The thought came to me the other day that no one ever walked away from an encounter with Jesus feeling personally violated or that Jesus had sinned against them. Often enough people felt that his call upon them for repentance and discipleship was too heavy, but no one felt that he had lied to them or was slandering them, or seeking financial gain from them, or seeking to enhance his reputation at their expense. During his ministry, the worst that the Pharisees could find on him was that he healed people on the Sabbath or claimed God as his Father, and during his trial all that they could get from the false witnesses they put up against him was that he made a claim that he could rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem in three days.
Unfortunately, it’s often not the same case with our churches. As a pastor who came into declining churches, where previous pastors had stayed for a year or two over a period of at least a decade, I had a chance to hear many people’s reasons for leaving the church, as I sought to reach out to those who had been disappointed or wounded and had gone on to other churches. One common thread that I often found was that when they left the church often enough they tried to maintain a forgiving attitude toward the people they had left behind but still they hated the way that they had been treated during the time before and often for years after their departure.
These are the reasons where people left a church where the parting was more or less understandable and amicable:
Someone died and went to be a part of the church in heaven.
Someone married someone from another church and started attending that church.
Someone moved away and started attending a church in the community in which he or she was now living.
Doctrinal reassessment and changes
Someone had come to different doctrinal convictions and went to a church where shared that person’s convictions, rather than staying and possibly becoming a source of division.
Here are the reasons which identify something toxic happening within a church:
Harassment due to rivalries and vendettas
Someone doesn’t like something about the person who eventually left, and stirs up a lot of trouble for that person and often for that person’s family.
Someone starts rumors about the person who has eventually left that church, and what is being said is given more credence than the verifiable truth.
Neglect during personal hardships and crises
People neglect the person going through a time of personal hardship or crisis. They may throw a platitude or two that person’s way, but generally, when it’s time to stand with a suffering brother or sister, they are nowhere to be seen.
Over commitment and burnout
The person who left became involved in too many ministries or activities, and found it easier to leave than to reduce his or her activities and ministries to a more manageable level.
Unreasonable and unscriptural expectations
This is the situation where other people stridently demand things of another believer which simply aren’t scriptural. High on this list is where the demands for ever increasing involvement in ministries and activities are coming from other people – sometimes those who are not even involved in those activities and ministries themselves.
Pastoral flakiness and weirdness
Sometimes the spiritual, mental and emotional stability of the pastor may be in question through his words and actions over a period of time, and this may afflict certain members of the congregation more than others. These people may leave to find a safer church to attend.
Pastors, as Archibald Hart has repeatedly said, need to work on dealing with their anger in a scriptural fashion. Sometimes they themselves may develop and pursue grudges against certain members of their congregation. Sometimes these are in response to genuine hurts that the pastors have received from these people; some times they are not. In the latter case the pastoral aggression often comes from things such as mild disagreements with the pastor to the pastor taking sides in intra church rivalries.
Pastoral doctrinal deviations
Sometimes pastors themselves also depart from scripture or denominational doctrines and directions in their preaching, teaching and direction of ministry in different ways, and this also may affect some members of the congregation than others. Again, this may make the people who disagree with the pastor the target of pastoral aggression, and they may leave to find a church of sounder scriptural basis.
In cases where someone has left a church, sometimes it does leave a wound in the people who have been left behind. Sometimes, I’ve found that the deepest and most persistent wound is that of the person who has driven that person away, and in this case it is simply wounded self righteousness. In some cases, this wounded self righteousness continues to fester worse and worse for years. But this means often enough that the skewed and exaggerated picture which emerges of that person from those who are left behind is like this below:
- This person was involved in this ministry or activity for years and years. (And sometimes that ministry or activities died with that person’s departure.)
- I grew up with this person and shared some social activities and gatherings with that person. (And you wonder how that person managed to fit in for so long without any evidence of major friction during that time, and indeed, some evidence of some kind of actual friendship or Christian fellowship.)
- This person said or did THIS. (or)
- This person is THIS WAY or THAT WAY.(or)
- This person has THIS or THAT problem.
In other words, the very characterization of the person who left demonstrates a very deep and persistent anger, and often this anger will be denied, although it’s very plain in the description of the person who departed.
The obvious conclusion is to take with a grain of salt someone else’s account of why a person has left a church, and to understand that someone else’s account may be full of self serving and self excusing falsehoods. Another obvious conclusion is that the church that the person ends up attending needs to take any stories of that person which come to them with a grain of salt. But the more scriptural thing to do will be for each person in these situations to pursue scriptural forgiveness – which is always possible — and reconciliation – which is not always possible, because many church leaders and attenders can get stuck in the role of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:28, 30) – sometimes for years and decades, with that attitude toward another believer, “You owe me this (petty little thing).”
But the final conclusion is that these situations challenge church leaders and a church fellowship to be faithful to the New Commandment: “I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). After all, the expectation of our Lord and Master is not that we agree in every detail. Nor is it that we go around trying to fix other people. Rather, he has promised to set all things right and do all the fixing of our brothers and sisters in Christ that he deems necessary, now and in eternity. His command is that we give each other the same loving treatment he has given us, and when that happens, people will not be hating the way that they were treated but recognizing the reality of Christ’s love in the fellowship of believers. After all, no one ever ran away from Jesus because he was loving them too much.