Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Playing Church

Over the years I have had many friends and acquaintances ask my opinion as to when it is appropriate to leave a church. They will also ask me to lay out the criteria for finding a new church, and inevitably they ask if I could personally recommend one in their area.

I am guessing that because I attend a high-profile, well-known church, people confidently value my thoughts on the matter of church life. I get a bit nervous, however, when I am asked about recommending a church because in spite of the fact I attend a good church, in the grand scheme of things, I have a limited perspective of my inquirer's situation.

I live in California, not Oklahoma, for example, where the person asking may live. Additionally, the recommendations I usually come across are contacts from our yearly Shepherd's Conference, but a couple of nice pastors representing their home churches in Illinois don't necessarily provide an accurate reflection of the overall church dynamic where they pastor. A little bit of visiting and observing may be in order before a person can make a sound decision as to whether or not the church is a place where he or she will want to serve.

A good illustration of what I mean was a friend I knew about 7 years ago who wanted to move from the big city, expensive life here in L.A., to a more rural, slow, and certainly a much cheaper lifestyle expense-wise. So, after much research as to where to live, he sold his house in the San Fernando Valley and moved to southern Missouri. He was told by some friends of a church like-minded to the convictions he held and he began to regularly attend their services. However, over a brief period of time, he began to notice the fellowship he experienced was not the same and what he was told was expositional teaching wasn't really expositional at all.

I am sure there were personal quirks that unnecessarily got in the way of him enjoying his new church, but never the less, he fell out of sorts with the pastor and tried another church in the area. It didn't prove any better for him. But after a year of living in Missouri, and in God's providence, after a series of severe health problems my friend moved back to L.A. and in the course of time succumbed to his illness. My exhortations to him as he struggled to find a good church helped me to sharpen my view point about churches and church life.

What I want to do over the course of a handful of post is share my personal observations and thoughts so as to explore the questions of when a person should leave a church and what should he look for in a new one. My ideas are by no means infallible and certainly could be improved upon, and perhaps have been improved upon else where.

To begin, I think there are some key questions needing to be considered.

One of the first questions is, Will leaving your church solve your problem? I plan to go into more detail as to the wrong and right reasons to leave a church in the next post, but for the moment, I believe anyone contemplating the departure from the membership of a church needs to ponder this question as to why he is leaving and will it help his spiritual situation?

Will leaving your church place undo division upon important friendships? It could be that this church is where the person thinking about leaving was saved and spent many years growing in the Lord. To leave in a spirit of bitterness or self-righteousness (which can be the case with many individuals) shows disrespect and dishonor to those individuals who poured a lot into your life. Is the person giving up on his church home and friends for no good reason? Now, it could very well be there is sound justification for a division that will separate good friends. However, whatever that justification may be needs to be weighed carefully in light of our call to love one another.

Do you have another church to attend? I have spoken with many folks over the years who became unsatisfied with their church for one reason or the other and hastily left. When they began to look for another congregation to join, there weren't any that met the criteria of a "good" church. Granted, what constitutes a "good" or "bad" church is many times relative to the opinions of the people leaving. However, let us say for a moment they have legitimate concerns with their church. When they leave it, is there another one available to join? I have learned from many conversations with people that usually there isn't one. They merely trade one problematic church for another.

I have also seen this happen to people who move to a new location for a job. They leave an excellent church to get a higher paying job only to discover in their new location none exist. One of the major spiritual life lessons I learned was from a deacon in my current church who was offered a rather high paying promotion that would require he and his family to move. Before he even accepted the offer, he scouted out the new city where he would be living if he took the job and found that there were no like-minded churches where he and his family could serve. He turned downed the job just so he could stay at a church he knew was solid. That certainly cuts against the mind-set of our world today.

With these three basic questions simmering in our minds, the next post on this subject will take up the question of What are the WRONG reasons to leave a church?



Blogger Kim said...

I'm looking forward to reading these posts, Fred.

I guess asking you to recommend a good church here in my area is out of the question? :-)

9:40 AM, August 08, 2007  
Blogger Carl said...

