Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Brian Sanders' book, Life After Church: God's Call to Disillusioned Christians, (InterVarsity Press, 2007).
You show up at church every week, sing the songs, hear the sermon, and place money in the offering plate. But the whole time, you feel as if you’re just going through the motions out of habit and obligation. You’re not connecting to God or other people there, and you’re not motivated to participate in the mission.
So you think about leaving, but then you feel guilty. After all, you love God. And He must want you to stay at your church, right?
Maybe not. In fact, He might actually be calling you to leave. Here’s how you can respond to the frustration you feel:
Pay attention to your yearnings. Acknowledge the reality of what’s making you feel frustrated at your church, and listen to your longings for something more. Don’t dismiss your yearning for a better church experience; realize that your concerns may very well be valid.
Differentiate between leaving church and leaving God. Understand that it’s one thing to abandon your relationship with God, and an entirely different thing to leave a particular church. Know that leaving a church for the right reasons should strengthen your faith instead of weakening it. Make sure you’re dealing with issues of how well your current church is or isn’t functioning as it should, rather than a personal crisis of faith. Consider leaving only when doing so will free you to find a better way to grow spiritually.
Differentiate between looking for more and nursing wounds. Check your motives to honestly determine if you’re thinking of leaving because you want more spiritually, or because you’re upset about some way you’ve been hurt at your current church. Are you angry about something someone said or did there? If so, have you pursued healing and extended forgiveness with God’s help? Do you feel unnoticed? If so, have you made an effort to build relationships there? Make sure you’re not holding grudges, but truly looking for ways to grow spiritually that you can’t in your current congregation.
Consider whether or not you’ve grown out of the church’s message. Is your church geared primarily to seekers? Does it fail to help believers mature throughout their spiritual journeys? Have you tried to go deeper in your relationship with God there, but not found the encouragement and support you need?
Consider whether or not you’re able to ask questions. Do the people at your church welcome honest inquiry? Have you been able to express your doubts and struggles there without being ignored or criticized for doing so? Do you feel pressure to keep quiet about the deep spiritual questions you have stirring around inside your soul? Can you talk openly with others in your congregation about your questions, and participate in respectful and thoughtful conversations?
Consider whether or not your church is relevant to your real life. Can you relate your experiences in church to what you’re going through in the rest of your life? Does what is being taught and said and done in church help you at home with your family, on the job, and elsewhere?
Consider whether or not you have something meaningful to do. Do church leaders encourage you to use your spiritual gifts and natural talents? Is your time and energy taken up in activities that don’t relate to the church’s mission? Are you given the opportunities you need to contribute in meaningful ways?
Consider whether your money is used well. Does your church use the money you and others in the congregation give wisely, according to biblical principles? Do leaders clearly communicate how they’re using funds? Are the church’s financial transactions marked by integrity, or excess or abuse?
Commit to God, not just practices. Know that if particular practices aren’t helping you encounter God at your church, it’s time to let go of those practices and find fresh ways to pursue Him. Recognize that staying committed to practices when they don’t enable you to connect with God is not just unproductive, but also spiritually dangerous. Keep your focus on God rather than certain methods of approaching him.
Keep three essential elements of church in mind. Realize that just because a certain place calls itself a church doesn’t mean it lives up to the name. Acknowledge that, while no church is perfect because they’re all made up of imperfect people, churches that lack the biblical fundamentals aren’t healthy places to be. Understand that a healthy church should offer worship that’s centered on Christ, community that’s marked by love, and mission that helps fulfill the Great Commission. Ask yourself whether or not your church honors God, encourages members to build meaningful relationships with each other, and reaches out to lost people in the community. Know that a church isn’t a building; it’s made up of people. So when any group of people is committed to Christ, to each other, and to the lost, Christ is there in their midst and they are church.
Dream of more. If you do decide to leave your church, don’t settle for less spiritual growth than you experienced before. Fight disillusionment and pursue the longings for spiritual growth that God has placed in your heart. Look for a new spiritual community that: helps all members discover and use their God-given gifts and talents, is led by teams, is multiethnic and multicultural (just as heaven will be), serves and empowers the poor, fights injustice, evangelizes the lost, teaches the Bible faithfully and applies its truths regularly (instead of watering it down for people’s comfort), makes the Great Commission central to its mission, actively meets a variety of needs in the surrounding community, practices Communion often and makes it central to the worship experience, empowers people to think critically on their own and to grow in maturity, gives people opportunities to practice what they learn, makes prayer a top priority, embraces the whole Gospel, works to expand God’s kingdom, encourages people to give generously, practices simplicity and integrity in financial matters, and features a network of home groups for people to connect in close friendships.
If you decide to stay, find new hope and joy in the process. Consider staying at your current church if you can fully support the ministry and its leaders despite your frustrations. Choose to stick with it for a set period, remaining full engaged during that time before thinking of leaving again if you still think that may be best. Honor your church’s leaders, wishing the best for them and praying for them regularly. Find reasons to love your congregation, and to actively invest in it. Commit to becoming a positive agent of change from the inside out, addressing your frustrations gradually and respectfully, and by becoming part of the solution to the problems. Don’t be afraid to speak up in prophetic ways, as long as you humbly acknowledge that you could be wrong, and that you balance love and truth when you speak. Rather than trying to change people yourself, intercede for them in prayer asking God to change them according to His will.
If you decide to leave, do it well. Emphasize that your departure is due to God’s leading in your life rather than just a reaction to the church’s flaws. Be positive, mentioning what you appreciate about the church as well as your frustrations. Be graceful, refraining from any unnecessary negativity when explaining your decision. Be honest, yet constructive with what you share. Share your vision for how you hope to grow spiritually in the future. Thank the people who have been a part of your spiritual journey at the church you’re leaving. Make plans to replace yourself in the areas in which you’ve served so there won’t be void in those ministries after you leave.
Stay connected to God and others after leaving. Until you find a new, healthier church where you can grow more, be sure to keep up your spiritual disciplines (like prayer and Bible reading), meet with other believers regularly, and keep serving and giving (perhaps through charities or other organizations in your community). Remember that you’re still part of the universal church even when you’re in between local congregations.
Adapted from Life After Church: God's Call to Disillusioned Christians, copyright 2007 by Brian Sanders. Published by Likewise (a division of InterVarsity Press), Downers Grove, Ill., www.ivpress.com.
Brian Sanders founded and directs Tampa Underground (www.tampaunderground.com), a missional network of microchurches in urban Tampa, Fl. He has served as a teaching pastor at a local church and has helped to launch more than 15 home churches.