What to Do When Your Church Leaves You

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What to Do When Your Church Leaves You

No one can deny that the changes often happening in church after church across the land is a change away from a strictly fundamentalist Baptist approach to ministry into something quite different. Often it is hard to put a label on it, because these changing ministries may still want to retain old labels, at least for a time, while at the same time becoming more or less carbon copies of unabashed evangelical counterparts (or sometimes counterparts not even as conservative as that). This kind of change is very disconcerting.

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Careful

Don has written what I would call a really "careful" blog post on this topic, and he did a good job. He carefully warned the concerned church member to make sure the problem they were feeling wasn't just lack of spiritual growth, or resistance to change of any form. I appreciate that.

So I found myself asking what kind of changes would cause me to leave a church I was a member of. I wanted to ask you all the same question to see where I fit in. What would cause you to leave a previously conservative, fundamental church? Keep in mind, change is usually not radical at first. Obviously, if a church announced a new female pastor, or if the pastor came out "gay", you'd bolt. I'm looking for the more subtle things.

Examples:

-The worship leader introduced a Getty song like "In Christ Alone". Is that slipping away from the Bible?

-The pastor's wife wore...let me sit down before I finish...trousers! Jeans. Feminine dress pants/slacks. Is that an affront to the Bible?

-A little more risky, the worship leader led the congregation in a piano only version of the Paul Baloche song "You Are the One". If you don't know Paul Baloche is a Charismatic leaning song writer and worship leader. I would classify him as a worship leader more than a CCM performer. He has performed with Phillips, Craig and Dean however, if tertiary separation is an issue.

-The pastor opens his Bible and starts reading out of the NIV2011. Is it time to move on?

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The decision to leave a church should be the last resort

The decision to leave a church should be the last resort.

If a leader (or leadership) changes direction, they should be appealed to. I am presuming they are reasonable men!

We should distinguish between preferences and absolutes (I know for many there is a gray line there). I would not leave over a minor music change. 

We left a church about 10 years ago and I think for good reason. 

  • I was a deacon so somewhat of an insider. Our leadership team was: Pastor (soon to be Central Grad), unpaid pastoral associate (Central Grad), Chrm of Deacon (a painter), me, and another guy who was a former pastor (and now is currently a pastor)
  • Our pastor was a student at Central Seminary and about ready to graduate in about a year
  • The pastor wanted to move to a plurality of leadership (multiple elders). That in an of itself did not bother me but was waiting to see how that would flesh itself out. Had it moved away from congregationalism, we would have protested to the end. As it turned out a series of events caused us to move
    1. First we had an unpaid man in an eldership position who had questions about his own position on eschatology. Our church had a clear doctrinal statement that was pre-mill / pre-trib. (he is a very good man and now a pastor in a CME church. Additional facts ... a Central Seminary grad)
    2. Second we had missionary who left his board (really was kicked off) because he changed his own position from pre-trib to post-trib
      • The church received letters from both the missionary explaining his position AND requesting that we continue to support him AND
      • From the mission board (that has a doctrinal statement that is pre-mill / pre-trib (matching our church's doctrinal statement
      • To the pastor privately I advised that we could not continue to support the missionary (he was home from the field so it wasn't a case of dumping him in a foreign land AND I advised a 2 or 3 month phase out)
      • The pastor rejected my advice. He decided to make the letter from the missionary public (printed and distributed) but NOT make the letter from the mission board public. I objected to this and requested that he make both letters public. He refused
    3. Pastor wanted to change the church doctrinal statement to remove pre-trib ... make it pre-mill only
    4. Meanwhile another man who was a Central student joined the church w his family. He himself was not pre-trib. He had yet to meet the 1 yr requirement to serve as an officer. 
    5. My wife and I (my wife is a very astute theologian who has a very good Bible knowledge and listens carefully to messages) began to have serious doubts that he pastor himself was pre-trib
    6. I wrote an official letter to the pastor requesting that he, and all offices (would include deacons) should annually affirm the church's doctrinal statement
    7. The deacons, pastor, pastoral assistant all met to discuss. The Pastor said he would not sign statement affirming pre-trib. Nor would the pastoral assistant. The chairman of deacons basically equivocated. It seemed that the other deacon supported me. 
    8. I stated that wife and I would be leaving. 
    9. After leaving, and after the pastor graduated from Central, he came out publicly as not pre-trb

​Meanwhile, during the process, I worked with the Sr Pastor of 4th Baptist to be accountable to someone. 