I have a question in which I would like to read your opinion: if one feels more "comfortable" in one church rather than the other, should that factor in to making a decision on what church to join?

For the sake of discussion, let's establish that both churches are both orthodox in doctrine and teach from the Bible but for various reasons I feel more accepted and part of the church family in one rather than the other. The issue I may have to face soon is that due to my job, I may have to join the church I don't feel comfortable in. I'd like to read your thoughts. Feel free to email me if you wish. I could go into more details that I'd rather not on a blog.

8:53 AM, August 09, 2007  
Blogger Ebeth said...

Hey, is that a LEGO church you used for illustration?

9:26 AM, August 09, 2007  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

- Ebeth, Yes, it is a lego church. Google "lego church" and you will find a bunch of pictures.

- Carl, You ask a good question. I plan to address the reasons NOT to leave a church and the reasons to leave a church in following posts. To provide a brief answer now for you, if both churches are biblically sound and joining one over the other is simply a matter of how you feel, then I don't see anything "sinful" or "misplaced" in your thinking if you like one group over the other.

If your situation is that you may have to attend the least liked church, I would certainly suggest you come to terms as to why you feel the way you do about the other church. You will have to consider whether or not your thinking is justified or simply a matter of your personal opinion. Why is it exactly you feel "uncomfortable" about joining this church? That is a question you need wrestle with.

I hope that helps a bit.


1:09 PM, August 09, 2007  
Blogger Hayden said...


Excellent post! It is good to see you back up and running at the blog. This topic has been on my mind a bunch because we recently had a family leave our church for what I believe are unbiblical reasons. (I look forward to your next article)

As a pastor, I see a lot of this when guests come to check out our church. When I hear of people that "church jump" a bunch it makes me cringe. The church is a group of imperfect people that are supposed to be growing together under teh teaching of the Word. If people are not willing to commit to sticking with a church, how will they grow in hard times? (It is like a marraige in my mind, when you join a church you ought not leave it so easily)


7:23 AM, August 10, 2007  
Blogger Ransom said...

Great idea for a series, Fred, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest.

Would you also consider a post on the related issue of "church shopping"? Regardless of the reasons someone might leave a church, it's practically inevitable that at some point he will need to find one. (I'm not looking myself - just curious about your view.)

4:01 PM, August 10, 2007  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

I hope my next post answers your question to some degree. Again, it isn't entirely exhaustive, just my principled reason drawn from the Bible and filtered through experience.


9:45 AM, August 13, 2007  
Blogger Carl said...

To clarify, basically my "uncomfortable" feeling between the two Bible-believing churches is mostly a matter of size. The church I am currently a member of is small and I feel like part of a family. The second church is a huge church with well over a thousand members and the reason I may be required to join is due to employment. They run a TV station of which I am a part-time employee. The church is also a corporation involving the TV station, a private school and other businesses. When one is a hired as a full-time employee, one is required to join the church. Refusal to do so is grounds for dismissal. This is something my wife objects to. She doesn't like it that I will be forced to join. And they expect it to be the entire family joining although no one has explained to me what would happen if my wife refused. So basically the size of the church makes me feel lost in a crowd and secondly, being forced to join makes it feel like "the draft." It's a good church doctrinally speaking but I grew up in a small church atmosphere and the one I currently attend is the one where I feel like part of the family.

11:02 AM, August 13, 2007  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

I can understand your dilemma. However, I don't think the larger church is asking you to do something unreasonable. Grace to You, where I work, requires its employees to be members of Grace, because they want a staff that is plug into the church where the ministry they are serving takes place. It provides for a unity, that even if a person did attend another church, he can't really experience being a part of that other church.

A thousand members may sound like a lot, but honestly, it isn't. My church has about 7,000. And though the large church atmosphere can be daunting for new members, if you join with the attitude that you are going to make your new church home a place where you wish to serve whole heartedly, I believe you may be surprised with how well you would like the place once you are there a while.

Unless there is something totally unbiblical about what this church does, I would at least give it a shot and shepherd your wife through the process.


11:16 AM, August 13, 2007  

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