Jimmy Buehler: Hi, this is Jimmy. On the podcast today, Jon and I seek to answer the question, “What do you do when it is time to leave your church?” Perhaps you’ve been listening to Theocast and other reformed podcasts, and you begin to sense this shift that you’re having in your local church context that you may need to leave and worship elsewhere. We discussed the ways that are unhelpful to leave and the ways and things to consider to be gracious, kind, and charitable as you consider a new church family.
In the members’ podcast, we talk about some primary and secondary issues to consider in thinking about a new home of worship. We hope this conversation is helpful to you and we look forward to you listening.
Maybe you’re new to Reformed theology, or a covenantal understanding of the Christian life or a confessional mindset of churches, and perhaps after a year of listening to us three you’re now in this place where you’re beginning to buy into this Reformed perspective of church and the Christian life. However, the current context or church that you’re worshiping in is not like that. What Jon and I want to have a conversation around today is that very situation. What do you do when you find yourself in a church context where you disagree theologically with what is being preached from the pulpit, or perhaps you disagree with the overall theology of the church? What is a person to do when they when they find themselves there? That is what we’re going to have our conversation around today.
Let us just be clear from the get-go that our aim in this conversation is not to pick on those churches that we would disagree with. Rather it has always been our aim here at Theocast in the past year to be charitable and to seek unity. We know we have a lot of listeners that disagree with a lot of our stances on things, but in the end our hope is to be loving, kind, gracious, and charitable – to be that kind of voice. We hope to have this conversation today with those themes in mind.
So, Jon, why don’t you help us frame this conversation a little bit more?
Jon Moffitt: Every other email we get and every other request through social media has to do with, “I’ve been listening to you guys for awhile and I love what you’re saying. Can you recommend a church in our area?” I’ll be completely frank: it breaks my heart every time I get those emails because I understand the pain; I understand the frustration where your heart is exploding, your mind is being refreshed anew, you can’t believe what you’re hearing, and you just want to go. You’re tired of drinking from a podcast – you want to go swim in the pool. You want to be given Christ and him crucified every Sunday. When I get those, it’s really hard. I don’t have a resource yet; it’s something we’re looking into.
The first thing we want to start with is you’re not crazy. This is something we tell everyone: you’re not alone. There’s a large group of people who are making this transition. I made this transition about 12 years ago where I found myself wanting more, reading old resources and thinking there seems to be an older way. I don’t like saying a better way, but rather that there’s an older way that has been abandoned and lost. We’ve put a carpet over the top of the hardwood floors and the beauty and the joy of what was original is now gone. You probably used to go to church and enjoyed yourself and now you’re feeling guilty because now you go to church and you feel critical. You feel like someone handed you cold mac and cheese that has been sitting out for three days when you’re just wanting the meat of the word. Now you feel guilty because you’re criticizing the teachers and the preachers that you once loved, and you still love them, but you’re thinking to yourself that you don’t really want cold mac and cheese anymore. It’s not giving you the sustenance that you need.
You’re not crazy. There are lots of people who are in this situation. It’s a good thing because what’s happening is that people are actually hungering after Christ. It’s not a movement – we are not giving you some new movement or some new thing that’s exploding that if you can get on it, then your church will explode. The desire of Theocast is to strengthen the local body and to encourage churches.
I was on the phone yesterday with a guy in Indiana just trying to help him write a primer. More pastors writing on this true historic Reformed faith is what we need. This is where we would start. You’re not crazy. You’re not alone in this circumstance.
Jimmy Buehler: It’s one of those things where even in my own background, the experience of Christianity that I was discipled in had me hearing names like John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Charles Spurgeon. I heard these names, but I had a very specific lens through which I read those guys – and the lens that I had was very much this Calvinist evangelical approach to the Christian life that was very centered and focused in a hyper way on what I did: that is my works and my obedience. Over the course of listening to this podcast, as well as reading and hearing other thinkers about the Reformation and the Reformers themselves, I began to question those things. My struggle with assurance was the catalyst into moving into a deeper Reformed understanding.
