reason?
This question raises a number of tough theological issues, such as how far the authority of the church extends, or how much weight should be given to cultural preferences. There are also difficult pastoral issues, such as knowing how to differentiate between a bruised reed and a fool.
But let me see if I can pack some of that theology into the form of practical counsel. Here are some bad ways to respond to such a situation, combined with better responses.
Bad response: “Oh.” This is the non-response. This is the “I don’t care” or “I need your approval so I’ll say nothing” response. I’m not saying it’s never right to keep your mouth shut. I’m just saying that fear of man or failure to love should not motivate you to say nothing.
Better response: “Why are you leaving? Can I help you think through it?” Love takes an interest and asks questions. Love recognizes we’re responsible for the discipleship of our fellow members, and it investigates. Love doesn’t fear people not like you. It’s willing to ask the awkward question or offer the risky counsel for their good.
Bad response: “You’re not allowed to leave.” Jesus did not give churches authority to keep people from leaving and joining another church. He did give them the authority to discipline a professing Christian for unrepentant sin, but unless your congregation is ready to discipline, I don’t think you have the authority to insist they stay. That said, I do think it’s legitimate to say “no” to resignation when an individual has no plans to join another church. That is a case of walking into unrepentant sin.
Better response: “Unless the church is moving toward discipline, you are free to leave.” You don’t have to tell a person leaving for a bad reason that he is wise to do so. But I do think we must remember that it’s allowed.
Bad response: “Your reasons for leaving are immature.” Again, I would not say you should never, ever say this. But generally speaking it’s preferable to help people acquire a better understanding of what to value in a church rather than scold them for valuing the wrong things.
Better response: “As you look to God’s Word, how have you been helped to think about what to look for in a church?” Help them to see that God’s Word prioritizes things like preaching the Word, centering everything on the gospel of Christ, and wise and loving leadership. Also, help them to see that our churches are families, where we take loving ownership of one another’s discipleship to Christ. They are not country clubs, where we come and go for the benefits.
Bad response: “Well, you can’t be friends with everyone.” If you discover they have unreconciled relationships or long-harbored grievances, you don’t want to help them paper it over. Such things are a big deal. They should be addressed. That’s not to say every broken relationship can be fixed this side of heaven. A person might have wisely determined that a certain relationship cannot be fixed (Rom. 12:18). Still, he should not run away from trouble, either.
Better response: “I’d strongly encourage you to seek to reconcile those relationships before deciding whether or not to leave.”
Bad response: “What can we adjust in our church for you?” Sometimes people are just not going to like your church. Sometimes they’re going to be annoyed and even angered by petty things. And it’s not the church’s job, or a pastor’s job, to pacify every complaint. That’s not how biblical leadership works. At some level, a pastor needs to understand that it’s okay for people to leave, and to not be afraid of this possibility. If he feels personally threatened whenever someone wants to go elsewhere, he may want to examine his own heart.
Better response: “Maybe another church would be a better place for you to grow.” And it really might be! Praise God he has more churches in your town than just yours! If people are leaving for immature reasons, you might encourage them to reconsider; but you also might affirm your love for them, tell them they’re welcome to come back, and bless them as they go.