I Left the Church Behind

August 17, 2011

Four years ago, I left my church.

And while I realize that I didn’t leave the Church, it seemed like a big deal at the time to leave behind our particular church, with its particular building, and everything inside it and invite people to worship in a home.  It felt like we were leaving behind a lot more than just a building.  We were leaving behind a way of life.  And in a lot of ways, we felt like we were losing.  

Since then, I haven’t become this rabid crazy person who says that all church buildings should be torn down.  House church is just one way to do things.  A good way, maybe better than some other ways, but not the only way.

And in the last four years, I realized I learned a few things.  Things that would make it very difficult for me, should God ever call me back to a more typical church.

Church Hopping

The church is in a weird place today.  We talk about love and forgiveness, but we don’t really need those things in churches.  We have so many choices in churches, why would we ever put up with a church that doesn’t meet our exact desires?  Why tolerate Christians who have offended us, or a church that isn’t quite our taste?  Wouldn’t it be easier to just find a new church, the way people find new spouses?

I actually think it would have some positive and unexpected consequences if half the churches out there had to close.  With so few choices, we just might be forced to swallow our pride, and reconcile ourselves with other Christians we can’t stand.  Christians with bad theology, or bad politics, or bad manners, or bad hygiene.

I’ve got a family I love.  But I’ve never really felt I loved anyone outside of my relatives or my wife (outside of the platonic Christian love that doesn’t mean anything most of the time).  I don’t love my coworkers or neighbors or the employees at Target.  And for my whole life, I didn’t love anyone at church.  But somehow I’ve learned in the confines of a house church, for the first time in my life, what it means to really exist alongside a people outside my family, to accept one another’s faults, to value and love people, and never want them to leave.

Tough Decisions

I’ve learned that churches of all sizes have to be ready and willing to pull the trigger on a moral decision that will cost them.  For most churches, moral decisions don’t amount to much more than deciding what they believe about gay marriage or abortion, or whatever the topic is.  Whatever the decision, it isn’t something that’s going to require much action.

But a few churches are called to really be tested.  The moral decision will be right there, in the sanctuary.  My church was called to make that choice.  Doing the right thing cost us a church, friends, reputations, money, and health.  And despite the costs, God blessed our choice in ways I never expected.  I wouldn’t change a thing.  Is your church ready to lose it all, or would doing the right thing get lost in committee?

I Just Don’t Care

I can’t imagine how things would’ve turned out if I had taken the more typical path.  What if I had become a pastor of a large church?  Pastors are supposed to do a lot of things besides calling on sick people and teaching Bible lessons.  They’re supposed to be CEOs and advertising gurus and a bunch of other stuff that I realized I just don’t care about.  I might’ve been good at all that, but probably not.

I’d probably be burned out, like thousands of other pastors.  I can’t tell you how many burned out pastors I’ve met.  Brilliant, compassionate people who just couldn’t stand the job anymore.  Let me ask you this: how did the church manage to lose 80% of my generation, while at the same time, burning out millions of its most dedicated pastors and laymen?

I’ll take what I’ve got right now any day over the alternative.

But if you told me five years ago that this is what I’d be doing, I’d never believe you.

Talk to me, people!  Tell me about how your life has changed in the last three, four or five years that you’d never have believed.

43 responses to I Left the Church Behind

  1. Hi Matt,

    Thank you for this. It is one of the most personal essays I recall your having written. You speak to my condition. Thanks.

    In your speaking about growing in love, I think you say something really important.

    For Ginny and me, we joined our old church because we felt God had called us there; we left it after 27 years because we felt He released us from the obligation of having to be there.

    I felt a great relief.

    Or maybe we left because I’m too much of a grump to get along with anybody.

    Anyhow, we slipped away quietly without fuss or fanfare and hardly anybody noticed we’d left. Our names remain on the church rolls as inactive deadwood, and that’s fine. It’s interesting to get the church mailings now and then, but nothing lures us back.

    John Cowart

  2. Thanks for sharing, Matt. I love when people connect with the destiny that God has for THEM.

    4 years ago I took a job in the city. I had lived a few decades as Ted Kennedy’s neighbor; laid back Cape Cod was my home. It was also tough spiritually, and economically. I headed for the big city, high-paying job and churches that sponsored conferences with national speakers.