Perhaps you’re like me who had this lens shift where you hear Calvin and Luther quoted from the pulpit, but you have this inner cognitive dissonance. You’re thinking they would not agree with how their quotes are being used and how they are being presented. In my case, I began to read those guys. I wanted to stop reading what other people said about Calvin and Luther, and read those guys myself. Once I started reading them, I began to have this completely different understanding about preaching, a sacramental approach to the Christian life, the means of grace, and spiritual disciplines.
I just know that there are guys and gals listening to this right now who are in this place where your lens has completely changed. When you go to church, listen to a podcast, or when you listen to a sermon, you have a completely different grid through which you’re filtering everything. If you’re in a context right now where you feel like you are beginning to shift in a different theological way than your church, the first thing that I would say to that person is take a deep breath and try to assess realistically where you are. One of the dangerous things that can happen is you can enter into this cage stage where you begin to light up everybody around you and flat out call people pietists. People around you have never heard that word before and it’s just really unhelpful – so you don’t want to be that person.
Jon Moffitt: Or any imperative or any instruction in Scripture is pietism.
Jimmy Buehler: Exactly. You see everything through this super strict, indicative-imperative model where all imperatives are bad. We don’t want to go there. Don’t overreact. It’s like the pendulum swing: don’t go from one end to the other.
So the first thing that I would advise somebody is to learn from my mistakes and slow down, take a deep breath, and ask really good questions of yourself realistically. Where are you at?
Jon, when somebody is beginning to have the shift, what are the first steps that we would encourage them toward?
Jon Moffitt: Funny thing is this week, I had lunch and conversations at my own church to help people think through leaving a context that they’re currently in. As a pastor, I’m very sensitive to how people leave and how they should leave. The way the Bible describes it is that you are a living organism attached to another living organism; you can’t just detach yourself and think it’s not going to have an effect on people. If you’re in a large church and no one even knows who you are, that’s one thing. But if you’re in a smaller context, you can’t just rip the band-aid off. It’s really not the loving thing to do.
One of the things you have to realize is that lot of times you’ll listen to us three and you’re thinking that if I could just go to our churches, that things would be better. That’s not necessarily true. We’ve had people come visit my church and they’re underwhelmed. It’s not mecca. It’s not what you think it’s going to be.
Jimmy Buehler: Nothing magical here.
Jon Moffitt: No. Now to be fair, we do preach the gospel and we do present the means of grace, and that probably is different for a lot of people. They would be encouraged by that. But I think what you need to do is you have to take a fair assessment of where you’re at. So if you’re in a church where they actually do attempt to preach God’s word verse by verse, they’re trying to present it from a gracious manner where they’re trusting in Christ. They may dip into pietism once in a while. There might be a little bit of a “be like Daniel”, but if the overarching message is kindness and mercy that’s good leadership but it’s not a confessionally Reformed church, and there isn’t a confessional Reformed church or a confessional church in your area, and you are feeling like you are being fed Christ in your growing, then I wouldn’t leave a good context for is one that you think is better. Because you probably will be sorely disappointed with that circumstance.
Jimmy Buehler: Just to add to that, I’m going to assume a couple of things of the listener right now. I’m going to assume that because you’re listening to a Christian podcast, you’re taking time. I’m going to assume that we’re not the only Christian podcast that you’re listening to. I’m going to assume that you take these things seriously and that you think about them a lot. I’m also going to assume that you’re probably healthily involved in your local church, that your leadership and your leadership knows you.
I think the most important and loving and kind thing that you can do, and I’m just speaking on behalf of pastors right now, as you broach a conversation with them and you just say, “Hey, can we get together? I want to discuss some thoughts. I’ve been having some feelings. I’ve been having a theological shift.” You want to work through that with them. You want to give them an opportunity to care for and shepherd you.
If you’re attending a church that perhaps isn’t confessionally Reformed but the leadership of your church cares for you – they love you, they know you, they know your family, they’ve been there for you – you want to be slow to walk away from that context in a quick manner. You want to be able to say, “We have something that we’re going toward because we think it’s a better theological fit.” You don’t want to just rip the band-aid off and walk away in a harmful manner. I would also encourage you to sit down with your leadership and give them an opportunity to hear you out. I think that’s the positive thing that I would encourage you with now.