I'm friends with all of the men above. Not close friends with all but still friendly. The one deacon now pastors a church in N Minnesota. I've preached for him multiple times while he's been away.

I mentioned Central and the facts are true. That being said I am not indicting the seminary as the school is unashamedly pre-trib. They can't be responsible for every graduate. My own school (Grand Rapids) was pre-trib / pre-mill and some of my own peers are now amill. 

I had a whole stack of documentation I kept for number of years. After 3-4 years I disposed of. The church itself is no more. Many of the people are now members of 4th. A very fine man who stayed a year after me is now a member of my ABF class

---

Update: The above events took place over a series of months. It may look like it was compressed into a week or a month but it really spread out over about a year. I had nothing to do with the church folding. I had no contact with members after we left with the exception of attending the funeral of a man. The church closed after a cataclysmic event that occurred a year later

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Don't Be Afraid of Change

Mark makes some good points. What constitutes a church "leaving you"? Often changing is equated with leaving. I've seen people deeply troubled because the order of service and/or times of service were changed, there were too many new people joining the church, the pastor grew a mustache, etc. Today people are troubled by the introduction of one/some/ or too many Getty songs, people are allowed to attend with casual dress (men with no ties and ladies in slacks), or positive comments were made about 9Marks, John MacArthur, or Dispatches from the Front.

The reasons for true concern need to be defined. 

Do you know how many fundamentalists it takes to change a light bulb?

Change? Change? Who said anything about change?

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

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Appreciate Jim's response

Exactly the sort of process I have in mind.

The introduction of one song, or even more than one song, in the repertory of a church would not be sufficient grounds, by itself, to lead me away from a church. I might question those in charge and find out why it was introduced, but what I am talking about is foundational change, where a church is clearly taken away from its moorings. Jim's example would be a clear cut case. Highly questionable ethics to directly contradict the church's doctrinal statements. The pastor, if he had any integrity, should have resigned.

As for women wearing slacks/pants/trousers, well... if that's your thing you would have to leave fellowship with me since we have never had a position against and my wife dresses modestly in slacks practically every day. Our Wednesday services are much less formal than Sunday, she usually wears slacks then. And I don't wear a tie, except on Sundays (and then it is almost always a bow tie). So... do what you have to do.

All kidding aside, I think that it should be clear that the kind of change I am talking about is serious departure from the organizing principles of a church. It's not simply a matter of discomfort with a few side issues (relative term, I know).

 

Maranatha! Don Johnson Jer 33.3

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Separation isn't always because of more "liberal" movement

My wife and I left a church just over 12 years ago over doctrinal differences.

When I started at the church, it is what you might think of as a mostly mainstream fundamental church, doctrinally right in the main part of fundamentalism, with a pastor just about finished with his doctorate from BJU, though given the standards they had (no theater, no slacks on women, other similar behavioral standards) it would definitely have been an A on Joel T's scale. Although I didn't hold all those standards, that didn't really bother me much given what I saw in the people there and what I heard from the pulpit. I saw the church as a place where I could grow and be challenged in my Christian life. The pastor was committed to expository preaching, and as far as I can tell, he always practiced what he preached and was in no way a "do as I say, not as I do" type of pastor.

Over the 11 or so years I was there, the pastor gradually changed his positions, though not in any way toward evangelicalism. He changed from saying he thought the NASB was the most accurate version of scripture to being strongly KJVO, specifically of the TR-only type, though pretty much eliminating every English version other than KJV. He began separating from a number of fundamental organizations like BJU and various mission boards. He separated from at least one fundamental evangelist over music, though it was more about the source than the performance-style of the music. He ended up with a local-church-only position, and I believe is now closed-communion as well, though that had not happened when I was still there.

