Over the years, I’ve read things by people who have left the church but continue to identify as Christians. There are a variety of things that lead to such a decision. Some have had bad experiences in the church and are connecting with God elsewhere. Others are reacting to a navel-gazing form of Christianity that neglects the world outside the church. Sometimes people are unable to minister in the way they feel called within denominational structures so they pack up.
Recently, I read the comments of a man who talked about his negative experiences in church. An ever growing burden of expectations and commitments left a sour taste in his mouth. He decided to leave the church. Now he says he finds God in coffee shops, teaching guitar lessons, and watching the sun rise.
I get it. There are reasons to be dissatisfied with church. Our attempts to live out the gospel are halting much of the time. (By the way, people who leave the church also fall short when living out the gospel. Just sayin’). Churches struggle with legalism, institutionalism, liberalism, unbelief, divisions, and politicizing their faith. Christians mistreat each other all the time. As GK Chesterton observed in his book Orthodoxy, original sin is the most provable part of Christianity. The question isn’t whether Christians and the church will fail, the question is, How do we respond to that failure?
When answering any question about faith, we are probably least served when we start with our experiences, whether good or bad. A better starting place–the best, in fact–is Jesus. Jesus came to God’s people but wasn’t received by them (John 1:11). He was accused of everything from drunkenness to blasphemy by the religious leaders of that time. His disciples weren’t all that great either. They bickered, doubted, stole the tithes, and were influenced by the devil. If Jesus took His cues from our experience, this is where He’d leave the church and start a blog about finding God elsewhere.
But His ways are not our ways. Jesus didn’t leave God’s people. He attended synagogoue regularly, engaged the Pharisees, and tirelessly instructed His disciples. He fed the 5000, healed the sick, and went toe to toe with the devil wherever He found him. Even when God’s people put Jesus out of the camp in disgrace He gave Himself as the offering for their sins (Heb. 13:12).
And this was just during the 30ish years He walked the earth. Think of the centuries He put up with Israel or the centuries He’s stayed with the church. Enough said.
If anyone has grounds for a grievance against the church, it’s Jesus. He is flawless in every motive, pure in every action. His perfect response to an imperfect people was to give up His life. The rest of us are just self-righteous fakers throwing stones.
The Lord hates divorce, and so should we (Mal. 2:16). Sure, there are real reasons to leave a church. God may call us somewhere else. We may be in a spiritually abusive situation where leaving is necessary. Our convictions may change; going to a different church may be a matter of conscience or doctrine. Whatever our reasons, Christ’s selflessness is the test of them. And whatever reason we leave a church is no reason to leave the church altogether.
If the church is a sinking ship we have to ask where Jesus, the Captain of our Salvation, is. Like any good captain, He’s going down with the ship. If we bail on the ship we bail on our Captain. We also bail on others who need what we draw from Christ. If we stick with our Captain and the ship does go down, it won’t stay down. Jesus always raises from the dead. And since He won’t divorce us under any circumstance we’ll raise with Him.
“And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
“I will never leave you or forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).