    With nearly double my salary, I got a new car and some other toys. Things were looking good!

    3 years into it, God sent me to a new church out in the rural areas – an hour away. It was there that all the deep and good things you are talking about happened. All my ambitions for ministry, fellowship and church sort of happened…

    God is faithful to me, and i have some opportunities that I never would have believed. I am just glad that I heard God that morning when he told me to go there.

    http://fireandgrace.com

  3. Love, Matt. Most of us lack the love with which Christ loves us.

  4. I gotta find some church to go to. We’ve been going to my in laws which is just 20 min down the road.

    What kills me is I tried to start a small bible study and nobody ever came and scheduling was always an issue. I don’t like big churches and my failed bible study scares me of house churches.

    • I think the issue you’re facing isn’t big church vs house church. It’s just hard to get people to change their habits. If a church group isn’t used to having Bible study, it’s going to be tough to start one. If a group starts with expectations, it’s much easier for them to form habits.

  5. We ditched our church as well. Too much to even begin to talk about. And actually, we have another church in another city that we love. It’s not perfect, but we love it and some of the people in it that we know. Unfortunately, it’s in our college town, so we won’t be there after this year (unless God changes something radically).

  6. Five years ago I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what sociology was. Picked it pretty much randomly as my last elective in first year of university. I’ve since completed a sociology degree and am now doing an honours (research) year in sociology.

  7. I left our church three and a half years ago but it was because we sold everything we owned and moved our family half way across the world to live in a place where less than one percent of the people claim know Christ. While many of us in the West critique and chose modes of church, many times we forget that there are still almost 7000 people groups in the world which have little to no access to the Gospel. These groups total nearly 3 billion people. The call of Matthew 24:14 is for our generation. We can send, go, or disobey.

  8. 2 months ago we left our church of 10 years. Now we are visiting others, and some are good and some are bad, but nothing feels just right. And in a small town, probably nothing will. We knew we would have to compromise, but we were both hoping we would discover some magical church that perfectly met our every need and desire. It doesn’t work that way.

  9. It was really great to read that. I’ve always belonged to in some ways a house church that met in a building for a while. About 5 years ago, we really felt that God was asking us to strip back all the rituals we did and find out what “CHURCH” really was.

    Even as a small close knit community, it’s amazing the people who couldn’t handle that. We had talked for years about community and what church was and wasn’t. We were always turned off by “mega churches” and “church services”. But when we began to practise what we claimed to believe, those who we held closest suddenly up and left.

    We began to do away with the worship band and encouraged any individual who wanted to sing a song to suggest/start. Even long sharings we replaced with each individual sharing a good thing/a bad thing and a God thought about their week.

    I’ve seen people leave the community because they felt we had lost the plot. These people who had been involved in my life for all of my 26 years.
    I’ve cried ranted and raged at God for “doing this”. We obeyed him at it looked like we were dying. Now we stand at a small group of less than 30, yet we now currently have a group of nearly 30 active members. We have made decisions to be involved in one anothers lives. To share our lives and not a saturday night meeting or monday prayer meeting. A community house has been established for those who feel they want to live physically in community with one another.

    It’s been a hard road, but my goodness, has it been worth it. In our own little flawed way we are trying to live out life in real community with one another. And it’s an amazing, painful but rewarding journey.

    Sorry that went a little long. But I want to encourage those who may find it a struggle. If God’s hand is in it, what can you do! 😀

  10. Sorry that went really long!! 😀

  11. Really interesting. In the end didn’t you really just “find the church” rather than “leave the church?” You seemed to have left the institution, the americanized version, the trappings, the unwritten rules, the collection of faces at a location and you found something real. “Where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name I am in the midst of them.” That is real church; people gathered, in HIS name (not the pastors or the denom’s), and then Jesus himself shows up.
    I am a pastor and i realize that we live in a culture that only teaches independence and how to use others for our own benefit – and we are taught well! Then we step into the church where the Bible says that we BELONG…to each other. That is way to risky and radical and so we never buy in. That leaves us loosely associated with a group of people that we participate with on a level that we want and we can leave w/o too much regret. That is not the church. Finding the real church is not easy!!!