For my wife and myself, it was a lot like the "frog boiling" example often used. Being inside this church, since the changes took place over a number of years, I didn't really realize the extent of the change at first or even later, though I spoke with the pastor often, had a number of questions, and as the pastor changed, was mostly just uncomfortable, though that grew stronger over time, especially as he was separating from more and more of the people that held the positions I did. My church was truly leaving me.

I would definitely recommend a lot of what Don wrote. We didn't have to worry that there was no other good fundamental ministry in our area, though we would have to drive a little further. To truly understand what was going on, I bought and read a large number of publications on the KJV issue, everything on the spectrum from White to Brandenburg (whose book had a chapter written by my pastor), and spent quite a lot of time with the various scriptures used and quoted by those books. I really wanted to understand the scriptures and the practical outworking of those positions. My wife and I both knew this was not over any kind of personal issue -- we knew and loved many of the people there, and we still respected the pastor even though we disagreed. This also wasn't about anything trivial like using a specific song, or service times, or anything like that. I really appreciated the seriousness that was put into worship. It came down to doctrinal differences, and it wasn't a snap decision.

Because we respected the pastor (I still have a lot of respect for him in spite of my disagreement) and loved the people, we left rather than being in any way divisive. It was the pastor that had changed, and not us (at least in those positions), but as far as we could see, most of the church had changed along with him, so it wasn't really an option to try to prevent that change or get others to see what we saw. We wrote a very long letter, detailing everything and letting him know we would speak with him about our concerns if he desired, but that our minds were made up.

It's not a decision we wanted to make, but our church *had* left us, so really there was no choice. This wasn't a movement toward liberalism, but for us, it was nearly as disconcerting.

Dave Barnhart

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Too quick to be pilgrims

When negative change happens (or threatens to happen) in the church, why is the first response to leave?   Maybe the person / group agitating for change should be the one to leave.  Make a stand and purify the church rather than ceding the whole thing to compromisers.

 

FWIW:  I am dealing with a pastor who is publicly questioning the the inerrancy of the Bible.   Now that is a serious issue.  I could quickly take the moral high ground and leave in a huff, or I could systematically and with out compromise deal with it through church and Biblical processes with the goal of purification. (which is what I am doing).

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You Have Historical Company

JC wrote:

When negative change happens (or threatens to happen) in the church, why is the first response to leave?   Maybe the person / group agitating for change should be the one to leave.  Make a stand and purify the church rather than ceding the whole thing to compromisers.

 

FWIW:  I am dealing with a pastor who is publicly questioning the the inerrancy of the Bible.   Now that is a serious issue.  I could quickly take the moral high ground and leave in a huff, or I could systematically and with out compromise deal with it through church and Biblical processes with the goal of purification. (which is what I am doing).

Some of the young separatists have forgotten that many of the predecessors stayed in and fought long battles to try to purge false doctrine from their groups. There were the Puritans, Spurgeon in the Baptist Union, and the FBF and GARBC in the NBC. And, although seldom mentioned in our circles, the Southern Baptists who actually succeeded in rescuing their seminaries.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

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I too really enjoyed Don's

I too really enjoyed Don's article. In the case of our church, it is not so much a matter of doctrinal drift as increasing stridency over issues previously held. It seems like the type A stuff is becoming more frequent from the pulpit. This has been our experience in several churches throughout our lives. What is at one time a back burner issue gets moved to the front and becomes emphasized regularly. 

