How to Leave a Church

Dr. Randy White

Previously, I wrote about How to Join a Church, but there comes a time, for most, when they must leave a church. Sometimes the church just doesn’t turn out to be what it appeared to be on the surface. Whether you joined too quickly or the church is one of the many who is trying to be “all things to all people,” meaning that their presentation to you was just what you wanted to hear but not the reality of the church, you may have joined the wrong church. There is a right way to leave the wrong church. (Note, you may be interested in my older article, “Why I Couldn’t Join Most Churches.”)

Should you always be in a church?

I no longer hold the old Baptist line that every Christian should always be involved in a local church. I know that many of my fellow pastors disagree with me on this one, and you can feel free to question the assumptions. But if a pastor insists that every believer join a local congregation, they are often perpetuating the problem we have in churches today – an environment in which anything goes in both theology and practice. I think there comes a time when a student of the Word simply has to say, “I cannot continue to support the direction of this church.” At that point, there may or may not be another viable option in the community (or even within reasonable driving distance). Should the Bible believing church member sit through pop-psychology sermons and worldly music just because the Baptist preachers insist that every Christian should be in a church? I don’t think so. I think it may be time to leave the church and search for another church or, when possible, start a home fellowship.  In some cases (even in larger cities), the believer may have to resort to an online Bible learning experience.

Is this position self-serving? I do, after all, offer online Bible learning experiences, and hundreds of people from around the world join us for every session. So, yes, this is a defense of what I do. But I would challenge anyone to find a Biblical requirement that every believer join a local church. Hebrews 10:24 would be the closest possible Biblical basis, yet that verse doesn’t require membership in local worldly clubs calling themselves churches. Furthermore, to press the issue, at what point should a Christian stop going to a local church? Should they attend the local catholic church, if that is all there is? Should they go to a “welcoming and affirming” congregation (that is a code word for acceptance of practicing homosexuals as members and leaders)? Should they support a church that is so seeker-sensitive that its pastor hasn’t preached through a book of the Bible in years?

More and more, I am finding that there really are no viable options for many people in many parts of the country. I hope this changes in the years to come, and I think there is a possibility for change. I think that people who are leaving a church looking for a Bible-teaching congregation are likely going to have to either start a home fellowship or search diligently for the small to very small independent fundamental churches that often have little to no internet presence and are not “cool” enough to have a full, age-graded program for the family.

So, if you need to leave a church, what do you need to do?

Visit the Pastor.

I am assuming that you were able to visit the pastor before you joined. I wrote about this in my previous article, and I simply would not join a church if I could not visit with the man who preaches from the pulpit every Sunday. If you are in a church in which you cannot visit with the pastor, then skip this step and just realize the pastor doesn’t have clue who you are anyway, and the only way they will know you are gone is because of their meticulous record keeping, mainly for financial or growth award purposes. But in most churches, you will be able to meet the pastor.

Your visit should be both gracious and honest.

Be gracious by realizing you do not have to convince the pastor that you are right and he is wrong. The visit is a courtesy visit, not a correction visit.

Be honest by telling him, briefly and for information purposes, why you are leaving the church.

Perhaps the visit would go something like this-

We just wanted to take a few minutes to come and tell you that, as you may have guessed, we are going to begin searching for another church.  We have found that our theology and methodology simply doesn’t match with yours. We won’t be a problem for you, we won’t stir up any others in the congregation, but we did not just want to disappear without some notification.

If the pastor asks what your differences are, then you can tell him. He may or may not ask, and that is his prerogative. I don’t always ask for two reasons. First, I almost always know ahead of time. Pastors are able to read their congregation pretty well, and your pastor may be in the same boat. Second, I have a personal philosophy that says, “never turn down a resignation.” I’ve learned the hard way that it is rarely beneficial to talk someone out of leaving. With the goal of a gracious exit, I simply thank them for the time they took to come and let me know personally, and I say a prayer with them for a happy future. My preference is to be able to say hello without discomfort when I run into them at the grocery store.

If the pastor does ask what your differences are, you’ll have to let him know, but there is absolutely no need for you to defend your position. Some pastors are born in the “kickative mode” and always want to have the last word. Be prepared to explain your theological or methodological reasons for leaving, but with the ability to leave the conversation with the honest explanation. Perhaps something like this-

My wife and I simply prefer verse-by-verse Bible exposition rather than application-based sermons, so we find ourselves disgruntled when we leave. We don’t want this spirit to foster something negative in our lives or in your church.

Or maybe-

Your framework for Biblical interpretation is covenant theology, and we hold to a dispensational framework. This causes us to have too many differences in points of view, and this is causing us to have a bad attitude which we do not want to spill over into the church’s fellowship.

My advice is to avoid a debate with the pastor at this time. You can gently let him know, “I appreciate your desire to discuss the issue, but we have decided to leave and we want to do it on gracious terms.” A wise pastor will allow you to do so.

Visit your friends.

This step is fundamental. I’ve seen too many members who are able to have a gracious visit with the pastor but then have scathing conversations with their friends, conversations in which the pastor is raked over the fiery coals of animosity. This is ungodly and unnecessary. If you are going to skewer the pastor, do it in the face-to-face visit with him, and him alone.

If you have friends in the church, you’ll want to tell them (need to tell them) why you are leaving. Don’t just let them wonder what is up, and don’t sit around waiting for them to come to you. This is your responsibility. A phone call or a short visit over a cup of coffee will be fine.

Here’s the most important thing about this visit:  tell your friends the same thing you told your pastor, and in the same way. Don’t be caught having a gracious visit with the pastor and a scathing visit with your friends. This is duplicity and not becoming of a person trying to honor the Lord.

With a blessed silence to the rest of the world

After you have visited with the pastor and your close friends, there is no need to make sure the entire church knows about it, let alone your neighbors, your next church, or the stranger at the Post Office. Your goal is to be a good witness for Jesus Christ and to see a strengthened church, not a beaten-up church.

And to reach that goal, silence is golden!