  12. This is a very timely post for me.

    I’ve been attending a church for 8 years (ever since I moved into the community). I clearly heard God’s voice telling me that this was the church I was going to serve, which I did and I loved it for 2 years. For past 6 years, the church went through some massive changes – we merged with another church. They were a mega-church but didn’t have a building, we were a little church but had a building. It was hurtful and wounding how it all came about but the Lord didn’t release me.

    Then, a new pastor came, it looked promising but quickly I felt the Lord say, this is for a season but I was still not released. Two weeks ago, the pastor was let go, I write about it on my blog, http://andreayorkmuse.blogspot.com/2011/08/messy-church.html

    I’m not a church hopper. I don’t leave just because it doesn’t meet everything on my church wishlist – what I lack at church, the Lord can make up. There were many times that I’ve wanted to leave but I wasn’t released, so instead I did what the Lord first told me to do – serve. I lead Women’s, I taught Sunday School, I cleaned in the kitchen, etc. I worked where the Spirit was working. Finally, I feel released, and not just because the pastor left. Ironically, I was released a few weeks prior to that but I’ve been trying to schedule a meeting with the Associate Pastor (God’s direction not to contact the lead pastor) to let them know of my decision – because I was so involved, I think they deserve to know why I’m dropping off the keys to the office and building.

    All that to say, God is on the move. A season of appointment is just that, a season. God needs to (and will) shake things up in churches around North America to bring them into alignment with the global body.

  13. Three years ago my husband and I were members at a wonderful church. We had lots of friends and great times of fellowship. The pastor was just awesome. Everyone loved him. I was on the “creative team,” a group that tried to come up with ideas to make the sermons and the service in general more relevant. I couldn’t be happier.

    In January 2010, the pastor left.

    Then a pastor (let’s be real, he was a long-term guest speaker) was appointed by the District. Soon after I became a spiritual vegetarian, but not on my own volition.

    Then God gave me eyes to see. He made me realize that it’s all about His glory and not my (or anyone’s) entertainment, pleasure or feelings.

    I knew I had to leave, and I knew where I was going (to a smaller church where several other people/families had migrated). It was a pretty easy transition for me. My husband felt pushed from our last church, and I felt pushed to our new one. Our current pastor (and church) has a bad reputation for being legalistic. I’ve been getting to know him for the past year, and I know that practically every rumor and bad thing said about him is totally false. He is a man who loves and serves Jesus and wants his flock to do the same. He holds us accountable to the Bible, but he preaches against legalism. Our church has no doctrine or set of laws. If it’s in the Bible, we believe it – simple as that, and the opposite of legalism! It’s amazing (and sad) how people’s perceptions of a person or church can be founded on rumors alone.

    I am so thankful that God opened my eyes or I would probably still be in a lackluster, go through the motions church.

  14. I never would have believed that I would be in Arizona instead of Illinois or ever leave my home church. I would never have believed that I would have gone from a small body of Christ to a huge one and then back to a small group of believers, though it is really just a small offshoot of the huge one. I would never have believed that God would have us move around in a church in so many ways over the last two years. I would never have believed that I would be in a church with people who are so different from me in so many ways and yet, they feel like brothers and sisters, because in Christ, they are.

    Praise God from whom all blessings flow! Praise Him all creatures here below! Praise Him you heavenly host! Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost (My Lutheran roots are showing).

  15. This was great! I especially like the line “Wouldn’t it be easier to just find a new church, the way people find new spouses?” Hoping is a pet peeve of mine but I guess I understand it. Our culture demands perfection and when people are shocked that their church isn’t perfect, they look elsewhere.

  16. This Sunday I resigned from a leadership position and we left our church. I had been there almost 16 years and for my wife it’s the only church she’s ever attended. I had been a volunteer for 6 years, then a paid staff member for 6 years and then back to a volunteer for almost 3 years.
    It was the hardest decision of my life and it took me almost 3 years to finally do it.
    I loved the church and the people, but I reached a point where I couldn’t agree with where the Senior Pastor was at and where he felt like the church needed to go. I tried to work through it, but it just wasn’t happening.
    We don’t have a clue what we are going to do now. I loved being a minister, but that’ll have to sit on the shelf for now. We aren’t moving away from here.
    I hesitate to visit other local churches. Our (now former) church had a bit of a reputation in our community and has a history of people leaving it. I’m pretty sure I’ll get some “I told you so’s” from some other former attenders.

