How to choose a church—or leave one

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How to choose a church—or leave one

February 2, 2023 -

A long road leads to a lone white church in Hellissandur, Iceland. © Blue Planet Studio/stock.adobe.com

A long road leads to a lone white church in Hellissandur, Iceland. © Blue Planet Studio/stock.adobe.com

A long road leads to a lone white church in Hellissandur, Iceland. © Blue Planet Studio/stock.adobe.com

Maybe I struck a nerve!

In my last article to pastors, I talked about the reality and the pain that pastors and ministry leaders experience when church members “ghost” them.

I received several responses.

One suggested I offer guidance on the right way to leave a church family. I did give one broad suggestion in my previous article, but I want to go further today to be more helpful.

Then I thought maybe the right way to leave is connected to the best ways to choose a church.

Let’s assume we’re talking about a Christian person or a Christian-led family looking for a congregation where they can worship, fellowship, develop in holiness, serve God’s kingdom, and bring their unbelieving family and friends for exposure to Christ.

How should a Christ follower decide what church to attend and ultimately belong to?

Or how can a Christian know when it’s time to leave a church?

4 suggestions on how to choose a church

1. Choose prayerfully.

Everything should start here. As Proverbs 3:5–6 reminds us, we need the Spirit to help us choose past our sometimes selfish, consumeristic ways of choosing. This must also be the first and main step when deciding to leave a church family. We need to “ask, seek, and knock” with intentional and intense prayer (Matthew 7:7).

2. Consider geography.

We are both fortunate and cursed that we have so many church options in many of our towns. I believe it’s smart to look first at those churches that are close to where you live.

We are creatures of habit and convenience. We are more likely to be faithfully involved if the church is close. This is especially true if you’re raising children. It’s often a challenge to get a whole family ready and to the church faithfully. (See “Five ways to prioritize church as a mom” from our partners at Christian Parenting. It’s written for moms but applies to dads too.)

By this measure, if distance is too great and you need to look for something closer, tell your pastor and ministry leaders about your struggle. They understand these realities.

3. Choose biblically.

This applies to both finding—and leaving—a church.

The Bible should be taught and followed clearly, consistently, courageously, compassionately, and creatively. Doctrine matters. It’s vital that the teaching ministries align with the historic doctrines of the Christian faith. Learn if the core doctrines, especially those concerning the person and ministry of Jesus, the Trinity, and salvation by faith are the north star of the church.

While every church needs flexibility on secondary beliefs and doctrines, you should pick a church that strongly holds to the basic tenets of Christianity. Additionally, you may have different views about the end times or spiritual gifts, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do faith and life together.

When it comes to doctrine, ask questions and do research on what the church believes. Schedule a time to talk with the pastor or other ministry leader about this topic. Many churches offer new-member orientation classes. Be sure to attend and seek clarity.

Doctrine can also become a reason to seek a new church family.

Churches and pastors do change their beliefs and practices from time to time. This usually happens around significant beliefs and practices but less often around essential doctrines. Teachings about sexuality are becoming the most prominent doctrinal issue being debated.

If a church changes its beliefs and practices away from your understanding of the Bible, you may need to seek a new congregation. If this happens, don’t just disappear. Talk to the pastor or other church leaders. Seek understanding. Stay calm, pray together, and, if you “agree to disagree” and a separation needs to happen, at least it can be done with respect and honor to the relationship.

4. Consider the church’s fellowship, programming, and style.

This is likely the largest criteria that causes people to join or leave a church. People aren’t so much looking for a friendly church as they are looking for actual friends. They are also looking for “programming,” often for their children and teens, that will facilitate friendships and spiritual development.

These are legitimate concerns. Styles of ministry such as music, preaching approach, and small-group methods do vary and change over time. These methods are not mandated in Scripture. They usually fall in the area of personal preference. The location and size of the church also impacts all of these areas.

After a person joins a church, if areas of style and preference become an issue, strong attempts should be made to resolve them without separating. If you have concerns or ideas, go to your leaders. The church is not a “vendor” providing religious services. It is a body in which all the parts matter. You are one of the parts. Look for ways you can volunteer and offer constructive feedback to help the church improve. Anyone can be a critic. Being a member means being a consistent contributor of time, skills, ideas and yes money, to make the church as healthy and effective as it can be.  Because of the religious freedom we enjoy, there are multiple church options in many communities. It can feel deceptively “easier” to pull up stakes and move to the next church down the street or across town.

Why not to leave a church

Hurt and anger are not often legitimate causes for leaving a church.

An exception to this is when abuse has occurred. In those instances, full accountability and legal processes need to be engaged.

But feelings do get hurt at church because we are all imperfect. But leaving a church in the midst of hurt feelings will not heal the hurt.

Following the teachings of Matthew 18 and Romans 12, broken fellowship needs to be addressed head-on. Some broken relationships are not repaired as fully as we would like, and one or both parties may end up finding another church. But we should do all in our power to mend broken fences and wounded hearts. If we don’t, we export our pain and brokenness to the next church we connect to, or we wander in isolation without fellowship.

The ongoing task of unity

The threads that tie all of this together are respect, love, and communication.

The Bible describes the church by several names: Christians, disciples, followers, saints. The most familiar is brothers, or, properly interpreted, brothers and sisters. We are sacred siblings through our shared faith.

Like every healthy parent, God wants us to learn to love well and to live in unity with each other. In the earthly church, that is always a work in progress. The gathering of any given church on any given Sunday resembles a large extended family reunion more than a tight-knit nuclear family around the dinner table.

I grew up with seven siblings in a loving, healthy home. Unity was an ongoing task. Every spring, we consistently attended our extended family reunion numbering over one hundred. I enjoyed the experience and felt connected to my heritage, but I didn’t know most of the people. I never looked at them like siblings the way I did those with whom I shared a table (and the bathroom).

Ephesians 4:1–6 offers an instruction to remember and live by. As we lead and love our churches, let’s memorize this call from God:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (NIV).

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