A negative thing that I would discourage is if you’re a member at your church, there’s a difference if you’re in leadership and if you’re just kind of a member or attender of the church. (By the way, we encourage church membership. Be a member of your local church.) But if you’re a member at your church and you’re not in church leadership, the last thing you want to do is be that guy or that gal who constantly sends podcast links and theological articles to your pastor saying, “I want you to think about this. I want you to do this. I want you to preach this way.”
In other words, I want to discourage you against trying to reform your church in a vigilante sort of way. where you’re not in a position to do so. You’re not in a position to walk into an elder meeting and say, “You guys are not preaching Christ. I want you to preach Christ the way that I want you to preach Christ. Here’s a podcast that you should listen to then our church is going to begin reforming.” Even worse, if you’re a small group leader and you’re beginning to have differences with your church leadership, you need to be upfront with that right away. The last thing you want to do is create some sort of schism in your church where you have a group of four or five families, and you are saying, “I’m going to do my best to shape these people and it’s going to spill over.” That’s both the positive and the negative things: positive is to have conversations with your leadership in a realistic, honest, loving, kind, and gracious way, and negative is we discourage against trying to reform from the bottom up.
Jon Moffitt: Right. Now there’s nothing wrong telling your pastors and leaders about a book you are reading or a podcast you are listening to, and asking for their thoughts on it. Because now you’re asking for advice. It’s different from telling them listen to something and to do things a certain way. It says in Hebrews that you should not make the job of your leaders hard. You need to make it easy for them.
If someone does that to me as a pastor, I lovingly and graciously will say maybe I wasn’t very clear in our position of where we’re at as a church. I will definitely take that into consideration. We can talk – but I hope there’s no confusion here. We’ve had people who have had to leave because I’m not dispensational – I’m covenantal. This is why we hold to a confession. To speak to this from a personal side, I actually ended up having to leave a church that I was on staff at because I found myself in counseling situations where I knew what I was wanting to say was not the same thing that the leadership would say. Over time, in good conscience, I thought it was going to slip out and then I’m going to be opposing the leader. So I had to go to the leadership and say I think it was better for me to resign because I didn’t want to cause conflict or a split in this church. I don’t want people to be of Jon and not of the pastor. Yeah. It was painful – it was very painful. It was very hard.
Jimmy was in the same circumstance. I’ve had elder pastors who have come to me. If you’re the senior pastor and you’ve made the shift, please know that trying to change a congregation that’s established is not as easy as you may think. You need to let your elders or your leadership know that you’re making this transition because they may not want to make it along with you. It’s not fair to drag them through this and split and blow up the church. You may have to come to the conclusion walking away from the church because it’s better if they have a pastor that agrees with their doctrinal statement or agrees with their culture. You need to resign and go somewhere else.
Jimmy Buehler: We want to be clear that there are distinct moments when it is absolutely clear that you must leave a church. Some of those would be when there are spiritual abuse happening. You’re being guilt-tripped and shamed by your church leadership. I would say that is an unhealthy situation.
Jon Moffitt: Just to interject, if you’re in sin and that’s why they’re doing it, then you need to repent.
Jimmy Buehler: Exactly. If you’re shacking it up with your boyfriend and girlfriend and they’re coming after you, and you’re just saying you’re abusing me –
Jon Moffitt: That’s not pietism.
Jimmy Buehler: No. You’ve got another thing coming, my friend.
But if you are being spiritually abused in the sense that you’re being guilt-tripped and shamed that everything you do is under a watchful or a suspicious eye, that’s unhealthy. If heresy is coming from the pulpit, that is also unhealthy – you need to get out. If a church were beginning to take a really strong liberal political agenda, I would say that is a time to leave. When a church begins to become, in my opinion, pro-homosexuality, I think that is a clear time to leave. There are times when you just need to up and leave. A simple conversation with the leadership, saying, “This is where we’re different. Our mind is made up. This is a black and white issue. We need to go.”
The other thing I would say is that obviously there are less clear things. There are secondary issues, if you will, that you want to leave over. Let me just make another distinction: if you are a pastor or a staff member at a church, we can have one conversation. If you are a congregant and a church, it is a completely different conversation.
