Note from Randy: I appreciate this article from Ivan Mesa, with four things to consider if you’re thinking about leaving your church right now. Having been part of the same local church for 43 years, trust me when I say I am no stranger to problems in the church! But I am also no stranger to the beauty and goodness and local and global fruit of church life—though I would be had we chosen to walk away from church the various times we were tempted to.
Of course, God can legitimately call people to leave a church and go to or even start another one, and that happened to us 43 years ago! My concern is with people prematurely giving up on their churches during this extraordinarily difficult season. I have been seeing the same thing happening and it’s a great concern of mine. I encourage you to listen to Ivan’s wise advice. (Ivan titled his article “Stop! Think Twice Before Switching Churches in 2020,” but this is not just a question of 2020, but also of 2021, since most churches will continue to be restricted in the new year.)
By Ivan Mesa
The one thing we didn’t need at the beginning of the year was more time online and less time in church, but that’s exactly what has happened. And it hasn’t helped.
Over the past few months, I’ve heard from pastors across the United States, from Uganda to Canada to Australia, who report the same trend: members are leaving their churches and their churches are receiving an abnormal amount of visitors from other churches. Given all the political and cultural upheaval, this has become, for many, a season to test the waters and move on.
While there are a number of valid reasons that Christians change churches, I nonetheless want to say: think twice before switching churches during COVID-19. Not all changes are bad, but we can be far too casual about this weighty decision.
One columnist observed that 2020 started off like 1974 (an impeachment crisis), quickly became 1918 (a pandemic), turned into 1929 (economic crash), and is now 1968 (massive urban unrest). With everything politicized, with an unending torrent of bad news, and with algorithms that confirm and amplify our worst fears, no wonder it’s been a stressful year.
It’s a testament to the polarization of our time that some are leaving the same church for opposite reasons—the church has become too political or it’s not political enough. In these tribal times—at least in the American context—some say addressing racial injustice is to abandon the gospel while others say addressing some dangers of “anti-racism” is to promote white supremacy.
Realizing every context is unique and situations can be more complex than they appear, here are four things to consider if you’re tempted to leave your church during this once-in-a-century event.
With time for reflection, perhaps some have recognized severe spiritual deficiencies in their churches such that they can’t in good conscience remain. So this is as good a season as any to leave and join a different church.
But I’ve also heard everything from lack of childcare to COVID restrictions to “not feeling connected” as reasons for people leaving their churches. These days it seems anything—from the serious to the trivial—can become a justification for switching churches. After all, lingering frustrations are no longer offset by the positives of being together. Without proximity, angst rises unabated.
I’ve also seen the temptation for the political and cultural to trump the theological—or at least for everything to be viewed as one package. As Kevin DeYoung writes, “I fear that in the months and years ahead we will see Christians and churches and gospel movements reshuffling their associations based upon a unity not in shared Christological and soteriological truths but in the sameness of our political and cultural instincts.” We reveal Corinthian pride when we divide the body of Christ over important but temporal concerns (cf. 1 Cor. 3:5ff.).
Perhaps one question to ask is why God put you in your church in the first place. If those reasons haven’t changed, it might be imprudent to leave. It’s also worth noting that COVID restrictions and this cultural turmoil are temporary; why make a long-term change before the dust settles?
With churches not meeting, it’s understandable that some Christians have temporarily gathered with other flocks. How tragic, though, when believers unilaterally leave without ever consulting their leaders—a form of ecclesial ghosting. Or worse, they not only leave but try to persuade others in subtle or not so subtle ways that staying is a problem.
Our leaders are those who will give an account for how they kept watch over souls (Heb. 13:17). If we remove ourselves from their oversight, we rob ourselves of a God-ordained means of spiritual flourishing. Scripture tells us that “in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14b). Why not trust God’s wisdom by gladly submitting ourselves to the decision-making wisdom of godly elders? Even if there are unbridgeable differences, why not engage the concerns forthrightly, with candor, grace, and love?
No pastor ever took a seminary course on pastoring amid a pandemic, so be patient with them. Extend grace and give the benefit of the doubt (1 Cor. 13:7). Yes, pastors will make mistakes, and all of us in hindsight will wish we’d done things differently. But pandemic or not, “respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord . . . and . . . esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess. 5:12–13).
In an age when brand loyalty is tenuous, we’re always one bad customer-service experience away from moving on—so it is with many Christians and church. Our commitment is only as durable as our “customer satisfaction” at any given moment, which is to say, not durable at all. We’re tempted to approach church membership more like a gym membership than a covenant relationship, with the option to “cancel” our membership when we’re not satisfied.
Even if there are good reasons for switching churches, there can be bad ways to go about it—ways that hinder witness, create needless relational hurt, and further divide the flock. A necessary ingredient we need in this—and most other difficult decisions in life—is time. We need time to discern our motivations; time to talk to our church leaders; time for us to pray together; time for mutual understanding; time for forgiveness and growth. Given our tendency toward microwave spirituality, we’d do well to slow down.
It’s possible your church has abandoned the gospel by capitulating to woke ideologies or blood-and-soil nonsense. It’s possible 2020 has revealed dangerous and unbiblical notions. If that’s actually the case, faithfulness may require you to leave.
But what if you’re wrong? What if the passions of the day, amplified by the political moment and social-media discourse, are clouding your judgment? We rightly stress doctrinal purity, but have you considered how unity—just as vital a Christian virtue—is often neglected? Shouldn’t you be especially cautious about rending Christ’s body at such a vulnerable time?
It’s been a hard year. Many of us are struggling. But the local church is actually God’s mechanism for helping strugglers endure. That’s a truth often forgotten. It doesn’t help, of course, that the pandemic has made it easy to hide behind a screen or drift to a different flock. But unless there is rank heresy—and we should be slow to level this charge—or the leadership has departed from first things (1 Cor. 15:3), stay put. Be faithful. Live out your discomfort in the context of flawed people who know you and care for your soul.
Sometimes faithfulness means walking out. More often than not, though, it means staying put.
Ivan Mesa (ThM, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an editor for The Gospel Coalition (since 2014), where he acquires books and oversees reviews, longform, and the Read the Bible initiative. He and his wife, Sarah, have three children and they live in eastern Georgia.
This article originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition and is used with the author’s permission.