When People Leave Your Church... and It's Okay

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, January 10, 2013

When People Leave Your Church... and It's Okay

When is it okay for a member or attender of your church to leave? 

First, let’s state the obvious. It’s never just “okay.” When someone leaves by choice to go to another church in your community, it’s a dagger through the heart. If someone says differently, they’re lying. Few things are taken more personally by church leaders, and the community left behind, than someone leaving. It feels like rejection, abandonment, even betrayal.

But that doesn’t mean that sometimes a departure can’t be a good thing.

For example:

When someone leaves because they have been confronted with harmful, abusive patterns of sin in their life that were harming the community, and they refused to repent;

…that’s a good departure.

When someone disagrees with the church’s historic mission, doctrine or values, and openly tries to make their case at every juncture to new believers or members;

…that’s a good departure.

When someone vocally refuses to trust, follow or support leadership that truly deserves to be trusted, followed and supported;

…that’s a good departure.

Now having said this, I am not saying that leaders should have a cavalier attitude toward such departures. I consider each one a personal sense of failure or loss that we weren’t able to “reach” them and bring them into the community in a more healthy and holistic way. Separating from a church, and any tough confrontations that might have been called for on the front end, is always saddening. 

And I am not saying there aren’t times when people should leave a church – and have God on their side! There are churches that lead people astray, teach falsehood, allow patterns of abuse, and more. If that’s your setting, don’t leave… flee! 

But that still leaves a lot of departures ill-defined, and ripe for emotional discouragement. 

On both sides.

And that’s where I want to offer encouragement.

First, for the leaders:

No matter how healthy your church is, no matter how much it is growing, people will leave. It’s as simple as that. And many of those departures do not reflect poorly on the church. 

For example:

If you start a capital campaign to raise money, no matter the cause, I can guarantee you people will leave;

…but churches need capital campaigns.

If you consistently orient the church toward outreach, to the point of calling for sacrifice among the core, people will leave;

…but churches need to stay outward-focused.

If you add a new service, start a new site, build a new wing – creating a new sense of church size or identity – people will leave;

…but churches need to expand to accommodate new growth.

If you update the music, tweak the middle school program, or cancel a dwindling ministry, people will leave;

…but churches need to continually revise and adapt, prune and rethink.

And when these people leave, they will often throw darts at the church or its leadership. They won’t say, “I don’t like capital campaigns.” They will say, “You’re too into money.”

They won’t say, “You care too much about lost people.” They will say, “I need to go where I’m fed.”

They won’t say, “I don’t like that kind of music!” They will say, “The music is too loud.”

They won’t say, “I don’t know everybody anymore.” Well, actually, they will. 

But now for the attenders:

You may be a part of a good church, but feel led to leave. This does not necessarily reflect poorly on the church, much less you.

For example:

You’ve been commuting to your church. Your child reaches the middle- and high-school years, and all their friends attend a youth group at a solid church near your home. They want to go there. So you start attending that church – you miss the old church, but want to do all you can to nurture the spiritual well-being of your child;

…that’s a fair departure.

Your pastor leads the church down a new doctrinal track – not necessarily a heretical one, just a new one – say, away from “mere Christianity” toward a more narrow “Calvinism.” You aren’t there, and even disagree with the emphasis;

…that’s a fair departure.

You feel called to invest in a ministry to sex-trafficked children, but your church doesn’t feel that is a pressing need. You’ve tried to stir their hearts, but to no avail. There is a nearby church, equally solid, that is eager to facilitate that ministry. You feel God calling you to that investment, so you move toward that opportunity in a new setting;

…that’s a fair departure.

Change of any kind creates attrition – whether it’s in you, or your church. Yet churches – and people – change. This is why most churches can count on a “natural” (change-oriented) attrition of about 10% each year due to people leaving, dying or relocating.

That’s a lot of people.

So while it may never be “okay,” it doesn’t always have to be personal.

And sometimes it can even be celebrated.

James Emery White

 

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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