Jon and I both have left churches but we were pastors or staff people at the church. Us leaving the church is going to look different than your everyday congregant because there were things as a congregant that you can plug your nose and partner with. You can say something isn’t how you would do it but overall, the pastors are loving, kind, gracious, and they preach the gospel. Perhaps you don’t have the same philosophy of ministry, but right now this is good for you and your family. So you can plug your nose and partner with them. But as a pastor or a staff person, if you are beginning to theologically stray from where your church stands, that is a red flag. Particularly if you are not the lead pastor, if you are an associate or student pastor, or perhaps you are some sort of director, you need to be very clear with your lead pastor and your elders to say you’re beginning to have a theological shift and you need to work through it. Eventually, when you feel like you can no longer be an agent of unity in your church, it is probably time for you to leave and step down – which is difficult, right? As pastors, it’s our livelihood. It’s a scary thing. Trust me, I’ve been there. I left a church with nowhere to go and shoveled snow. It was an odd time of my life. Jon remembers those days. So it’s one conversation for a staff person, it’s a different conversation for congregants.
The next thing that I would say is to be careful not to over-spiritualize your leaving. Jon, I know you have all sorts of comments on this so I’ll shoot it over to you.
Jon Moffitt: Just to jump back before we go to that, because that’s a very important topic, if you disagree with the music or what the pastor wears, or maybe the translation of the Bible, or they’re not using liturgy, or even how some ministries are run, just be careful that you’re not nitpicking preferences. We need to be kind and gracious.
If you nitpicked your wife or your husband the way in which you nitpick a church, you probably would get divorced because you can find a thousand reasons to be upset and disagree with people that you live with. Just be careful with that. You need to really think through – is this something I must die over? Because I guarantee you that there is not a church out there that’s the perfect church you want to go to. They don’t exist. As a matter of fact, the three churches that are on this podcast all do things differently. We all have different preferences. As pastors, we like to do things a certain way; it’s not that one way is right or wrong. We feel like it’s the best thing to do in the culture that we sit in. Let’s stay focused on the primaries and the secondaries. Let’s be a little bit more gracious and cautious there. Maybe we should do a podcast on what’s primary, secondary, and tertiary very soon.
I’ll be frank – over spiritualization is something that boils my blood. If a congregant comes in and tries to do this with me, I very kindly and very graciously press them on this because it is an easy card to throw that shuts everyone down. I think it’s dangerous.
It goes like this: “Pastor, I just feel like the Lord is leading us in a different direction.” The moment you throw that, that’s the trump card. Are you going to counteract that? So I graciously and kindly will ask them to explain that to me. What does that look like? How do you know it is God and not just what you want? They can never give me an answer to that. They’ll try and say, “I prayed about it. I read the Scriptures.” That’s great but you are blaming God right now for your decision. You better be sure it’s God and not you. How are you sure it’s God?
Jimmy Buehler: I have a friend that always says, “What the heart wants, the mind justifies. I think that might be a Thomas Cranmer quote. If I had a nickel for every time I heard that the Lord wants someone to do this or that… I’m glad you’re trying to use good pious language, and I’m really glad that you are trying to be sensitive to what the Lord desires, but some things you just don’t need to over-spiritualize.
This sounds so weird, right? Because you have two pastors talking about one of the most spiritual things on earth, which is the body of Christ, and we’re saying don’t over-spiritualize it. Here’s the thing: you can apply that over spiritualization to anything. Let’s say a church is spewing forth heresy and you think the Lord wants you to stay because you can be an agent of change. You can’t. God has abandoned that church. He does not honor heresy coming from the pulpit. Leave. Get up and out of there.
On the same token, going to your church pastors and elders and saying that the Lord wants you to leave is going to be really difficult. It’s not going to set you up for success. It’s going to create a difficult and awkward situation. It is better for you to say, “We have thought about it. We’ve conversed. We have prayed,” you certainly want to kind of soak this in prayer, “and we’ve sought wisdom from other people. We sense that at this time, between all of those things, it is right and good for us to part ways and for us to consider a different place of worship.”
