Being back in Greenville, especially for church services at Grace, is fun in that I get to reconnect (briefly) with people I've loved for a long time, and who know me well. It's sad, though, too. Why? Because of a problem that's systemic around here. Grace Baptist of Taylors has long been a large church, regularly adding members. So why hasn't it ever really grown? Because people are always leaving. Every few years there's a new church on the block that comes into vogue and several families leave to go there (I could name 3 such churches off the top of my head). There are SO many families that "used to go to our church," most still living in Greenville, and still naming the Name of Jesus. I'm not talking about people who were just attenders, either, I'm talking about people who had applied for membership, testified in front of the entire body, read the church confession of faith and constitution and gladly agreed with them, willingly put themselves under the guidance and oversight of the pastors and deacons, and been in regular fellowship with other members for several years. Yet they leave. For diverse reasons, they just walk away, most without ever so much as a peep as to why, nor efforts to resolve anything.
Every time I come back to Greenville, I am grieved anew at this. Christians, let me plead with you: don't leave your church! As I hope to expound in this post, it is (usually) un-Biblical, and always always hurtful-- to you as the leave-er, and, as I have experienced first hand, to those whom you are leaving behind. It hurts. A lot. To the point that I struggle with bitterness towards those who have left, the mere thought or sight of them bringing all those negative feelings back up.
So, why stay? First of all, because, if you're a Protestant, you've made a covenant with those people in that particular local church. A church isn't primarily a set of doctrines, nor a set of traditions, nor even a set of pastors/deacons/leaders (or the main preaching pastor)--it's certainly not the building. (When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth he was writing to the group of believers in Corinth.) When you leave a church, you may be leaving because of a disagreement with church leaders, or because of a deficiency in the preached word, or because you aren't feeling like your gifts aren't being used adequately, but you aren't leaving any of those things. When you leave, you are leaving your fellow members. Just as a divorce severs one human from another, so leaving a church rips apart christians joined by a covenantal bond. My dad put it perfectly into words when he said, rather sadly, "I can't help feeling that they're just walking away from... me... from all my family. And that hurts."
-----------My apologies for leaving this so long unfinished. I now have my computer back after a long absence, thanks to my cousin Heath's kindness, his electrotechnical prowess, and a rather sizeable dose of daring (he disassembled and reassembled a Powerbook on his own)! Anyway, I'm back now.---------------
The church is often compared to a Body (Eph. 4). In one sense we CANNOT leave The Body, ever-- the Church Universal is made up of all believers, no matter their denomination or age. It will be united and whole in Heaven, but is only seen in glimpses here. The local church is how we worship now. [Aside: Unfortunately, there is division, which is necessary because there is error, much of it heretical, and truth naturally must divide from error when error refuses to be corrected. There are also differences of understanding, which make everyday church life detrimental rather than helpful. SO yeah, I understand why we have denominations, and why these probably won't go away until Heaven.] The local churches are like mini-bodies. In our world, can hands just rip themselves off of one body and transfer to another body, without careful preparation, re-attachment, and a high risk of infection? Yikes, no! So leaving one local fellowship must be approached- carefully, slowly- no matter the reason, even a positive one. Just walking away isn't "seeking peace with all men." It's a cop-out.
Secondly, there isn't any Scriptural basis for leaving. You want a really awful church? Take the one in First-Century Corinth. you've got factions (1 Cor. 1-3) , disagreement over the authority of the apostles (chapter 4) gross sexual immorality (5-incest/adultery; 6-promiscuity), people suing each other (6), people with weird ideas about celibacy (7), gluttony & discrimination in Communion (10), chaotic worship services (14), and even doubts about the resurrection of Christ!! (15) All this to the point that God was putting church members to death in loving judgement (11:13)!! I find it so striking that Paul nowhere commands the faithful to leave and start another church. NOWHERE! On the contrary, he exhorts them to be unified, to stop sinning and embrace righteousness, and then -as a unified body- to discipline those in their midst who insisted on persisting in sin. Nowhere do we read anything like "but if these issues seem disturbing, you should leave these so-called brothers of yours and quietly begin worshipping in the house of a faithful man. I will send another pastor to shepherd you there soon." Granted, there wasn't "First Church of Straight Street of Corinth," competing with "First Modern Church of Corinth--" they were all house fellowships, probably meeting in different locations as persecution came and their numbers grew, yet still in fellowship and communion with each other-- so it's not like they could really leave a church in the same way we can now (which I believe is a travesty!). Instead, Paul had the confidence that I do: that the work of the Holy Spirit, through the Word spoken and read, will transform a church rife with problems and DEAL with those problems. I am NOT advocating silently letting Jesus' church do things utterly dishonoring to Him. Paul doesn't tell people to just stick it out without a peep-- on the contrary, he rebukes them, and urges church discipline! In other letters he does the same to other churches. So does Jesus in Revelation 2. If you've see an issue in a church, and after much prayer you still see it, it's probably there! So do you just leave? Is that the Biblical thing to do? Is that the God-glorifying-est option? If we can't easily answer those questions, we can certainly answer this one: is it the most loving, others-serving thing to do? As one of those left behind, I can painfully say, "no." It sure isn't loving to leave someone in their sin, ignorance, misunderstanding or struggle; neither is it loving to leave a group of people similarly set. Talk to us! Tell us what you think and what you see! Oh how I grieve when I imagine how strong and joyful Grace Baptist would be if all those who had left had stayed. Such godly people! Such diversity, such strength there would be! Oh, why did you leave!? I plead with you who haven't left yet (and if you've just left, come back!), instead of leaving, work to BE a part of the solution. SERVE us if we are weak. That's how Jesus dealt with the 12! He was so far above their petty arguments over who was the Greatest, and He didn't leave them. On the contrary, He washed their feet and died for them. Don't walk away in your "strength" and leave us in our weakness.
