Have you ever thought about how to join and how to leave a church well? Membership at Costco and membership at a local church are wildly different things. Yet, if a person is not careful, the comings and goings from a church may not seem anything more significant than that.
I want to think through how to join and leave a local church well. I write this to help each member know how to mentor people starting to make Faith Bible Church their home. It should also be a help to each member when a friend or beloved member starts withdrawing and you can see them think about looking for another church.
First, let us remember what a local church is: a local church is an assembly of mutually committed followers of Christ and His word, who love and care for one another and advance the gospel in their city. This is all done under the leadership of biblically qualified leaders who are to give an account for the members of the local church (Hebrews 13:7,17). A thoughtful, self-sacrificing and doctrinally united church explodes the witness of the church.
There are few factors that will help someone join a church well.
If you are new to attending church or reading the Bible ask a Christian friend or pastor to read and explain 1 Timothy to you. It sets out most of the important aspects of a healthy church.
Paul’s letter called 1st Timothy gives enough help to identify a healthy church. Is the gospel central (1 Timothy 1:15–17)? Do the leaders fight to keep it central (1:18–20)? Is there an emphasis on prayer (2:1–2) and reaching the lost (2:3–5)? Are there biblically qualified leaders (3:1–15). Is the church’s message more politics, controversies, and pragmatics or is it Christ (3:16)? Does it warn its people of Satanic deceptions (4:1–6)? Does it feed God’s people the word of God through books of the Bible and sound theology (4:13)? Does it have a healthy way of dealing with sins against each other (5:1–2)? Does it care for its own (5:3–16)?. Is there reward for leaders who serve well and is there discipline for those who do not? (5:17–26)? Does it view money from an eternal perspective or a ‘get rich on earth’ perspective (6:1–19)? These are biblical marks that are rarely evaluated. For another excellent view read Mark Dever’s booklet What is a healthy church?
If you were previously at another church ask yourself some questions. Did I talk to fellow Christians and get prayer? If I had frustrations, were they articulated to the elders in a dialogue? Did I give them time to respond before I made my decision? If the reason was practical like moving to a new location, or taking a new ministry opportunity, were the elders enlisted to get wisdom and prayer? Do I need to go back to anyone, ask forgiveness or seek peace?
Am I prepared to give as much in service and commitment as I am asking from others? Naturally a few of you may have great needs and are unable at this time. But when you are, are you ready to love, care and serve? There are so many commands to serve and love one another in the context of a local church. A local church is not a warehouse for consumers but a greenhouse for givers and growers.
Am I willing to be known by the elders and members? Am I willing to share my story, and trust them with the immature or still sinful parts of my life? Will I let the members and elders equip me to grow in grace and serve?
A local church is not a warehouse for consumers but a greenhouse for givers and growers.Dan Jarms
The elders and members want to love and care for you. Take the doctrine and ministry seriously. Perhaps you need to take the slow road and take Fundamentals of the Faith first. You may have little experience studying certain truths so doctrinal statements may seem like gibberish. Have the membership class leaders and pastors explain their understanding of various passages of Scriptures.
There are more, but if each new member did this, the quality of growth would be exponential.
Likewise there are a few factors that will help someone leave well. One of the most common and poorest reasons we hear someone give for leaving a church is this. “We prayed about it and the Lord is moving us on.” This is almost always a cover for conflict avoidance. And who likes conflict? God’s word, and wise counsel—not your feeling after praying—is the only sure way to know how God is leading.
There are some very good reasons to leave a local church. It’s understanding of the Bible and your understanding of the Bible is very different. Its leaders are not biblically qualified. Job changes and moving locations often require finding a new church. Ministry opportunities can be good reasons. We are sending a church plant to the valley. That is good. Music styles, ministry offerings, programs, congregational size are often cited as reasons. Be careful that these are not really just selfish ‘preferences’ disguised. Preferences have a place. But they are not central.
Find someone who will really listen to your concerns and situation. Present concerns to clarify you don’t merely have a misunderstanding. Make sure a silent withdrawal is not merely a fear of conflict. If it is a job change or a move to a new location get input on solid churches in the new area. Get wisdom.
You may be able to leave the relationships easily, but dozens of people have poured much time and energy into you. They may be hurt or sad that you are going. That is normal, but you should be careful not to deepen their sorrow unnecessarily.
The elders here want to make a hand off to another church. In the New Testament elders would write letters of commendation when someone moved churches. That lets the new church know that the departure was healthy and the new people will be a blessing to their church.
If the church you start attending does not have a robust membership process, you should think twice about choosing that church. They could have more interest in what increases the number count on Sunday and the tithes they collect than for your soul. Only choose a church that is committed to shepherding you.
There are good reasons to join a church. There are good reasons to leave. Let’s be biblically smarter and more loving in the process.