I’ve never really seen anything talked about or discussed on the subject of leaving church. I’ve never seen a Hallmark card or a book on the issue. I’m don’t’ know it’s a subject people are uncomfortable with or just aren’t sure what to do with it.
In my experience growing up in Montana, small towns offer limited options for church. The town where we went to church had 4 (Mormon, Catholic, Lutheran and a Community/Non-denom). Most folks that attended those specific denominations still do to this day. You either went to church or you didn’t go; no one I knew of switched churches.
I might have been one of the few exceptions. I started attending the Lutheran Church with my family when I was in 5th grade and stayed until I was a freshman in high school. The end of my freshman year we moved from the country into the town where we attended school. I went from living on 28 acres in the country to living in a trailer court. The Lutheran church did not have much to offer my age group, I knew the Community church did and so I began attending the church and attending the Youth Group – “Youth for Christ”. Since I had yet to obtain my driver’s license I walked the mile to church on Sunday mornings. I felt grown up and mature as I ventured off into my experience. It actually helped my relationship with God by having that time to spend with him on my walks. I stayed there until I graduated high school and then moved on.
In college I attended a church off and on. I didn’t really make any deep connections because I wasn’t consistent in my attendance. After college was over I moved to Portland and began looking for a church I could get involved in. I made it a priority with any job I had to not have to work Sunday mornings so I could attend church. I tried a few different types of churches but wasn’t finding anything I really connected with.
At this point I found a roommate, discovered he was attending church he seemed to talk highly of and I began attending a Conservative Baptist Church – whatever that meant, (I had no idea then what that really meant). They had a new Pastor and I found a group of folks my age and began building some really good relationships. I also met my wife through our friends at the church.
My wife and I got married, began leading a small groups, were AWANA leaders and I was stepping into other roles of leadership within the church. All of this was important to both of us and we were really enjoying the relationships and “family feeling” the church had. There were only about 100 people who attended each week, but it felt like just a larger extended family. Our plan was to stay heavily invested in this church and raise our kids here.
6 years into being heavily involved and taking on the Youth Pastor role, I started noticing some things were changing, the environment in the church became toxic and it was clear the leadership in the church was not unified. Problems were not being addressed, instead getting out of hand. We lasted for about 2 more years and after returning from a mission trip we finally were in agreement it was time to leave.
We had no idea where we were going, we just knew for the health of our relationship and family we needed to find a healthy church. Our neighbors invited us to their church and we gave it a shot. The first Sunday we attended I felt like God was telling me this was the place we were supposed to be. The environment was friendly, welcoming and unlike any church I had ever been in. It was larger than any church I had ever attended with almost 1000 folks gathering weekly and most of the majority of folks were 20 – 40 years old.
For some time prior to this last January I felt God telling me it was time to leave and invest in our own neighborhood. We have never attended a church that didn’t require traveling more than 15 minutes away and living in Portland I have often seen and heard people leaving churches that had been part in to invest in their local community church. I stayed quiet about what God was speaking to me because I really didn’t want to leave. My family had really enjoyed being a part of this church. As I remained silent issues began arising with my kids in the youth group that were not being addressed and after having some further discussions it became very clear God wanted us to move on and invest in our neighborhood. After 6 ½ years, investing ourselves in small groups, being involved in leadership, we left at the end of January.
After leaving both churches I wrote letters to all church staff explaining why we left. Not one person from the conservative Baptist Church responded. I did get a couple of responses from staff at our last church, which was more than I expected. In fact the last church we attended was often a place where many folks came after having really horrible experiences at other churches. In some ways it was an ER or hospital and I often wondered at what point people would leave and go back to invest in the world.
After leaving our first church it took me a number of years to get over the anger I held inside towards so many people who had done horrible things to my wife and I. To hear the name of the church or anyone who had hurt us, would set me off. I worked hard to try to forgive folks, but some of what happened was just so difficult to really have to deal with. Never in my life had I ever imagined what I went through would ever happen in churches and maybe that was God’s way of waking me up to the reality that church if made up of broken people who act out of their brokenness. It’s messy and ugly and can sometimes do horrible things to others. If my faith in God was not as strong as it was, it could have been an experience that left me walking away for good.
People leave churches for a variety of reasons, moving, God calling them to a different place, not a good fit, or unfortunately being hurt by people in the church. When you invest your heart, soul and life into a body of people what do you do with all of it when you leave. A body of believers can quickly become a family. You see them weekly and many times more than just once. You talk about heart issues, you get real and they see the good and bad in you. It’s a place where you get to grow, develop and change as a person. All of these relationships are valuable and meaningful. Disconnecting from them is awkward and there is no real way to do it easily.
Despite living in the same city as folks we have attended churches with through the years; it is hard to maintain those relationships. We’ve tried and still do get together with a handful of folks who we have remained solid friends through all of it. For the most part, most of those relationships we’ve had no longer exist. People I invested heavily in and spent hours doing life with, I no longer have a relationship with for one reason or another and some days that’s a bitter pill to swallow. While I can take comfort in knowing that I got to be a part of this person’s life for a period of time I still miss those relationships and at least for me it’s never been easy to disconnect completely.