Thirdly, whoever you are: you are a sinner!! What does that have to do with anything? It means I KNOW you will never find a perfect church: wherever you go, YOU will be there, so it WON'T be perfect. Gospel-embracing churches, made up of Gospel-embracing people, are beautiful precisely because they are embracing the Gospel-- that means they are loudly proclaiming that it took the death of God to pay for their God-offending sin, and that they STILL need His grace every single day! The best churches are ones full of self-acknowledged sinners... meaning that even the best churches will still be flawed. The excuse "I wasn't growing anymore, so I left" is one that is waaaay over-used. And that is your pastor's fault how? Is it ever valid? Quite likely. If the Word is not being faithfully taught and given as food, the people will be hungry. But again, is the answer to immediately, quietly, leave? NO!! The problem might be you! Are you resisting growth? Are you being lazy in your pursuit of personal holiness, and then blaming a preacher or a teacher for not pulling you along? Are you being open and honest, confessing and confronting sin to/in your friends, or are you remaining isolated, surface-deep, and blind? You will not grow if you are not pursuing the means of grace. "The godly are easily encouraged," as one man said. If you are honestly pursuing growth and it is not coming, or if you see a deficiency, then speak up! Go humbly to your brother and share your burden for his good, your good, and the good of all your neighbors. Your pastor may not be the best preacher, but he probably loves you. If you see a lack of clear teaching, be open to modeling good teaching. If you sense shallow "fellowship," invite a few out for coffee and try to be open with them (do a book study on "Because He Loves Me," "The Cross-Centered Life," "Gospel Transformation," or "A Gospel Primer" for great starters). PRAY. The Lord might use YOU to be the agent of grace in the church where you are struggling. Look around at the people you're thinking of abandoning, and think "wouldn't I rather be used to encourage them?" God has you where you are for a reason. It probably isn't to just stop growing spiritually, whimper and then slink out.
Lastly, you are hurting yourself, and setting yourself up for blindness and sin. Leaving a church always hurts you, even if you don't expect it to. When you leave those who know you best, and start over somewhere else, you lose the accountability you had. You open the door to sin and blindness-- because who's gonna know you there? Who will love you enough to speak the truth in love? You are likely taking a shortcut, the easy way out, and we all know that isn't how God's Grace works. He saves us all at once (justification), but then He keeps saving us (sanctification) for long agonizing joyful years. He doesn't infuse us with patience; no, He gives the testing of our faith which PRODUCES patience (James 1:2). That means He gives us hard medicine that tastes yucky, to work a beautiful cure. That might include bearing with a church that's not perfect, and working lovingly, humbly with them THROUGH those imperfections, both teaching and being taught. Maybe you feel like your church isn't letting you live up to your full potential. Maybe that's because you think too highly of your potential. The one who skips all that and walks away is taking the easy way out. We shun quick fixes like diet pills... why do we think a quick fix of a church change will be any better for our spiritual health? I've seen people leave because they were having marital problems, because they just broke up, because their children were rebelling, and shame drove them away. "What would people say if they knew?" Yikes! You NEED those who love you and will speak the truth and listen in love, more than ever. You of all people, stay! Let us love you! Yeah, it will hurt, and it will be hard... but it's still good. Slightly differently, I've heard people leave because they were newly weds and/or new parents and wanted to start out on their own or find a church that could better serve them at that new stage. The same applies to you! You are not as strong as you think you are.
One last word to those who want to leave a fellowship for entirely other reasons- maybe a passion for a certain people group, maybe a gifting that's duplicated within your church fellowship. Those gifts are given you by God TO SERVE HIS CHURCH. First of all, talk to your church leaders- don't just "inform" them that you are leaving and why. Let them be a part of it-- they are your authority and can give guidance you need. Then talk to your fellow church members, at least some of it. Don't they deserve an explanation, if not consultation? Do they see how you could plug into the church? If they agree that your leaving is advantageous to the Gospel, and your passions & gifts can't be incorporated into your church body as it is, then by all means expand your church! Start a new ministry. Move to that other neighborhood, or city, or country. If it just isn't feasible to stay at your church, make it a matter of expansion and growth, not disunion and stunting. Gather people around you, watching your back, holding you accountable, and praying for you. At the very least, be honest. Wouldn't you rather be sent than just leave?
I write this so thankful for those who have stayed at Grace. I have watched you grow as you've stayed and pressed on. I will testify of how it has done you good; how you have been rewarded for your steadfastness, patience, and willingness to be wronged. Your faces flash across my mind, and I'm afraid to name you, because I know I'll leave someone out, but I also want to honor those deserving of honor. ... remember that I'm typing this from 450 miles away, and be gracious to me. :) Glenn & Helen, Mark & Cheryl, David & Kimi, Bruce & Jean, Jamie & Lydia, Ed & Miriam, Lou & Sally- you've been there since before I was. Ben & Denise, Ryan & Lydia, Craig & Ashley- you've stayed when many of your age left. Blaine & Wendy, Jack & Janice, Jim & Robin, Mark & Kathryn, Seth & Katie, Victor & Ellen- you put your hand to the plow and haven't turned back. Chad & Melanie, Glyn & Jo Lin, Doug & Beth, Mike & Linda, Todd, Ravonda, Pene-- you came and haven't left. Of course there's my parents, Bart & Karina. And Bob & Cathi, Aaron & Rachel, we know you love us and are so glad you're back.
Please know that I write this in all humility, out of deep love for the honor and good of Christ's Bride-- He values her, thus so should I!--and especially my brothers at Grace, who have been hurt again and again. May God in His mercy strengthen you and use you to do great things!