Jon Moffitt: I think that’s really good because what’s going to happen, especially if you are heavily involved in the church, you are going to have people ask you why you are no longer in that church. If you say that the Lord is just leading you away, you then have to answer why because they’re going to be asking why the Lord isn’t leading them away. Why would the Lord lead one of His children away and not another of His children away? I think it’s a very dangerous stage. You have to be very careful when you use the phrase, “The Lord is leading me”. I do believe that God can impress on people’s hearts and put desires in our hearts for us to do certain things, but you should be very careful with that phrase. The other thing that I always encourage people with, unless you’re in a dangerous circumstance, is that you never leave a church – you never go away from something, you always go towards something. You always move towards a better context or a different context or a context that fits your circumstances.
I have had several people I have had to coach in this, including Jimmy, where you don’t want to just leave. What happens is a lot of people leave churches and then never go back for a long period of time – that’s worse. It’s better for you to stay and at least receive the benefits of the body, as weak as they may be, and again if it’s not an abusive circumstance. You always want to move towards something. I think it’s easy to say to people and to the congregants, “We feel like this church is the best for our family and where we are at theologically. We do not think this church is wrong, heretical, dangerous, or any of those things, but on a preferential level we feel like this would fit where we feel most comfortable in pursuing our relationship with God.” Don’t over-spiritualize. Put it on you and name what it is. It is a preferential issue unless it’s a flat-out doctrinal issue and you just cannot stay under that teaching. Yeah. Even then you need to be very careful because if people aren’t where you’re at, you don’t need to leave a bombshell behind you and try and drag as many people as you can with you.
Jimmy Buehler: One of the best things that you can do, particularly if you’re in a town where you’re going to a different church across town, one of the best things that you can do is leave with peace. Don’t damage relationships as much as it depends on you. Don’t do it. Speaking from experience here – I know what that is like. You want to be sensitive, you want to be kind, and you want to be gracious.
I like what you said there, Jon, that you have to put it on you. To the person that we’re talking to right now, who is listening: your church hasn’t changed, you have. Keep in mind that being angry and saying, “I can’t believe you preach this way,” you can’t be mad at them. They’ve been doing that all along. You’re the one that has changed. You’re the one that decided to listen to three knuckleheads talking on a podcast about things like pietism. So it’s your fault.
What I’m trying to say tongue-in-cheek is you want to realize that it is going to be good for you to leave peaceably. Most likely you may have children too and so they are going to watch how you leave a church and go to a different body. I remember when we left our church and we started attending elsewhere, we had to explain to our kids why are we going to this different church. We tried to not use over spiritual language; we would just say that this is a better fit for mommy and daddy and our babies right now. This is where it is good for us to be.
Again, don’t over-spiritualize and as much as we can stress, don’t just walk away from something when you have nowhere to go. Granted, there are caveats to that if it’s abuse, heresy, and things like that. Get up and out of there and give us a call. We will do our best to help you out. But if your pastoral team or your elders are caring for you, loving you, calling you, and they’re trying to get together with you and understand where you’re at, and you decide you can’t stay but have nowhere else to go and still leave, that is going to be a lot worse for you. You are going to enter into a hole of despair and jadedness that you did not think you would ever be in.
Jon Moffitt: I’ve been mentioning this for years, and I know it makes people feel very uncomfortable, but there are sayings that I feel very strongly about, and I think they come from Scripture: when your physical needs become in jeopardy and you’re no longer able to provide for the needs of your family, the Bible says that it’s worse than being an unbeliever if you aren’t willing to work and provide for your family. You and I know people who have had to move locally, they had to move to different states and cities to go find work in whatever field that they were in so that they can provide. What is sad is that we treat our physical needs more important than our spiritual needs. There are people who live in very dry and desert areas, or they’ll even move to a location for a great job and cannot find a church within an hour of their location. They’re driving an hour, an hour and a half, or two hours to find a church. Once you understand that resting in Christ is the primary focus of the Christian life to where you cannot truly find strength and joy without there being the means of grace, the constant preaching of the word, the table, corporate prayer, that becomes a problem.
When I was in college ministry, I had very strongly told college students to not accept a job unless there is a good church in that area. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent with college students on websites trying to find churches for them. To clarify, I don’t mean nitpicky in the sense that you find a church exactly where you are; I mean a good solid church that may not even be confessional, but if they are preaching Christ and him crucified, that’s fine. Your long-term spiritual health is just as important to the bottom line of your dollar.
