There are good and bad reasons to leave a church. Are you moving to another city? That is a good reason. Are you holding a grudge against someone who has offended you? That is a bad reason. In the church, are not biblical sermons preached week after week? A good reason. Don’t like the style of the church? Probably a bad one.
So how should we respond to a member who wants to leave the church for what seems like a bad reason?
This question raises a number of difficult theological questions, such as how far the authority of the church extends, or how much weight should be given to cultural preferences. There are also difficult pastoral questions, such as knowing how to tell the difference between a person who has been hurt and a fool.
By means of practical advice, I will try to illustrate some of this theological and pastoral difficulty. Here are some wrong ways to respond to a member leaving the church for bad reasons, along with suggestions for what some better responses might look like:
Bad answer: “Oh.” This is the lack of response. This is the “I don’t care” or “I need your approval, so I’m not going to say anything” response. I am not saying that it is never right to reserve our opinion. I am just saying that fear of man or lack of love should not motivate us to keep quiet.
Best answer: “Because you are leaving? Can I help you analyze this problem?” Love is interested and asks questions. Love recognizes that we are responsible for the discipleship of the other members of the church and investigates. Love is not afraid of people who don’t like you. He is willing to ask the uncomfortable question and offer the advice for your good.
Bad answer: “You don’t have permission to leave.” Jesus did not give authority to churches to prevent people from leaving and joining another church. He gave them the authority to discipline a Christian for unrepentant sin, but unless your congregation is going to discipline him, I don’t think he has the authority to insist they stay. That being said, I think it is legitimate to say “no” to the proposal to leave when an individual has no plans to join another church. This is in the case of someone who is walking in unrepentant sin.
Best answer: “Unless the church is taking steps in a discipline, you are free to go.” You don’t have to tell a person that you are leaving for a bad reason, although it is wise to do so. But you still have to remember that it is allowed.
Bad answer: “Their reasons for leaving are immature.” Again, I wouldn’t say that you shouldn’t say this on occasion. But in general it is preferable to help people gain a better understanding of what to value in a church, rather than berating them for valuing the wrong things.
Best answer: “How has the Bible helped you think about what to look for in a church?” Help them see that God’s Word prioritizes things like the preaching of the Word, the centrality of the gospel of Christ in everything, and wise and loving leadership. Also, help them to see that our churches are families, where we follow Christ’s loving charge to make disciples. They are not social clubs where people come and go for the benefits.
Bad answer: “Well, you can’t be friends with everyone.” If you discover that they have unreconciled relationships or that there is a grudge, do not help to hide it or ignore it. These kinds of things are big problems. Must be treated. That’s not to say that every broken relationship can be fixed before we’re in glory. A person might have wisely determined that a certain relationship cannot be fixed (Rom.12:18). However, you should not run away from problems.
Best answer: “I encourage you to try to reconcile those relationships before you decide to leave or not.”
Bad answer: “What can we change in our church to make it better for you?” Sometimes people just aren’t going to like your church. Sometimes they will get upset and even angry over petty things. And it is not the job of the church, or the job of a pastor, to attend to every complaint. This is not how biblical leadership works. At some level, a pastor has to understand that it is okay for people to leave, and not be afraid of this possibility. If he feels personally threatened every time someone wants to go elsewhere, he may need to examine his own heart.
Best answer: “Maybe another church would be a better place for you to grow.” And it really could be! Praise God that he has more churches in your city than just yours! If people are leaving the church for immature reasons, you may encourage them to reconsider; but you must also affirm your love for them by telling them that they are welcome if they return, and bless them as they go.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on .