Why do Christians leave church? I often hear reasons like “the worship style wasn’t for me,” “the teaching wasn’t very engaging” or “I had a hard time connecting, and I never really felt pursued.” I understand these reasons.
We long for that perfect fit in a community, when the music, the pastor, the people and the expected involvement line up perfectly. We want to feel like we belong. I spent years trying to find the right fit in community. I wanted to be needed, to play music on Sunday morning and lead a Bible study. I wanted people to see me as a valuable member of the body of Christ and to pursue me in life. I wanted me.
We are not called to ourselves. Matthew 6:33 does not say, “But seek first to know yourself, and God will give you everything you want.” It says, “But seek first [your heavenly Father’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these thing will be given to you as well.” We are called to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36–40). Why then, is our critique of our church so full of “me”?
The first line of the introduction of “Encouragement: The Key to Caring” by Larry Crabb and Dan Allender says, “The more I understand people and their needs, the more I am persuaded that God has uniquely designed the local church to respond to those needs.” Shortly after that, they write, “The church, where Christ’s holiness and love are to be evidenced the most, too often becomes an organization just seeking to perpetuate itself, while the reasons why it should continue and grow are obscured.”
The reason Christians so often become disenchanted with the local church is because we are obsessed with ourselves, and we believe the church exists to meet our needs.
I started going to my church because I felt like God was saying, “Plant yourself somewhere and stay there for a year.” Yet, despite this directive, I spent the next year simultaneously seeking for a way out and disappointed that I didn’t feel like I belonged. Do you see the problem? I certainly didn’t.
Then in the summer of 2013, God changed everything. I had a job offer at a church in another state that I was excited about, and God shut the door. I remember one afternoon, as I was praying through my disappointment, God restated His command to me: “Plant yourself somewhere and stay there for a year.” I realized that I had not done what God wanted. I had used my church as a stopover to the next location. In my concern for myself, I had placed distance between myself and true community, and, in the process, I hurt people who are now some of my closest friends. With this realization came a complete shift of how I see the church and God.
When we approach church as a solution to our needs, we will be disappointed. Yet the opposite of this is not to seek to meet the needs of others. That approach will be met with exhaustion and discouragement. Our true purpose is stated in the mission of the Free Methodist Church: “Love God, love people and make disciples.” When we seek to have our needs met in God, we free up so much space in our lives to see people.
Hebrews 10:24–25 gives a good starting point for the local church: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
When my focus turned from myself to God, and subsequently to His people, God did amazing things in my heart. Like Jonah, I tried to run away from where God had called me. Also like Jonah, it took great hardship, pain and submission to God to get me to recognize my own brokenness. Yet when I had begun this process, within a few months, I had been invited into leadership in my church. My city became my home instead of a stopover point, and most amazingly, He opened my eyes to see the beautiful woman who would become my wife. It is not a magic formula to everything being better, and it isn’t a comfortable place to be, but when we take on the difficult task of turning away from ourselves and facing God, He is capable of great healing. This is the first step toward a renewed local church.
Mark Crawford is the assistant editor of Light + Life Magazine.
- In what ways have you seen churches or their members lose their evidence of Christ’s holiness and love?
- What prevents some people from finding true community in the local church?
- What tips do you have for keeping your focus on God and not on yourself or your personal preferences?