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Consider the Audience

I interacted some with Don on this on FB. He added some cautions after this, which I applaud. I still think that it is a sentiment that needs care in airing, though, especially in the venue of an FBFI publication. Very few churches operating under the leadership of someone influenced by the FBFI are likely to face serious doctrinal error on things like inerrancy or deity of Christ, or even practical matters like egalitarianism. The changes that seem more likely are in practices like music, dress, service times or evangelistic methods, or positions on things like eschatology, divorce/remarriage, soteriological emphases (Calvinism/Arminianism), style of preaching (expositional or more "theatrical"), crisis revivalistic or progressive sanctification emphasis, and so on. With that being said, like Jim said, sometimes a change may be in order. However, like Jim also said, a "church plant" should be a last resort. My concern would be less if this had been published in some kind of a broader reaching venue. Considering the audience, I would think that this kind of advice and sentiment could inadvertently give someone sitting under the ministry of a young pastor who is more expositional than his predecessor, is trying some new methods to connect with the community, and who has ditched his tie on Sunday and Wednesday nights (not to mention during office hours) constitutes a need to "plant" because the church has lost its boldness, is becoming more concerned with social needs and entertainment than evangelism, and has no sense of reverence for God or respect for the pastoral office. I'm not sure a Fundamentalist audience needs to be encouraged in this direction, because its already in most of our natures to watch matters of doctrine and practice like a hawk... it seems to me that there are plenty who need little encouragement in this direction and actually the harm that it could pose to some with "itchy trigger fingers" nearly offsets the value it could have to a few.

But maybe that's just me.

Greg Linscott
Marshall, MN

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I agree Greg Linscott

In my 15 years as pastor at the same church, we have not changed one doctrinal position and have not had people leave because of a doctrinal position. Now, we have had people leave because of music - from both sides, too contemporary and not contemporary enough (we do sing some Getty, some others as well). That is the reality within our circles. Generally it is over the kind of issues Greg mentioned rather than doctrine that people leave. 

It is interesting to see this coming from the FBFI who seems to be heading in new directions with their inclusion of Sexton at the last annual meeting. I was at an FBF meeting back in the early-mid nineties in Wisconsin where the KJV issue was discussed and encouraged by a balanced, thoughtful approach. Maybe the next article should be - What to do when your fellowship leaves you?

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Good Point Greg!

Greg makes a great point when he reminds us to remember the audience. Actions constituting a church leaving an FBF member are probably much different than other situations. Perhaps some of those actions, non-sinful of course, might attract other Christians.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

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Very good article and comments!

I agreed with Don and thought Jim gave an excellent example. Would to God that people left because of doctrinal issues when they do leave! So many more seem to be personality and practice reasons. Change is a constant, but the question is always "what kind of change". We need to be flexible for the right kind of change for the right reasons. Also appreciated Don's quote on the small church:

You must be willing to be involved in small ministries for this work to amount to anything. Most of the churches in America are small churches. And pretty well all churches started as small churches, regardless of present size. Large churches can provide many resources (thank the Lord for the large churches that remain faithful), but the strength of the church at large is in the number of faithful small churches that are committed to Biblical disciple making in community after community across the country,

There are so many Christians who consider a small church to be something they would not be involved in. This is a real issue in both small towns and large cities. I think we are going to do the next generation a great disservice if we don't find a way to counteract such groupthink.

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Why?

When we consider how many (perhaps most) of our new members come from other churches, this article has reminded me how important it is to ask them why they left their previous church. Was it doctrinal? Was it ethical? Was it their practice?

I used to have a tract I gave to people who were complaining about their church called "Questions to Ask Your Pastor?" The questions were all doctrinal: Inerrancy, Virgin Birth, Christology, etc. Maybe we need a new one with questions about music, dress and worldliness?

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

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Ron

Speaking for myself, we have a younger couple that's been coming to our church since Easter. They used to go to a Nazarene church in another town. I asked them why they stopped going there. This man is a convicted felon (nothing much - a DUI), and he and his wife each have several kids from different marriages, as well as a child of their own. They're relatively new Christians. They're not doctrinal wizards. So, when I asked the man why they left the Nazarene church, the man told me,

The Pastor didn't preach. He just read a verse, talked for a minute or two, then we sang for 45 minutes. That was the entire church service. I knew we had to find somewhere where the Bible was actually preached.

It is so encouraging to me that the Holy Spirit steers men out of bad situations to someplace better. This man is not a theological ninja, and is just an ordinary guy trying to stay sober. Yet, he knew a worthless church when he saw it. It wasn't about dress codes. It wasn't about hymns. It was about the Word of God, and it wasn't being preached at that Nazarene church. 

TylerR is the Pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Divernon, Il. He blogs here