Making the decision to leave a church is rarely an easy one. Usually there’s a lot of inner conflict, a lot of going back and forth about the decision. Sometimes, though, there’s just no option but to leave. It’s reached the point where you just have to go, for the sake of your family, or your heart, sometimes even for the sake of your soul. Now, there are a bunch of bad reasons to leave a church, but there are also a bunch of good ones. If your church matches up to more than one of these, it’s probably time to seriously reconsider your spiritual environment.
1. Your church environment is spiritually abusive
More and more people and churches are waking up to the fact that spiritual abuse is a reality, and that it is as legitimate a form of abuse as emotional or physical abuse. The scars that spiritual abuse leave run deep exactly because the church is seen as a safe space.
Wikipedia defines spiritual abuse as:
Religious abuse refers to the abuse administered under the guise of religion, including harassment or humiliation, possibly resulting in psychological trauma. Religious abuse may also include misuse of religion for selfish, secular, or ideological ends such as the abuse of a clerical position.
A more nuanced definition of spiritual abuse is provided by Johnson and Van Vonderen in their book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse:
Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment. […] Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being. In this application, power is used to bolster the position or needs of the leader, over and above one who comes to them in need.
Spiritual abuse can also occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a “spiritual standard”. This promotes external “spiritual performance”, also without regard to an individual’s actual well-being, or is used as a means of “proving” a person’s spirituality.
[…] The person in need—whether it [is] the need for information, dialogue, support, acceptance, or counsel—[is] sent the message that they [are] less than spiritual, or that their spirituality [is] defective. [Shame is] used in an attempt to get someone to support a belief, or [it is] used to fend off legitimate questions.
[The] results of spiritual abuse are usually the same: the individual is left bearing a weight of guilt, judgment or condemnation, and confusion about their worth and standing as a Christian.
It’s at this point, we say, that spirituality has become abusive.
Broadly speaking, some common traits of a spiritually abusive church are authoritarianism, perfectionism, and allegiance mentality.
2. Your church is more interested in going to church than being church
When a church is more focused on appearing godly than actually being godly, it’s in trouble. Is there an us vs them mentality when it comes to other congregations or other churches? Are there cliques within the church? Are people in the congregation quick to judge or silence, but slow to listen or empathise? Is there an atmosphere of “one upping” each other among congregants or leadership? Does your church focus on evangelism or outreach outside the church to the detriment of those who need spiritual guidance or financial help within the church? Does your church treat wealthy people better than it treats its poorer congregants? Or are wealthy people within your church constantly being pressured to give?
These kinds of churches tend to be far more interested in showboating than real discipleship. To them, how many people show up at a Sunday service far outweighs how many of those people are living God-fulfilled lives. It’s about appearances. From the outside these churches tend to look good: they’re usually busy and spend a lot of time in local newspapers. It may be what attracted you there in the first place. But is that where it ends – in photo-ops?
Look out for the following kinds:
a. Finances. Is there too much/too little focus on church finances? Is money being spent well? How much transparency is there about how and why funds are used? Who makes decisions about church finances?
b. The way staff are treated. Wary, overworked staff are rarely a good sign. Have a lot of staff come and gone? Do you know why? Church staff – the pastor, the church secretary, the verger, the organist, the cleaner, the gardener, the regular volunteers – are a good indication of how things are working behind the scenes. How is their demeanour generally? Everyone has a bad day and no working environment, least of all the church, is perfect; but do they almost always seem overworked, stressed out, anxious? How are they treated when they make mistakes? How are they treated when they achieves successes?
c. Spiritual gifting. Are people being allowed to use their spiritual gifting in a constructive way? Are certain gifts excluded or exalted? Are people being encouraged to use their gifting without forcing them into situations they’re not really comfortable with?
4. Your church is intolerant
Intolerance can take many different forms:
a. Of differing opinions, for example different interpretations of Scripture;
b. Of other churches or religions;
c. Of certain groups of people (other genders, races, nationalities, sexual orientations* and so on).
Intolerance is never a good sign in a church. Does your church use the Bible to divide or to invite? Does your church claim special privilege from God in how it treats people? How does your church respond (or how would they respond) if they receive an invitation to an inter-faith event?
Jesus is unequivocal in how he expects us to treat people, both in his spoken commands (Mark 12:30-31) and in how he acted toward people himself. He didn’t exclude anyone: he dined with those commonly rejected by others, with prostitutes and tax collectors, with the sick. He taught foreigners and healed Gentiles. Even when he commanded people to “sin no more” (John 8:11), he never judged them. How does your church’s treatment of the “other” compare? How does your church treat women, gay people, people of other races, immigrants? What kind of rhetoric do they use to discuss these people? Is it grace-filled?
*A note on LGBTI issues: no matter a church’s conviction on the subject, all people are to be treated with love, respect and grace.
5. Your church makes unreasonable demands of you – your time, your finances, your skill set, etc.
Most people balance a full work week on top of a bunch of other activities. So when people don’t want to volunteer at every church fete or make anything more complicated than mac n cheese for the potluck, most churches would understand that this doesn’t mean they’re not committed. But there are exceptions. Some churches expect their congregations to do a lot, and when they say “no”, questions are asked, subtly or overtly, about how dedicated they are to the church or indeed, how committed they are to God.
The other side of the coin is equally awful. Often a congregation is entirely uninvolved with the church but expect a lot from it. They never volunteer for the sound desk, but want a Passion-worthy worship band. They don’t tithe but grumble about why the church never does outreach work. Neither a church nor its congregation can expect to “take” indefinitely without also giving in return.
6. Your church focuses on the Bible too much or too little
There are churches that mistake “being Bible focused” with aggressively touting their own interpretation of Scripture. This happens when a church is wrapped up in their own interpretation of the Bible to the exclusion of all else – other points of view, the work of the Holy Spirit and so on. This becomes harmful when a church is so “Bible focused” that they miss God or, indeed, people. Does your church use the Bible to encourage, inspire, teach, convict, to lead you, always, to God? Do teachings glorify God or the person doing the teaching? The Bible was not meant to be used as a weapon – at least, not against people. How do you feel when you walk out after a sermon – do you feel loved, precious, able and convicted, or do you merely feel bullied, depleted and unworthy? When a Bible is used to attack instead of convict, to inspire fear instead of love, it’s time to go.
To stay or to go – that is the question
And it’s a question only you will be able to answer. Some would argue that leaving a bad church is selfish and doesn’t help anyone. But bad churches are notoriously stubborn about change, often because they simply don’t have a problem with the way they do things. Still others will say, Well, no church is perfect – and no church is. Churches are, by their very natures, gatherings of self-confessed sinners. But the knowledge of our sinful natures should make us softer, not harder. It should make us more human – the kind of “human” God intended – not less.
Ultimately that is the question we need to ask ourselves and our churches: is our church godly enough that we get to be human inside it, with all its joys and frailties? And is our church human enough that we can carry its godliness into every aspect of our lives?
Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
Colossians 2:18-19 NRSV