David Nilsen is a writer from Greenville, Ohio. He loves good coffee and beer, deep talks that keep him up too late, books and snobby films. He’s been married to Lyndie for ten years this January, and has a four year old daughter who is already asking questions about God he doesn’t know how to answer. He blogs athomekettle.wordpress.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @DNilsenKettle.
My wife and I attended Grace Church for ten years. Then we left.
Finding a new church hasn't been easy. We live in a small Ohio town surrounded by corn fields. Livestock outnumber Democrats. Meeting a person of non-European descent is a rare event. This isn't a place where change catches on quickly.
When we left our church home we knew we had our work cut out for us finding a new one. Consistent with the local politics, the churches are almost exclusively conservative, and the ones that aren't are usually trying too hard. If we insisted on attending a church with a vibrant arts community, a progressive stance on theology and an emphasis on social justice we would be driving an hour each way on Sunday mornings. That's no way to experience community.
So we have to compromise.
Much of the search has been disappointing, but there have been pleasant surprises as well. We've sat in churches we'd walked by for a decade without ever stepping foot inside, churches that in our earlier, fear-filled days we would have condemned as "liberal", and have found within them sincere believers doing their best to follow Jesus. Which is the same thing we've found in the churches more conservative than we ever were.
It’s been good to experience how other Christians worship. It's easy to make assumptions about other pilgrims on the journey, especially when they say their broken prayers from the pews of a different church building. In our search we've seen both bondage and beauty, and have recognized in our own hearts that we've taken part in both. There have been good experiences - discussing the apostleship of Mary Magdalene with an Episcopal priest during coffee hour - and bad ones - the Baptist preacher who struggled during a sermon illustration to think of a magazine that all the women present would know and like and finally came up with Ladies' Home Journal.
My favorite image from this journey has been from a Church of the Brethren we're considering. It's a boring, uncool church, but comfortable being what it is. They sing hymns accompanied by a piano, and no one leads the singing, and they sound shrill and awkward and I kind of love them for it. One week a partially blind old woman was sitting near the middle of the sanctuary. She was wearing a hideous pink dress she was clearly proud of. In the middle of a hymn she pulled out a flute and began playing along as loudly as she could. No one was phased. They kept right on singing around her. I get the feeling this happens somewhat regularly, and the fact that no one has suggested she leave her flute at home tells me a great deal about the hearts of these people.
We are grateful for the grace we've been shown by those who watched us leave, especially those in leadership at our old church. Some of our conversations have been frustrating for both sides, but they’ve loved us.
Leaving a church because of differences in belief and practice is not something anyone should do lightly. If you are considering leaving a church here are some thoughts and questions to keep in mind as you walk through this process:
1. If you're thinking of leaving because of theological differences, you need to ask if and how those differences inhibit your ability to live in fulfilling community with your church family, and which is worth more to you. If you find you can still experience strong community, it might be worth it to grin and bear the doctrinal frustrations. In our case, we found they made too much of an impact on our fellowship.
2. If you decide to leave, don't throw Molotov cocktails at your church on the way out. Tell your story truthfully when you discuss your reasons for leaving, but in speaking honestly remember also to speak lovingly.
3. No matter how hard you try to avoid it there will be misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Most people will be kind. Some, however, will make this difficult, especially if you are leaving because your theology has diverged from what they deem acceptable. There are a few people I'm pretty sure think we're only a few steps away from sacrificing our daughter to Zothora the goat demon. There's nothing you can do about it, so don't exhaust yourself on pointless explanations.
4. Don't leave just because you disagree, but don't stay just out of fear. When you realize you can no longer grow spiritually in your current church environment and there is no possibility of that changing, leave. It's time.
5. Show grace. Pray for the church you've left. As much as it is up to you, live at peace with all men.
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