The statistics related to “church hopping” or “church shopping” are remarkable. The Barna Research Group reports that, each year, one out of every seven adult church attenders changes churches. One out of six regularly attends two or more local churches on a “rotating” basis. For some, these transitions are made for preferential reasons: a church’s music style, the length of the service, the “dress code” on-campus, and more. Others transition over theological differences with the church, and still others move on after being “hurt” or “burned” by a fellow church-member.
If these statistics hold true, then roughly 20% of the people reading this article have considered (or are currently considering) a transition from one church to another.
Many others have been hurt after developing a friendship with a seemingly committed church member – only to have him or her disappear suddenly and unexpectedly.
Still others are in positions in which they must advise people who are asking a single, pointed question:
“Is it time to leave my current church?”
At what point does it become appropriate to transition out of a church due to differences in style? What about for differences in theology? And does the Bible give any guidance that may help people navigate church transitions gracefully?
The Right View of the Church Helps Us Answer these Questions
In addressing each of these questions, I’ve found the words of one of my church history professors – Dr. Jason Duesing – extremely helpful and relevant. In his article entitled, “A Denomination Always for the Church,” he lists four essential marks of genuine local churches.
- The gospel is preached and proclaimed.
- The church initiates its new members through the ordinance of baptism.
- The church celebrates the Lord’s Supper together.
- The members of the church gather intentionally to bring God glory.
Duesing classifies these four marks as constituting the “being” of the church. With them, a local church is genuine. Apart from them, the assembly in question is not a true church.
Duesing also lists a number of marks of “well-being,” including the mode of baptism, the structure of the church’s leadership, the church’s focus on the Great Commission, and more. These marks of “well-being” are certainly important – they mark how “healthy” a church is, and they are impactful enough for different denominations to be formed as Christians disagree on them.
Yet here’s the key: two or more churches can reach different conclusions about these marks of “well-being” and still be each be considered a genuine local church. Stated differently, just because a church isn’t “healthy” doesn’t automatically make it is a false church.
The theological baseline for ministry transitions, then, is related to the four marks of “being.” If a church departs from the gospel message as the standard of faith (cf. Galatians 1:6-10), if it no longer baptizes its new members (cf. Matthew 28:18-20), if it stops celebrating the Lord’s Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), or if it simply stops gathering its members together (cf. Hebrews 10:24-25), then people would do well to leave that church quickly and to warn as many other people as possible to do likewise. Any other action could easily be confused as compliance with the practices of a false church.
But in my own experience, I’ve found that most people change churches for one or more reasons that are not related to these four marks of “being.” Often times, these transitions are considered purely on the grounds of style. More substantially, perhaps the person no longer agrees with the doctrine of the church with respect to baptism, church government, preaching, or missions/ministry. Just recently, I’ve enjoyed multiple conversations with people who commute to different communities to attend the services of a particular church. These folks love their churches – but they feel a burden to minister in the same place that they live.
None of these reasons is inherently sinful. Each may be a very valid instance of God prompting a transition from one church to another. But in each of these situations, people would do well to remember that the church they are potentially leaving is a legitimate local church. She is a distinct body of people for whom Christ has shed his blood, and whom he now lovingly leads and tenderly renews with the Word of God (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33).
Christ did not die and rise again on behalf of a generic people; he did so for these people, with all their warts and imperfections. All their immature theological views. All their boring preaching. All their outdated worship styles and less-than-functional websites and gaudy carpet colors.
Before we transition from our [genuine] local churches, let’s be sure we are viewing them as Jesus views them. In his eyes, they are joined together as his spotless and pure bride – the culminating reward of all his suffering.
How to Transition [or Stay Put] Well
Therefore, in the case of every potential transition, I would encourage people to treat their present church as if she was the redeemed bride of Christ. Because she is.
Here are some practical tips for folks who desire to do exactly that:
- Be ever-eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (cf. Ephesians 4:3). This means not gossiping about your current church, refusing to be divisive, and submitting to the church’s leadership in matters related to preference. It may also mean staying when you’d prefer to leave.
- If at all possible, talk with the leadership of your current church. Let them know the reason(s) you’re considering a transition. In some cases, misunderstandings can be cleared up and changes can be made to promote a continued partnership. In other cases, the reasons for the transition may ultimately be affirmed by the church’s leaders. In all cases, those in authority will be grateful to not be “surprised” by a ministry transition.
- Be thoughtful in the timing of your transition. The call to leave a church is not necessarily the call to leave right now. Especially if you hold a leadership role, allow ample time for the church’s leaders to find your replacement and to put transition plans in place.
- These words from the Avett Brothers’ song “Weight of Lies” are instructive: “So when you run, make sure you run to something and not away from – ‘cause lies don’t need an aeroplane to chase you anywhere.” Be brutally honest with yourself about the motives for your potential transition. Be sure that you can separate the opportunity you are pursuing – joining a church closer to your neighborhood, helping out in a new church plant, cross-cultural missions, family well-being, etc. – from those things from which you’re retreating (i.e. interpersonal conflict, feelings of shame or dishonor, frustration in ministry, etc.). Unless you can effectively resolve the latter with your current church’s leadership, don’t be surprised to find yourself in similar situations in a new church.
What advice would you offer to someone who is considering changing churches? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.