    • One thing I struggle with is feeling like I have to justify my decisions for other people. You made a decision in your own good time, and what was the right time for them wasn’t the right time for you.

    • Todd,
      I am sorry for the bad experience that has brought you to this point in life. Please do not give up and please continue to use the gifts God has given you for His glory. I am sure that you have a lot to offer someone. It takes courage to leave and more courage to find somewhere else. read gene Edwards books, Letters to a devastated christian.

  17. Five years ago if someone had told me I would be living in Arizona within a year and within three married to someone other than my fiancee at the time, I would not have believed you. God getting through my thick skull in early 2007 is what woke me up to how I had been living my life. I had to leave everyone and everything I knew and start over in a new state to follow God, but I have a growing family of brothers and sisters in Christ, the most amazing wife I could have ever asked for (she has exceeded what I asked God for!), and a relationship with Him I never expected.

    Just over a year ago we had to leave a church in which we were close with most people, because the pastor was taking the church down one route and most others were going down another. For a while, we wondered if we had chosen the right home church after our “move.” I am now the Young Adult leader, and our congregation is getting to be so close-knit. I also help with a house church on Sunday nights, and it is just as equally amazing!

  18. 80 perent of our generation? For real?

    I moved back home to a small town after college. I have friends that work in churches. They are great people doing great things, but it’s not my thing. So many well-known Christian leaders are doing good things, but I’m not particularly interested. I just don’t have the time to keep up with everyone. Anyhow, my interest, community, and tithes are with a multicultural church in my college town. multicultural, multigenerational would not go over very well in rural north Mississippi. I never thought I would have been there. I never thought I’d have my window to the world opened.

  19. What I never thought I would do is leave church altogether after about 18 years as a Christian. As in, I’m done. Never going back. Don’t want to, and all the old ladies in the world throwing around the “forsaking” verse in Hebrews isn’t gonna change my mind. I was told that the needs of my four autistic children “overwhelms” the small church I was attending.

    Oh, yeah. They can pray for a 20-mile wide freaking GLORY CLOUD, but my four autistic children are overwhelming, and asking for actual helpers in the nursery who WANTED to learn how to care for and teach my children for two hours a week is just TOOOOO much to ask. Dang. And they can raise a zillion bucks for some literally Godforsaken land to convert the heathen, but they can’t spend a few bucks making the church more hospitable to the handicapped children GOD ALREADY SENT TO THEIR DOOR.

    I’ve talked with other folks with handicaps and they say the same sorts of things: they’ll have a beautiful entryway, but I can’t get my wheelchair down the hall so I can go to the bathroom. Message: you are not worth our remodelling. Go somewhere else.

    Mad, I tell you. And if it were just this *one* church, I’d move on and be ok. I’ve been to about 7 on a serious basis over the last 13 years or so. No one really wants us. It’s always some variation on the same story.

    You know what? It’s been over a year and I haven’t done Bible study with the kids since. Maybe I never even was a Christian and all this was predestinated (well, whatever your theology might teach you, right?). Seems like people in the church want to label you bitter, or doubting, or whatever. Maybe they don’t let that seed of doubt in and nevermind what the real truth is. I don’t mean that there is a brainwashing campaign going on, more that thinking along the same “we all go to church and those that do not need to be prayed in/they all have a problem” mindset can make getting out in one piece rather hard.

    Oh. And I spoke with one pastor who went, well, I’ve been on the other side of that issue and it’s hard to recruit people. Um. What does that say about what these people really believe about the handicapped, and about YOU as a shepherd that you can’t teach them better?

    Guess we’re too much trouble. But I still believe that Jesus was right that how you treat “the least of these” is how you’re treating Him. :(

    • I think this is the saddest comment I have read in my life. I was always sort of amazed when one church group would apologize for the stupidity of another – not any more. I am unbelievably sorry for this sort of treatment. You should be angry.

      I came from a church that had about 200 members. One couple had an autistic son. The church had a volunteer (who worked with autistic kids as a job) that would watch him during the sermon. (He seemed to enjoy worship). I have another couple that had a similar issue with an Aspergers child. This same church made sure she was cared for during the service time. They moved to another community and have experienced the same sort of treatment you have. Some days I wonder what the hell people are in church for?

