To say my prior posting (READ IT HERE) had an impressive response is an understatement. I never imagined many people outside of my network of friends and pastors would read it. But the response was CRAZY!
What I saw from the many comments was that there are a lot of people who have been deeply wounded by unhealthy churches. I can relate. I’ve been a Christian for over thirty years and I’ve had a few painful church experiences myself.
Sadly, this is nothing new. Churches, like every other institution on the planet, are comprised of people and people are sinners. To borrow from a colloquialism, “Sin happens,” and when it does people get hurt. Churches are no exception.
In fact, drawing from the seven churches of Revelation we see that even the first generation of churches had their issues:
- Ephesus = lost their first love
- Pergamum = derailed doctrinally
- Thyatira = sexual immorality
- Sardis = spiritually dead
- Laodicea = lukewarm
Only 2 were praised = Smyrna / Philadelphia
That stands as a sober warning to us today.
Churches that start dynamic can drift to death, and Jesus said that if these churches didn’t get their act together, he was leaving (Revelation 2:5).
Drawing on that precedent, I believe there are cases when a believer should find a new church.
Looking back on my journey as a church member, here a few examples of when it’s time to find a new church.
1. When the leadership is corrupt, incompetent, or absent, it’s time to find a new church (Jeremiah 10:21; 23:1-4)
Everything rises and falls on leadership.
Unhealthy churches are usually led by unhealthy pastors.
The stories of bad shepherds abound. We all know one.
No pastor is perfect. We are a bundle of strengths and weaknesses. Temperament, education, and giftedness can vary greatly, but love, integrity, humility, and authenticity are essential for a shepherd of God’s flock.
Where these are completely absent, I recommend you find a new church rather than attempting a coup.
2. When the services leave you feeling more joy was drained than gained, it’s time to find a new church (Mark 7:6-8).
Of course, this is highly subjective, but I’m counting on godly believers to use discernment.
We are never called to seek out emotional experiences, but we are holistic beings of body, soul and spirit and our soul craves connection with God. Authentic worship should do that. Jesus said, “where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). When Jesus is in the house, joy is in the air and it’s palpable.
The gathering of God’s people should resemble a wedding more than it does a funeral. Our services should be a celebration, not a lamentation. Christians have the greatest reason to celebrate. Our Lord is risen, our sins have been forgiven and we have a home waiting for us in heaven. That’s good news!
When the worship services consistently feel more like bad news than good news, it’s time to find a new church.
3. When the spirit of the fellowship is cold, cliquish, and closed, it’s time to find a new church (Matthew 23:1-12).
Churches ought to be the most accepting organization on the planet. Christians are people who are openly admitting that they are a collection of immoral murderers, adulterers, and liars (check out the sermon on the mount). We, of all people, have no right to look down on anyone. And yet, amazingly, many of us forget just how messed up we were before grace got a hold of us. Pretty soon the clan of the clean becomes the club of the closed, and only the right people can get in.
Some people think that the goal of the local church is to make it pure by excluding the riff-Raff. But I think they’ve mistaken our gatherings for the godly. We make the bride holy through our individual holiness. The church should be a place of grace.
I believe our weekly services should resemble the Star Wars cantina, where “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Ok, maybe that’s a bit far-fetched, but you get the picture.
When the church becomes a place where “those people” aren’t truly welcomed, it’s time to find a new church.
4. When the teaching of the church differs from the teachings of the Bible, it’s time to find a new church (Matthew 28:20).
The founding pastor of The Church set the bylaws and constitution for His organization and we don’t have the right to amend them. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear” (Mark 13:31).
The church is founded on the teachings of the Bible. Our creeds, confessions, and statements are all extensions of the Book. At the end of the day God gets the final Word on all matters of faith and practice.
The problem is that God’s perspective on issues isn’t terribly popular. His views on marriage, sexuality, money, relationships, authority, service, just to name a few, don’t exactly match our culture.
Churches have a decision to make when it comes to truth: convey it or convert it.
When your church does the latter it’s time to find a new church.
5. When the ministry of the church is reserved only for the elite and professionals, it’s time to find a new church (1 Peter 4:10).
Romans 12-14 teaches that every member is a minister and every ministry matters. On God’s team there is no second string. Some churches are designed where the members are sitting in the stands while the staff are running the plays. However, God designed the church to be filled with participators not spectators.
According to Ephesians 4:11-12, the primary job of church leadership is to equip the people to do their job. What’s their job? Everything else!
When the church doesn’t value volunteers or savor servants, then it’s time to find a new church.
6. Finally, and for me ultimately, when you feel that bringing a lost friend to your church might be an evangelistic setback, it’s time to find a new church (1 Corinthians 14:23)
This happened to me.
I remember working hard for 2 years to build a friendship with someone at my work. Finally, one day, he became open to a conversation about Jesus. After talking for some time, I remember thinking I should invite him to church, but then immediately realized that my church would probably do more to push him away from Jesus than move him closer.
I found a new church.
Leaving a church family is a very painful and difficult transition under any circumstance, but especially tough when you are leaving due to an unhealthy environment. I know, I’ve been there.
But let me encourage you that even if you have to give up on your current church, don’t give up on church altogether. With all of its flaws and weaknesses, it’s still the hope of the world and God’s chosen instrument for the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. When it’s working right, healthy churches are a beautiful expression of the hands and feet of Jesus. Check out Thoma Rainer’s recent posting on the church: 10 Reasons I’m Not Giving Up on the Church
Also, please don’t let a painful past turn you into a bitter believer (Hebrews 12:15). Let the lessons serve as inspiration to be the kind of church you want to attend.