When is it Time to Leave a Church?

An Honest Question:

He approached with his shoulders shrugged as though he was trying to hide his face. Though his body stammered, I could see in the back of his eyes a growing curiosity and vigor. Any other scenario, this would have been an awkward interaction, but he happened to be a former student from my youth ministry days. My eyebrows jolted as I genuinely was excited at this chance encounter. I had last left him as a growing teenager, and now faced him as a young thriving adult in his early twenties. It was truly a pleasure to see his exuberant, animated charm still intact with a sprinkle of seasoned wisdom (well, as much as you can have in your early twenties). We greeted each other with a conventional handshake (very Hmong of us) and quickly moved past customary salutations. He gave a long sigh and asked, “Can I ask you a question?” I quickly realized that this was not the “big” lingering question he was longing to inquire. With a soft and gentle smile, I politely responded, “Sure!”


“How do I know when it’s time to leave my church?”


My Facebook memory recently brought to my attention an old blog post I had written after a youth conference I led, attended, and spoke at (you can find the blog by clicking here). What I took from that experience was an encounter with a genuine, authentic generation whose desire was to be rooted within rich biblical discipleship. Interestingly, the student I was talking with had attended that very same conference and was/had been faithfully serving the church ever since. This question, then, was not coming from a student who was looking for an innovative, high-power, glitz/glamour church community. This was a person who committed himself to a local assembly, warts-and-all, and had reached a point of tension with his desire to serve and his need for spiritual growth. Common is many churches today, there are opportunities to serve, but not much intake to fuel one’s worshipful utility. Ultimately, this was an honest and necessary question. This was heavy. This was important. This was at the heart of the (Hmong) church dilemma (for more click here)!


Measuring Stick:


It took a moment to react because I wanted to make sure that my response was not polemical nor an indictment against his local church context. I wanted my assessment and evaluation to be theologically rooted; that is, I wanted to provide a 20,000-foot gaze at the question. By doing so, I did not want to confuse him with high-level ministry philosophy jargon, nor delve him into the contextual approaches of ministry preferences. With the limited time that I had with him, I wanted to bring him back to Scripture. It was at this point I realized that this question, i.e., when is it time to leave my church, is void of any firm notion of what a biblical church is. He—along with most people who ask this same question—do not even know what he will be leaving, let alone know what he would be potentially leaving to. As my fellow elders and I say to each other, “you don’t know what you don’t know!” Thus, it led to three sequential convictions which I hope can potentially help to assess the validity of leaving (or staying at) a church: (1) what is your standard for a church, (2) with that standard: how are you upholding that standard, and (3) what is your role within the community to uphold that standard?


By What Standard? For the most part, people looking to leave their local church context have a hard time articulating legitimate reasons for their departure. Some talk about style, others about language, most grumble about community. Though on the surface this may seem to be harmless, what is bubbling underneath is a lack of understanding regarding the purpose of the church. We (especially within the Hmong context) have majored upon our preferences while minoring upon theological prescription; discerning between the two is paramount in this conversation. At the end of the day, the standard by which we measure a faithful local church must not merely be an emotive appeal. Rather, the standard of a faithful local church is its conformity to Scripture. Or simply put, what is God’s purpose in having a church?


Though space limits our ability to delve into all the nuances of this question, what we can simply say is that the mission of the church is to preach the Gospel (cf. Mk. 16:15; Acts 10:42; Rom. 1:15, 16; 1 Cor. 1:21; 1 Tim. 3:15; 2 Tim. 4:2) and to make disciples (cf. Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Rom. 10:14-15).[1] As Joseph Boot writes, “This sending God calls out and send His royal priesthood into the world (mission ecclesiae), anointed and ordained by His Spirit as priest-kings of the second king Adam, to participate in the reconciliation of all things to God through Christ, recultivating all creation into God’s garden and dwelling place in terms of His Word.”[2] Thus, at the baseline of our ecclesial engagement, we must analyze her proclamation of the Gospel. This is no small order. Failure to do so has grave consequences according to Scripture. Paul says to the churches of Galatia, “Who has bewitched you?” (Gal. 3:1). Their deviation from Paul’s unadulterated Gospel was unthinkable (cf. Gal. 1:6-9; see also Jude 3). In addition, Jesus warns the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:4, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” What we see, then, is harsh words against the covenant community coincide with a harsh abandonment in Gospel affections to the Lord. Secondly, faithful proclamation entails faithful disciple-making. The nature of the community is to be a haven for building up the saints.[3] Her very existence is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12; italics mine). The church’s presence in a dark and broken world is to be the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15); that is, to be a witness to the Gospel message itself.


Thus, the standard of a church is not human preference, nor cultural ingenuity. The standard by which we are to hold a church is faithfulness to the mission God has given His covenant people through His Word. To this end, one must ask, “Is my local church faithful?” How you answer this question will give you an insight into the broader question of staying or leaving your local church. But, also, it will inform the basis by which you will choose your next church community.