      • I appreciate your comment, David. If only more people truly cared… I don’t *want* to be bitter, but my reasoning is that if “the world” treats me like crap for six days out of the week, why should I spend the seventh in church if I get more of the same?

        Though… in theory… it would be really nice to belong somewhere. I have figured out that we don’t, we never will, and really? It’s humbling because how much have I grown as a Christian as a result of this trial? Well, I might just be an atheist. I’m not sure any more. Not really ready to read my Bible again, haven’t said more than grace and occasional “help Joe with his heart condition” types of prayers for about a year.

        I’m ok with God not loving me, I guess. It’s the idea that He doesn’t love my children that I can’t quite face, that I’m not ready to struggle with doctrinally. Well, that sounded a bit melodramatic but I just meant it *logically.* Thanks for listening! :)

        • I’m not sure where you are in the country, but when you’re ready to give it a go again, our church (www.fbclaurel.com)would be happy to have you and your children! We have a Sunday School class specifically for special needs kids which is staffed by trained professionals (either parents of kids or retired teachers). We also have kids who are “mainstreamed” with the rest, depending on the parents wishes and the child’s abilities. We’ve even got a few who come into service with us and make joyful noises as the Lord leads them!

          There _are_ churches out there, although I’m sure they’re few and far between. You might look for churches with newer buildings as they will have to meet ADA requirements (old ones don’t, necessarily). And granted, it helps that we have three pastors with children who have various levels of needs, but I’m sure there are other churches out there too that are like ours.

  20. Thank you, Melissa! I live pretty close to Matt, I’m thinking, though I have never met him IRL. :)

  21. I’m a pastor and have been for a number of years and I’ve slowly come to some of the same conclusions you have/did. I get really sick of what I call ‘feeding the machine’, i.e., fighting to make the church mortgage payment, pacifying church folks and their pet programs (in which case is the only reason they attend your church), and all the other dumb demands that get placed on the pastor that have little to do with the biblical definition and purpose of a pastor. I hear the call of the house church – but unfortunately my livelihood for my family depends on my pastor’s salary – and unfortunately most church folk aren’t hearing the same ‘call’ – and the demand for the traditional church setting runs deep in most.

  22. This is exactly the type of stuff we need to share at our eventually House Church conference.

  23. As a new Christian (July 2008) I was attending a small church. But then I moved so wanted to find a church closer to home. I did but almost from the beginning their doctrine confused and scared me at the same time. Absolutely love the pastor and his family and became close to some sisters. Ultimately though I had to separate because I could no longer go along to get along. When I left there were angry words (mostly from me) because I was upset that I had to leave due to some specific beliefs. Here I am 5 months later and I am still very upset and sad and so afraid to go out and try again elsewhere. Alone in Maine.

  24. I’m so glad I came across this particular post. My wife and I left our last church just over a year ago. We had been very active in that church for years in several different ministries. But, times changed and we felt God leading us to do something different. The institutional business of “church” had begun to leave a bad taste in our mouths.

    We believe that God led us to start a house church network – Palmetto Gatherings Home Fellowship. Something simple. A small community learning together and trying to make a difference in our own communities.

    Several families started this new journey with us. As time passed, most have decided that the house church/home fellowship was not for them. Honestly, we have felt discouraged at times and questioned this call. Living in the Bible Belt we often get asked what church we go to. We often feel like we spend a lot of time explaining and justifying our choice.

  25. I am so glad that I happened to find this post. I attend a small non-denominational church in a very small town. I have to drive a half hour to get there, but it is worth the drive. Recently our Church had to make a decision that was apparently hard for many of us. The board and pastor decided that we should vote on it. A date was set for 3 months after the decision to vote was made. Of course, people spent 3 months trying to persuade each other of the rightness of their opinion. On the day of the vote, we had one of the highest attendances of the year, bar Christmas and Easter. Immediately after the vote was tallied the about 20 of the people who weren’t happy with the results walked out. Most of them were what I would call key people in the Church. It has been a heart wrenching experience for all of us:the ones who left and the ones who stayed. After all, we all thought we were right. My opinion on it was that we were family, and when you family has a problem, or decision to make, you don’t just leave if it doesn’t go your way. You stay and help work on the problem. Since reading you post, I can see, that yes, some of them did have to leave. In their hearts and minds, they could not stay and be part of a Church family that would make the decision we made. We who were left (mostly not key people) had to scramble to pick up the slack and do the work that these people had been doing. We have all had to listen to God and make the decision we thought he wanted us to make. Now we are an even smaller Church. Maybe that is what God wanted.

