Culture of Church Membership
Pastor Jonathon Dodson wrote this week, "Churches are like marriages-you don't leave just because you hit a patch where you don't "feel connected.”” Your church is more than a building or service you attend. Is the members with whome you have made a covenant to disciple and be discipled.
There are good reasons to leave a church. Members are always free to leave a church. But, if we are going to be faithful members and covenant keepers, we should be asking ourselves questions that reflect the nature and importance of membership.
To say the least, church membership is a commitment to a people—a church. It is not merely choosing a place to play out your personal christianity. Rather, it is a commitment to a specific gathering of Christians that you are going to do Matthew 16, 18, and 28 with them. That means you will help oversee bringing people into the church based on their profession (Matt 16), committing to oversee their discipleship and discipline (Matt 18). You will commit to going to them if they are caught in sin (Matt 18). You will commit to teaching them, and being taught by them, all that Jesus has commanded (Matt 28).
That said, if anyone is considering leaving their church they should ask some questions which are parallel to the importance of the local church.
Who Should Ask These Questions?
If you are moving to another city or even a significant distance within your city, this is not for you. This is really for those members who are considering leaving their church for another church in the same area.
- Do I have significant doctrinal issues with the church?
Have you discussed this with anyone? A pastor? How do you determine what doctrine is worth leaving? You may have something well worth parting from your church. If the church is veering away from sound doctrine, you should leaver. If it is a preference issue on a very difficult topic, consider whether or not its really worth starting over.
- Do I have any broken relationships that I should seek to reconcile?
Reconcile those first according to Matthew 18:15-20 and Galatians 6:1-2. Then see if your reasons for leaving your church are still there.
- Am I burned out in ministry?
Exhaustion is not a reason to leave a church. Perhaps your church has been over-using your willingness to say “yes” or haven’t shown adequate appreciation for your service. Engage with the leadership. Let them know “I need a break!”. Maintain the difference between your commitment to your local church and your commitment to a specific ministry in the church.
- Do I disagree with the leadership’s vision or decisions?
Sometimes we just don’t see it the way the leaders do. That’s ok. Determining if this is a good reason to leave may be difficult. But we have to discern if we see a serious biblical error on the leaders part. Or if we simply see things differently. It might be most sanctifying and honoring to God to stay if your leaders are following God.
- Are my motives selfish or otherwise sinful?
We need God’s help to discern our own hearts. David has a great example for us in Psalm 139. He brings a feeling to God and asks God to search his heart. Through the Psalm David says essentially, “God, you know me better than I know myself. I think what I am thinking and feeling is righteous. But you tell me.” Leaving a church for sinful or selfish reasons are more harmful than staying and dealing with the selfishness and sin.
- Am I exalting a personal preference over a Biblical mandate?
Am I leaving because the music has changed and isn’t my favorite style? Has the preacher stopped wearing a coat and tie? They moved the small group/Sunday school hour? If those are the types of things we are looking for we are exalting our own preferences over the body itself. The purpose of the church is always more important than personal preference. Ask yourself, “is this keeping me from obeying God or is my preference keeping me from getting my preferences?”
- Am I putting too much weight on cultural differences?
Part of the full expression of the gospel is the various nations coming together as “one man” in Christ (Eph 3). Whatever the difference might be we have to ask ourselves, “is this an opportunity to display the unifying power of the gospel?”
- Am I considering what most builds up my local church?
What God is doing is building up the church into a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit (Eph 2:22). He calls us to build up the body as well by speaking the truth in love, i.e discipling one another toward maturity in Christ (Eph 4:16). Are you considering what builds the church up in your decision? Are there ways your staying and being a part of the church would build up the church?
- What will come of the discipleship relationships I have been a part of?
Central to our church membership is our discipleship relationships. Our one on partners. Our small groups. Those members who check on us and we them. Those we serve with in various ways. What will come of them? Am I doing the right thing in regards to them?
- Have I spoken with a pastor and sought his counsel?
This is just a general thought about most things. Your pastor, if he is walking with the Lord, wants to talk to you about anything. Even leaving his church. I, for one, have directed several people to other churches over the years (guest and members). The pastor (and church for that matter) should be happy to help you find a new church if you are leaving on good terms for good reasons.
- Have I sought counsel from God’s word?
The doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture is tested constantly in our lives! Is God’s word truly sufficient to equip us for what we need? Does it have something to say about my thinking and the purposes of the church and my decision? Have you sought counsel there?
- Am I allured by the “new” or “being new”?
Do I have somewhere in mind that looks really good? Or just an idea? Is this a “grass is greener on the other side” thing? Too many pastors are not good examples for us. The average stay of a pastor is 3-4 years. There are many reasons. But we are not to covet our neighbors churches. Their churches have problems too.
- Have you examined all the ways that God has grown you and used you in this church?
If you are thinking, “this church really has nothing to offer me and I don’t have a chance to grow here” then chances are you might want to investigate your heart a little more closely. Have you recounted all the ways this church has ministered to you and you them?
- Have you revisited the meaning of membership and your church covenant?
Would you be abrogating your commitments and covenant to your brothers and sisters? Are you reasons strong to make you no longer want to keep that covenant?
- Can I clearly articulate my reasons for moving to a new church?
What are your reasons? If you were to talk to a church member or your pastor about leaving, could you give them concrete reasons? Or is it just a feeling you have? We ought to be weary of following feelings alone. Prov 14:12, "There is away that appear right to man, but in the end leads to death.” Be careful about what seems good, but really has no good reasoning.
- Have you prayed about this?
Really? Prayer last? Yes. Far too often in our culture this is a trump against all else. “You know, I’ve really been praying about it and, well, I haven’t heard a ‘no’ or been convicted. So guess I’m in the clear.” We ought to pray about all things. But prayer, which is primarily to speak to God and not to hear from God, is not a replacement of God expecting us to use wisdom and obey his word. So pray hard and ask God to show you if you are obeying his word, keeping unity, that all relationships are reconciled, that your heart is not in sin, etc.
Leaving a church can be a hard thing. Sometimes we may even need to leave a church that we love for good biblical reasons. But think of your church as a marriage. Would you leave your spouse for a similar reason you are thinking of leaving your church?
For His Glory,