Standard Set: Where Do We Go from Here? Now that we have established a biblical standard to a local church, how should we temper our expectation toward her fulfillment in this call? Or said in question form, can any church fulfill this call perfectly? Are we expecting perfection in order to remain committed to this covenant community? The simple answer is “No!” We are not looking for perfection. Rather, we should be desiring faithfulness.


On the outset, we must acknowledge that there is no perfect church. Every church will have their flaws and wrinkles to iron out. Thus, amid the question of whether to stay at a local church or to leave, one must ask, are we faithfully proclaiming the Gospel and are we faithfully making disciples? The next question, then, is: what is faithfulness? What does faithfulness look like? My short and simple answer would be “falling forward.” That is, is there a biblical strategy that gets members discipled as well as help them to continually disciple others? Or asked in another way, are we moving in the right direction? Do we even want to disciple? The church may not always or may never disciple perfectly, but at least she is headed in the right direction with every attempt and growing in maturity after every season. For example, the church of Corinth was filled with mishaps and blunders, but correctives with church discipline allowed them to properly disciple their people and continue in their growth as a local assembly (1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 2:4-16; cf. Matt. 18:15-17). If your local church does not even have a strategy for disciple-making or lacks a biblically saturated model, it might be time to find another covenant community. A simple way to know if your church has a disciple-making strategy is to ask the question “how?” How are we discipling our people? What is our primary vehicle in helping others follow Christ? Again, how you answer these questions will shed light into what decision you will need to make moving forward. Also, it will give you questions to actively find, if you leave, a faithful covenant community.


Which Hat am I Wearing? The last component (which has layers and complexities) in assessing your time in a local church is contingent upon the context by which you relate to the church. Meaning, are you a leader (potentially an elder)? Are you a member? Do you have leadership influence? How you answer these questions will vary in how you respond to the initial question of leaving a local church. That is, if you are a pastor/elder, I would strongly encourage you to play the long-game and slowly implement change by asking the right questions and making the proper adjustments toward faithfulness. Though this may take years, we must not underestimate change that comes from persistence. In saying this, I also realize that culture (not just ethnic culture but church culture) plays an enormous factor in this scenario. Even if you function within a leadership role, the established culture may be counterintuitive to the changes necessary for faithfulness. As one author said, “If the culture of a church is at odds with the stated beliefs of the church, the culture is typically the overpowering alpha male in the room.”[4] Similarly, when I was a youth pastor in a local church, I began to realize that my presence was not valued in casting vision for disciple-making, but for oiling the programs of the ministry machine. I soon understood that I would be and could be running programs for the next 25 years without truly seeing disciple-making take its place within the life of the church. Was I willing to give the prime years of my ministry life to programming? I eventually answered those questions with a hearty “No!” Depending upon which hat we wear within the covenant community may play a significant role in how we respond in our ability to stay or leave a local congregation.


Move Forward in Faith:


Many well-meaning leaders spur members toward covenantal commitment to local churches. This is an honoring task. Yet, we must not be so emotionally triggered as to not ask those very same leaders to substantiate concrete strategies for the loyalty by which they want us to pledge. That is, if church membership is to be faithfully exercised—which it should—faithful membership must be accompanied with sound biblical proclamation of the Gospel through the making and growing of disciples. It cuts both ways! Not only will the leaders be held accountable to God, but the congregation as well. Thus, membership cannot be a passive endeavor.


These questions, then, that are forged before us are not simple nor light. Rather, they are weighty because God is weighty. His glory is to fill the earth, and the church is the mechanism by which He is making Himself known in Christ Jesus (for more click here). Therefore, if God’s glory matters, then, the church matters in serving His end. The church exists for the glory of God, and if we settle for anything less, we defile and minimize the one by whom our very existence is to make much of. Thus, our commitment to a local church is ever important to the redemptive aim of the world. Not only so, but our commitment to a faithful local church is also paramount to the growth and advancement of our own conformity—individually and corporately (cf. Rom. 8:29). May He grant us the grace, wisdom, and knowledge, then, to find and establish faithful churches for the glory of His Name. Soli Deo Gloria!

 

***footnotes***

[1] See Andreas J. Köstenberger with T. Desmond Alexander, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission, NSBT. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020. See also Craig Ott, The Church on Mission: A Biblical Vision for Transformation among All People. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019. See also G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, NSBT. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004. [2] Joseph Boot, The Mission of God: A Manifesto of Hope for Society (London: Wilberforce Publications, 2016), 522. [3] See Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift that Changes Everything. Australia: Matthias Media, 2009.

[4] Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger, Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 98.

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, SBTS; ThM, MBTS) is the husband to Debbie and father to McCayden (13), McCoy (12), McColsen (10), and DeYoung (7). He is a Pastor of Preaching/Teaching at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN. Along with his ministerial duties, he is a homeschool dad. In addition, McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.

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