    • It is also good to think that those who left may have been used to help other churches grow, and their leaving helped those of you who stayed grow in your walk with Him.

      When my wife and I left our old church, there were people who stepped up to cover things that we and others who left had been doing. We are still friends with everyone at that church, and many have said that they may have never helped with the things they now do if we had stayed!

      God works in amazing ways, and many times it takes painful circumstances for us to grow and change.

  26. I was 50 before I became a believer and saw a lot of the seedier side of life. That was six years ago. My husband and I recently sent the Broad and Pastor a letter resigning our membership from the our church. We didn’t mention the silliness (cliques, control, manipulation, gossip), only the positives in our letter (learning to read and apply scripture, learning to pray out loud, to work under leadership, baptized, making it not about me).

    Still, I am discouraged by the institutional church–the push for money to meet outrageous salaries, the personal stories instead of pure gospel teaching, over-the-top favoritism (and I was one of those favorites),the lack of dedicated outreach on a regular basis and love was constantly expressed but rarely shown.

    Finally, we had to go outside the church and into the community to serve out the Great Commission with action for the love of Jesus and Jesus alone. Sheesh, we can’t even get the Pastor to consider helping another church with staffing a soup kitchen one night a week. But every few months the 250 members are asked to “sacrifice” and dig deep for a miracle offering for a brand new building. I don’t get it.

    It took us over a year to talk and pray about our decision. It wasn’t easy. We had to set aside the offenses and see what was left. A calling loud and clear. Go. Preach the gospel to all nations, including our community. Give. To all in need. Love. Not with philo but with agape. Be. Not what someone else thinks we should be, but what God intended for His purpose and Glory. This should take the rest of the 30 or so years we have left in our lives to concentrate on learning and doing.

    I’m not sure if I’ll ever regularly attend another church again. So–where do we go from here?

  27. Hi Matt,
    Thank you for posting your feelings. I’ve left the startup church that my family started from the ground up and financed (100k). When the church was small and struggleing my relationship w/the pastor and congregation was good and I was feeling joy. But once the money came in,we found a building and the church started to grow I felt like I was written off by the pastor and congregation. The church is base on love and friendship throgh God, but I never felt any of that. My pastor stopped calling me, my so called friends at the church never had anything to do w/my life. I felt like I sold out for God, but got nothing in return, no joy, no friends, my talents not used at the church. So my family stopped attending, and finally I had to come clean w/the pastor as to why I has lost faith in him and the church. I trully felt that even after all I had done for the church & pastor, I was just some guy who showed up on Sundays. Oh everyone puts on a good face on sundays and tells me how much they have missed me, but then you never hear from them. I’ve been gone for about 2 months now, and I’m finding joy again in my walk w/God. I think I have learned that you just can’t put to much faith in anyone. not your family, not your pastor, but I have found new faith in myself that I can be happy w/God in my life, with or without a church.

  28. It’s sad that I googled this. But I have no one to talk to. My whole family have been going to this one church for years now. I decided to leave a year ago. And I’m still feeling the effects. People who used to contact me ignore me in the shopping centre. The other day I painted a picture of Jesus for my father and had my step sister calling saying she is so surprised that “I” would paint Jesus? At the church I was told how to dress, the pastor would always try to ask about my personal life such as boyfriends and sexual discussions. But I never got a hey! What’s new! . They preach love but I felt so horrible there . So much pressure. And now I feel like an outcast. My family now treats me like I’m Satans child. Now I am struggling with God. I can’t stand church or most Christians. I feel so free now. But bound by a guilt or something that I should be doing what my family are doing. I still want God in my life. I don’t want to be angry. I’m sick of being treated differently for having different views. Like we were taught that massages were evil. Watch out for physio, gay people are disgusting , and that there are demons everywhere. Since that church I have felt there is something wrong with me.