Leaving a church is a serious decision. It’s a decision that should be made only after much prayer and reflection. There are valid reasons, of course, for someone to leave a church. If the church, for example, ceases to be faithful in preaching and teaching God’s Word, then Christians should find a church that is. Unfortunately, though, most of the time we leave churches not because of a vitally important issue like biblical faithfulness; we instead leave churches because something – or someone – has not met our expectations.
We leave because we get disappointed.
And that’s never been more apparent than right now, and I fear it will become increasingly apparent as the pandemic wanes on. That’s because many people have grown accustomed to not going to fellowship and worship in the church. Instead, we have gotten used to sitting at home and having preaching over breakfast and coffee. And if we don’t like the particular text or topic of the morning, then we can easily switch to another stream. As we do, we have the opportunity to compare what is happening in our local congregation with other congregations, and in that comparison we find ourselves potentially disappointed all over again.
So we leave. Because we get disappointed.
At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, I’d offer you three basic reasons that might drive that disappointment:
1. We forget our pastor is human.
Eugene Peterson, in reflecting on the current state of the church, wrote this: “In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community.”
We get disappointed when we forget that our pastor, like all of us, is a human being. He’s a human being that gets happy and sad. He gets angry and tired. He gets enthusiastic and energetic. And in all that humanness, he is also a sinner. He is not perfect by any stretch, and so it is unfair for us to have either the explicit or implicit expectation that he is. We would do well to remember that these last several months, for many if not most pastors, are the most difficult and challenging they have ever faced. They have had to lead and make decisions in “no win” situation after “no win” situation. Their decisions have not been perfect because they are human beings. And when we forget that, we will inevitably be disappointed in our churches.
2. We forget our fellow church members are human.
Similarly, we might forget that our fellow church members are human. It would certainly be nice if all the folks we go to church with knew the most appropriate and compassionate way to respond when we talk to them about our struggles. And it would be nice if all those people were as full of grace and mercy as we ourselves are. And it would of course be even nicer if all our fellow church members held our same views about culture, politics, and societal issues.
But they aren’t. And they don’t. Though difficult, it seems easier most of the time to extend grace to ourselves when it comes to our shortcomings while withholding that same grace from others.
No church is perfect. No church will ever be perfect. That’s because the church is a collection of sinful human beings. When we forget that fact, we will always, always be disappointed in what happens in our churches.
3. We forget the real reason we are there.
Finally, we get disappointed in our church when we forget the real reason we are there. Let’s examine again the state in which we find ourselves. When churches were forces to close their doors and try as best they could to facilitate fellowship and worship remotely, we also inadvertently added to a consumer mindset that was already present in the church.
As consumers, we expect a certain degree of service and preferential treatment in exchange for our loyalty. We expect our needs and desires to be catered to. That’s why we come back to restaurants, grocery stores, and retail outlets – we frequent the places that remember their chief end is to make the consumer happy. And unfortunately, many of us have at our core the same mentality when it comes to the church.
If we treat the church the same way we treat a restaurant or a bowling alley, then of course we will be disappointed. And during the days of the pandemic, we have had the ability to compare preaching, singing, and other components of the church experience, and in so doing have found our local congregations wanting when it comes to others.
Of course we get disappointed because we have forgotten the real reason we are there.
So why are we there? Why are we gathering? We are not gathering together primarily for our needs to be met, for our expectations to be reached, or for our own entertainment. We are there to serve the Lord and each other. We are there to help each other follow Jesus through challenging one another to keep going in the faith. We are there to honor the Lord and in so doing to die to ourselves, even when it comes to meeting together in the church.
When we forget the humanity of our pastor, the humanity of our fellow church members, and the real reason we are there to begin with, we will always, always be disappointed in the church. But now is not the time for that. Now is the time for the opposite. It’s the time for us to remember the frace we have received from the Lord and to extend that grace to others around us.