Early in our tenure at a church my husband and I were members of, a woman told me that people didn’t like her after about three to four years. A few years ago, a friend told me they’ve observed that there seems to be a three to four-year church honeymoon period.
Many people leave a church by year three or four because the glitter has faded. The weaknesses of leaders are now visible, our differences with other members come out more, and because of living in a community, we’re affected by one another’s sin.
The longer we’re a part of a church, we may feel that it becomes harder to bear with others, rejoice with others, not insist on our way, maintain unity, and sometimes joyfully submit to our leaders.
So, what should we do? When things get hard, do we leave a church, or do we stick it out?
When to Leave & When to Stay
Every church comprises broken, sinful people. No one is exempt from the effects of the Fall.
Therefore, within the church, people sin against each other, weaknesses spill out, and imperfect people chafe against other imperfect people. It’s inevitable.
There are times to leave a church. I believe they are few and far between, but they exist. And, they aren’t always for negative reasons!
In the New Testament, familial language often describes the relationships within the body of Christ. For example, Paul refers to the recipients of his letters as his children and brothers (Phil. 4:1, 2 Tim 1:2, 1 Thess 2:7-9). He encourages Timothy to treat older men as fathers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters (1 Tim 5:1-2).
In many ways, the church functions like a family. That being so, consider this: as a parent, when was the last time you sinned against your child? If you’re anything like me, your answer is today.
How often do you sin against your spouse?
Are you starting to catch my drift?
There are reasons that a child will leave their parents or a spouse will leave a marriage. Some reasons are good: a child gets married, for example. Some reasons are sad: a spouse dies. All other considerations require carefulness and seeking wise counsel (Pr 11:14, Pr 24:6).
Church membership isn’t the same as a marriage covenant. Still, it is similar enough for the Lord to give us detailed instructions throughout the New Testament on how to relate to each other, specifically how to endure with one another.
The teaching in the Epistles leads me to the conclusion that the Lord prefers that I stay in a church as long as I can obey the Lord and continue growing in faith.
I understand that there are instances where the abuse of power is present in a church. I’m not addressing that today, but general church-is-hard issues.
How to Stay Well
Remember my comment at the beginning about the three to four-year honeymoon period? At my age, I’ve observed this several times over, and if I’m honest, the temptation has come near me. Loving others is hard work, and I cannot do it without the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.
But, as I said, I’m a firm believer that the Lord would prefer an enduring relationship with my local church. I’m committed to the long haul, but it’s not always easy and sometimes messy.
So, how do we endure? While the following list is by no means exhaustive, I pray it will be helpful for you, as it’s been helpful for me.
- Consider the Lord’s patience toward you. If it were up to my conduct, the Lord would have given up on me a long time ago! Every day, He extends new mercies and undeserved grace to me. I repeatedly sin in the same ways, can’t see some of my sinful tendencies, and am incredibly weak. Yet the Lord is kind, gentle, and suffers long because He sees the not yet. I want to be like Him as it relates to others! Psalm 103 and Romans 5:8 are beautiful verses to consider and pray from.
- Recognize that no person in the church is perfect. Often, relationships struggle because of unrealistic expectations, and our relationship with the church is not exempt! Every member (even leaders!) is in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when they sin, and we should extend grace, even to leaders (1 Peter 5:5-7, Colossians 3:12-15). It’s helpful to remember that we aren’t perfect either and that our weaknesses and sins affect our church members and leaders regardless of whether we are aware of them.
- Work to maintain the unity of the Spirit (Eph. 4:1-3). Don’t insist on your way! Even if the Lord has led you to a particular application of His Word, be willing to live out your obedience quietly. We often confuse second or third-tier issues with first-tier issues, causing unnecessary conflict. Not only that, but our lack of self-awareness can contribute. Ask the Lord if there are grievous ways in you that may be contributing to challenges you may be experiencing at church (Psalm 139: 23-24). Philippians 2:1-11 is an excellent place to pray as we seek to walk in humility.
- Pray for your leaders and fellow church members. We are family, and we share a Heavenly Father who cares about our brother or sister far more than we do. He sees you, and He sees them. Ask Him to help you see your leaders, brothers, and sisters as He does (1 Samuel 16:7). It will take His help! Intercession is powerful when we understand that there’s a stewardship component. For example, sometimes we’ll see blind spots that they cannot see, but we may not have the relational capital to speak into the person’s life. But, we can intercede for their good and His glory. Sometimes, this will be a years-long endeavor, but it will never be in vain.
- Pay attention to how our culture may affect you. It’s easy to leave a church and find a new one when things get challenging. Our culture idolizes comfort and ease. Our culture also values autonomy and does not like authority. Do you have a problem with authority? Consumer culture leads us to look for what is appealing to us rather than considering how we might serve with the gifts God has given us to give to others (1 Peter 4:10).
In Your Life
Is church hard for you right now? Commit for thirty days to praying through the four points, and if you’re still struggling, consider seeking a wise older woman (or a few!) who can help you navigate your role as a faithful church member. Remember, there are legitimate times to leave a church!
Megan Hill’s book, A Place to Belong, is an excellent resource to encourage your heart toward loving your local church.
Tony Merida’s book, Love Your Church, will inspire you to love your church, walk in humility, and grow in your ability to see the Lord’s goodness in the hearts of His imperfect people.