I was frustrated. Something had to change.
Every Sunday I didn’t want to go to church.
Not so much church in general. I didn’t want to go to our church. After a full year of feeling unsettled, it was time to get the car out of neutral. But how?
I bet some of you can identify. You’re feeling frustrated or out of place at your own church. How can you tell if it’s time to move on?
What This Post Isn’t About
Up front, I want to let you know that this post isn’t a comprehensive how-to or flow chart about whether it’s time to leave your church and how you would know. That’s an entire book (at least).
What This Post Is About
This post is much more focused. It’s about one surprising way to know if you should leave your church. Something you might not think about.
We usually leave because of…
- the preaching
- the worship style
- the lack of programs for our kids
- a broken relationship
- theological disagreements
All of these may – or may not – be legitimate reasons to leave (or never join to begin with). But that’s not what I’m going to address today.
So here it is:
It’s time to leave your church when you try to serve but find that you can’t.
Let’s Back Up For A Moment
I realize that’s a loaded statement. Like one of those baked potatoes I used to get at Wendy’s growing up. (Sour cream, butter, bacon… I’m getting distracted.) So let me explain.
Notice that I’m assuming the church isn’t so much about what we receive, but what we can give. Jesus meant it when he said ‘it is more blessed to give than receive’ (Acts 20:35). That applies to all of life, including the way we think about church.
But we are Americans, and we have modified Descartes’ famous maxim to ‘I consume; therefore I am’. We think about what a church can do for us. If it can’t do what we want, or no longer will, we’re outta there. I’m certainly not above this tendency.
Again, there are legitimate reasons to transition. And some of them involve whether a church can appropriately meet needs God has given us. But when it’s all about us and we approach churches like choices in the cereal aisle, we’ve drifted off course.
So when we’re thinking about a church home, it’s more important to discern whether this is a place where you (and your family, if you have one) can serve.
A Matter Of Obedience
1 Peter 4:10 shows that this is important. It’s not just one optional factor among many, but rather a matter of obedience to God.
‘As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace’.
This verse clearly states that:
- God has given every Christian a (Spiritual) gift (see especially Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 28);
- this gift has been entrusted to us by God to be used for serving other Christians;
- God has been intentional and gracious in giving us the gift.
Of course, to use our gifts, we need to know what they are. This can be a process more than an event, but talking to people who know you well, and taking a spiritual gifts inventory, are good places to begin.
So there are reasons to leave your church, some of which may legitimately relate to the needs that you and your family have. However, we should not be primarily concerned what we receive from our church, but rather, what we can give.
But here’s the interesting thing. Over my 25 years in the church, I’ve found that it’s not always easy – or even possible – to give what God has entrusted to us at every local congregation.
There are times when a particular church may not be a place where you can serve. Or, at least not well. Both you and the church may be solid overall. It may look perfect in theory, but in reality it’s not a match.
How To Tell If This Is A Place You Can Serve
So now we have a framework to move towards a decision. To figure out if your church is a place you can truly serve.
This isn’t exhaustive, but here are some key signs that your current church isn’t ready to receive what God has called you to offer.
- You try to find ways to use your gifts, but no one’s interested. When you try to be proactive about using your gifts and talents, you receive a lukewarm (or worse) response. For example, my wife and I have been called to personally invest in other Christians. This has taken various forms over the years, but God has given us the ability to get to know people intimately so that we can challenge and encourage them. When we tried to do this at our former church, it just wasn’t happening. As one example, relational initiative we took was rarely returned. People simply weren’t interested in vulnerable, gospel-centered relationships. When you try to use gifts you’re certain God has given you, but no one responds, it may be a sign that this isn’t a place you can serve.
- When you use your gifts, the fruit isn’t there. Sometimes, when you try to serve there’s little to no interest. Other times, there appears to be interest but there’s no fruit. No positive results despite repeated efforts. But the gifts God has given us are intended to be effective, to lead to ‘the common good’ (1 Corinthians 12:7). At our former church, my wife and I tried to lead a small group, begin a relationally-focused Sunday School class, and invest in a variety of relationships, but no one was changing as the result of our investment. No doubt part of this was our fault, but over the years this hasn’t been our normal experience. If you keep trying to use gifts that you know God has given you but don’t see the results you’re used to experiencing, it may be another sign that you’re not serving in the right place.
- When you talk to the church leadership about serving, they’re lukewarm or shut you down. Sometimes what you have to offer is exactly what your church needs, but doesn’t yet have. The people there may not be quite ready for it, but if the church’s leadership is behind you it can work. But if the leaders aren’t supportive, it’s unlikely your efforts will make a difference in the long haul. That’s because churches (and all organizations) generally reflect the values of their leaders over time. While it’s not fair to expect our leaders to be over-the-top excited right away, they should be open to listening and allowing us to test our ideas out if they seem biblical and reasonable. They can also help by publicly coming behind them and contributing some of the church’s resources, like a room for a Sunday School class, a little seed money for a community outreach, or input and prayer from the staff.
It’s always a complex, nuanced decision, but these are three signs that your gifts can’t be used effectively at your church. While that’s frustrating for you personally, the bigger issue is that the gifts God himself has entrusted to you aren’t being used. And that means his people – the ones he lived and died for – aren’t benefiting from you the way he intended.
The good news is that, in most cases, there are other churches that will be happy to receive what you have to offer. You will be refreshed by the gifts of others and they will benefit from yours. That’s the way that God has designed his body to work.
Let’s Live It Out: Are your primary gifts and talents being used at your church? If not, consider these possible next steps:
- Pray about how you may be contributing to the problem and follow-up. (Examples: maybe you haven’t tried hard enough, or, you need to try again in a different way; perhaps you’re not actually gifted in the area you think you are; you may need to have an honest conversation with church leadership.)
- If you’re really sure that you won’t be able to serve effectively at your current church, be proactive about finding a new church home. Don’t stay and allow bitterness to take root, or, let your search for a new home drag on.
- When you leave, do it graciously and with thanks for all you’ve received.