Jimmy Buehler: Another thing to consider is if you’re married, be sensitive to your spouse. Be like-minded about your decision. It’s probably unhealthy for you to wake up one day and say, “Honey, we’re not going to go to this church anymore.” This is something that my wife and I had to do when I was on my journey into greater Reformed thinking. I had to bring my wife along with me and still do to this day. Help her to understand why it is I’m thinking this way and why we’re moving in this direction.
Let me just say this: please do not stay somewhere or go somewhere merely because it is good for your kids. I know I just probably put a dagger in your heart, but if you and your spouse are struggling but you’re staying somewhere because it’s good for the kids, I’m going to tell you right now that it’s not good for the kids. Your kids will bounce back when you move or shift or go somewhere else but you will not bounce back if you are suffering in the pews every Sunday.
I probably just offended a lot of people. I’m sorry.
Jon Moffitt: It’s hard. You want to do what’s right for your kids. You want your kids to be excited about church. But what you are training your children in what church is becomes what they are looking for when they go to college. That’s tough. We believe in the sovereignty of God and that God is the one who draws them to Himself, but I think believing children can flounder because they weren’t given a true, strong, theological upbringing. They weren’t catechized. They weren’t taught how to participate in the means of grace and how to receive and strengthen their faith. They were taught how to play games and be entertained and have fun. Those things aren’t wrong and churches can have activities and do things like that. But if we aren’t training our children on how to participate and be a part of the local body, it’s going to be complicated in the long run.
Jimmy Buehler: Certainly there are nuances within that. If you have older children, let’s say teenagers, you’re going to have to sit down and have conversations with them and invite them to be part of that process. If you have little kids like two or three-years-old, they’re not going to remember anything. Don’t overthink it. We’re not saying you shouldn’t consider your kids at all, that they’re lifeless beings that live in your home, eat all your food, and require diapers and things like that, you do want to consider them and be sensitive.
At the same time, one of my personal philosophies has been the spiritual health and wellbeing of mom and dad will have its effect on the little kids. It just will. We already live in a society where we base everything we do off of our kids. “We can’t go out to eat right now because our kids need a nap.” My dad still goes bananas when he hears that from young couples. I remember growing up and we would go to somebody’s house and my dad would say, “If you’re tired, go take a nap in the corner.” Just figure it out. We already base a lot of our life on our children, but when it comes to the life and health and resting in Christ and being sitting under the means of grace, mom and dad need that. They need a place where they can rest in Christ and the children will know that and there will be a difference in the home because of that.
So we’re coming up on the members’ podcast. Jon, you mentioned it before and I’m going to throw the bomb at you right now. For our members, what I’d like to talk about is what are some primary and secondary issues when it comes to leaving the church? We might even disagree on a couple of these. I’m a little excited.
Jon Moffitt: If you are interested in trying to find a church, we don’t really have a resource yet. It is something we are praying about. We need finances to be able to afford to put that together since it’s a pretty big undertaking. For those of you that don’t know, we have a very active Facebook group. I think there are over 1,300 people in there. They’re great lively discussions. It’s really designed to help ask questions and dialogue about the podcast, but there are often people who will say where they live and ask if we know of any churches in the area. That might be the best resource right now to do that. There are 1,300 people in there that are all over the world and in the United States. They may have a better shot at knowing than I would. So I would encourage you to possibly go there first.
Jimmy Buehler: Thank you for taking the time today to listen to this podcast. We realize that this is such a sensitive issue when you consider where you are going to put down roots in a church. We know it’s difficult. It takes time. It takes a lot of conversations. We cannot reiterate enough to be patient, to be prayerful, to be gracious, and to be conversational with the current leadership of your church.
Thank you in particular to our members who support us and make podcasts like these possible. We look forward to continuing this conversation over in the members’ podcast. If you want to learn more about what it means to be a member and all of the benefits therein, please log onto theocast.org and you can check out some other resources we have available there.
Members, we will see you over in the members’ podcast. Thank you for listening.