Seeking transformation through the renewal of our minds
When to leave a church
Spiritual health, church decisions, and asking the right questions
by Jeffrey A. Schooley
I love Chipotle. I love everything about it. When the CDC cleared it of any E. Coli outbreaks recently, I was overjoyed—excessively overjoyed. I mean, it almost made my pastoral prayer that week.
One of the reasons I love Chipotle is the ability to customize. A few years back, I read of a “life hack” that promised to grant me more Chipotle for my buck. One of the tricks is to ask for half-and-half meat. Almost inevitably you get three-quarters of each type of meat. And so the steak-and-barbacoa burrito was born (for me). When I’m feeling healthy, I get a bowl instead of a burrito because that tortilla will cost you 300 calories for the day (no, for real). Really, any which way I want it, I can get it.
I mention this because a few months ago, I wrote about wrong reasons to leave a church. The feedback was robust and quality. And one recurring question asked when it’s time to leave a church. This is a fair question. And one that I hope to answer by contrasting the church—which I love—with Chipotle,which I also love.
The first contrast between Chipotle and the church has to do with its customizability. Essential to Chipotle’s existence is my ability to have my food as I like it. The church cannot compete with this. In fact, the church ought not compete with this.
A pastor friend of mine told me recently that his executive presbyter called him about a concerned congregant, who was upset because my friend had recently stopped wearing his robe when preaching. He still wore a shirt, tie, jacket, and stole—but no robe. The concerned congregant asked the EP if there was anything she could do about this. To this EP’s credit, she answered the question with a question: “Is he still preaching the gospel?” “Well, yes, but I don’t see what that has to do with it.”
“As long as he’s preaching the gospel, neither you nor I can say anything about his robe,” the EP responded.
‘The most unsustainable practice of all for your spiritual health is to treat your church like Chipotle.’
This congregant wanted church customized to her tastes. Her palette appreciated a robe. Just as some people want lettuce on their tacos (really, why? Their lettuce is the worst item they offer!), her church experience felt incomplete without the pastor in a robe. And while one may want to avoid Chipotle if they don’t have lettuce (if you actually, really like their lettuce that much), church doesn’t work that way. When one of the ingredients isn’t to your liking, just ignore it. That’s because no one is spiritually fed by a robe… or lettuce.
So, reason #1 to leave a church is if it isn’t preaching the gospel. So long as that is happening, then live without your lettuce and stay in there.
Another reason I love Chipotle is that I buy into their sustainable-farming marketing. I’m no authority on these matters, but I trust that they do provide more justly raised animal protein and more sustainably farmed vegetables. However, I’m still bright enough to realize that their actual mission is to make money. They are a business. I have money in my account; they want that money in their account. I’m willing to trade some of my money to put one of their tasty burritos in my belly. This is capitalism. It is not, however, the church.
The church has a different mission. It may involve farming. It will involve money. But its mission is neither farming nor money; its mission is to proclaim the good news of the gospel in word and deed from as nearby as next door to as far as the corners of the earth.
Now I don’t have to completely align with Chipotle’s mission in order to patronize their restaurants. Certainly if their mission runs in stark contrast with my own ethical principles, I may choose not to frequent them. But otherwise, their mission isn’t my primary concern.
But not so with the church. I have to be onboard with the church’s mission. Because that mission comes to it from its Lord and not from its own initiative. Now, you may very well disagree with the means taken in achieving this mission, but that’s no reason to leave. That is, in fact, a reason to double-down your involvement. The means of mission changes almost annually. And so if you see a wiser or more faithful way of doing the mission, then hang in there and advocate for change.
So, reason #2 to leave the church is if it doesn’t have a gospel mission. So long as it has a faithful mission, don’t get caught up in the means.
Finally, as a clear fanboy of Chipotle, I join a hearty chorus of like-minded individuals. While I don’t foresee myself going to a Chipotle conference, I don’t mind enthusing with another about the greatness of Chipotle. In short, Chipotle can be good for community. Most corporate brands—following Apple’s marketing revolution—present themselves as a community offering a sense of belonging and identity. This is part of capitalism in the 21st century.
The church is a different sort of community, though. It does still grant the individual their identity, but the community is not selected by the individual. Rather, the individual is selected for it—by the Holy Spirit. As such, when I disagree with another member of the church community, I cannot hate them. I may very well never speak to a sofritas lover at Chipotle ever again, but I haven’t that same luxury in the church. The church is a place in which disagreements, conflicts, even feuds must bow at the foot of the cross. And so leaving just because of a fight isn’t an option.
So, reason #3 to leave the church is if it isn’t a body of believers formed by the Holy Spirit. If it is a body of believers formed by the Holy Spirit, then assume the Spirit is in better control than you and humbly submit.
Just to review, then, it is good and right to leave any church that isn’t preaching the gospel, doesn’t have (or acknowledge) its gospel mission, and isn’t a Spirit-formed community. Short of that, the rest is just the foil wrapper. It might be handy and useful; it might even be necessary, but it is not what sustains. And the most unsustainable practice of all for your spiritual health is to treat your church like Chipotle.
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD candidate in Theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.