Lately, the church’s back door has been busier than its front door. Many have left, saying, “I don’t go anymore. I just got too busy.” Or, “I’ve had it with organized religion.” Or, “I had a bad experience. I may never go back.”
Has a bad experience sent you out the back door?
Understandably, some are reluctant to re-engage. They want to protect themselves from further harm. Some feel cheated, like they wasted their time in church so far. Christians hear things like, “I know I need to go back, but I’m afraid of what people will say.” And, “I would like to start going to church, but I have never been before, and I am afraid I will do something wrong and embarrass myself.”
May we offer some encouragement? God’s love is unwavering; His wisdom, unsurpassable (Romans 11:33). Jesus desires you in heaven more than you can comprehend (John 14:2). The Spirit’s pen is ready to record your name (Philippians 4:3). When you get ready to try again, here are a few things to consider.
A returning prodigal gets a celebration (Luke 15).
It is hard to explain how much you mean to God. Not only will He know of your decision, He will announce it to His angels. “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). Not only will He delight in your return, He will run to meet you (15:20).
Before you go back, look back.
It is important to determine what happened when you left church, so you can avoid a second episode. People are prone to the same mistakes. Our personalities and previous habits influence choices.
Was a church leader the problem? Some people have experienced horrible treatment from religious leaders—sexual abuse, cultic manipulation, and financial embezzlement. Truly rotten church leaders are rare, but they are out there—especially where false doctrine goes against human nature (e.g., forbidding to marry) or caters to it (loose ethics) (1 Timothy 4:3; Jude 1:4–19).
Such moral failures are unacceptable and must not be ignored. Although love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), it does not sweep sin under the rug. It has tough conversations and demands penitence and accountability.
Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42). Impenitent leaders face a worse fate than drowning at the Judgment (Matthew 25:41). Repentance is possible for anyone (1 Timothy 1:15), but this does not remove all earthly consequences.
Going back to the same church may not be an option. When considering a new church, it is important to get to know its elders, deacons, and preachers. Consider this checklist. Godly leaders . . .
- demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23).
- are not arrogant or self-absorbed (Proverbs 16:5; Philippians 2:4–6).
- seek accountability and submit to the eldership (Hebrews 13:17; cf. Jude 1:8).
- demonstrate the behavior they expect of others (1 Corinthians 11:1).
- see each member as equally valuable and equal to the leader (Romans 12:3–16).
- are fair and show no favoritism (1 Timothy 5:21; Proverbs 16:8).
- do not have frequent angry outbursts (Ephesians 4:31).
- teach the same truths to everyone (1 Corinthians 4:17).
- do not lie (Ephesians 4:25).
- do not marginalize immature people but develop them (Ephesians 4:11–13).
- are peacemakers and not manipulators (Proverbs 16:7; James 3:17–18).
- show transparency but respect confidences (Proverbs 20:19).
- allow others to disagree while maintaining mutual respect (1 Thessalonians 5:21; Titus 2:7; 1 Peter 3:15).
- surround themselves with more than “yes people” (Proverbs 16:13; 15:22).
- communicate clearly and often (Psalm 37:30; Ephesians 4:15).1
Were church members to blame? Some “Christians” are less than they should be, and a few are downright ungodly. No excuse is made for them—only a demand for repentance (Revelation 2:5, 16, 21–22; 3:3, 19). Churches should not overlook gossip, slander, pride and anger nor rationalize bigotry, sexual sin, greed, dishonesty, division, or drunkenness (Proverbs 20:1; 23:29–34; Ephesians 5:18). God “resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Paul wrote, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth” (Ephesians 4:29). God speaks harshly of those who promote division (Titus 3:10).
It might help to look at this another way, though. The church exists because people are sinners (Romans 3:23–26; Ephesians 3:9–11). “The church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners.”2 Church is discipleship school. It takes us from where we are and helps get us to where we need to be. It can be messy. God is developing His imperfect people at the same time they are building His church. He could have done His work another way but chose to use us. What is bothering us, then, just might also amaze us. We have front row seats to God working His transformation.
Was the church really at fault? When a person leaves, sometimes it is not the church’s fault. Some never give the church a fair opportunity to explain or correct a problem. Some remain unconverted, loving sin and wanting to live unholy lives. Some, misunderstanding the church, go to be entertained or coddled. With an entitlement mentality rather than a servant’s heart, at any time they are only a few weeks away from leaving the church. Congregational exit interviews can show a me-first attitude such as, “I was out two weeks, and no one called;” or, “I told my preacher to visit my neighbor and he never did.”
Give your experience an honest evaluation. Many times, the church was at fault. If not, go back with different expectations.
Find your way back by putting your feet in Jesus’ prints (1 Peter 2:21–22).
No matter what bad thing happened, Jesus did not do it, but He knows what mistreatment feels like.
When on trial for his faith, Paul told Timothy everyone had abandoned him—except One: “The Lord stood with me and strengthened me” (2 Timothy 4:17). God will never abandon us (Hebrews 13:5–6). To leave the church because a member offended us is like divorcing a spouse because we do not like our boss. When we put faith in Jesus, we are never disappointed (Psalm 31:1; Mark 7:37). Jesus is never to blame; and He is the reason we go in the first place.
A bad church experience can be hard to overcome, but it is unhealthy to live in the spiritual past (Philippians 3:13). If we were treated unlovingly, we should love anyway (John 13:35). Jesus did (1 Peter 2:23; 3:9). If we were “slapped on the cheek,” we should turn the other (Matthew 5:39). Jesus did (Luke 23:34). Without love, life is bland and empty (1 Corinthians 13:1–3).
Love holds no grudge. “Do not let the sun go down on your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26). Guard your heart diligently, for it is the source of all of life (Proverbs 4:23). What is in it spills out of the mouth (Matthew 12:34). If seeds of irritation and annoyance are not plucked, they can become a bitter root that grows and defiles (Hebrews 12:15). So, when betrayed by someone, do good for him or her.
Love prays for, and does good to, enemies (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27). Biblical love is not an emotion; it is a decision. It seeks another’s best, so we can even love those we do not like. Christ suffered, the Holy for the unholy (Romans 5:6–8). He died, the Sinless for the sinful (1 Peter 2:22–24). Praying for those who hurt us is hard, but it brings God’s blessing.
Love pursues holiness even if others do not (1 Peter 1:16). Holiness is simply truth internalized and practiced.
Love perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:7–8). Do not let Satan win this battle. He wants to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10). He wants you to hate, quit, and be bitter. Fight the good fight. Do not give up. Trust that love prevails. In the end, love abides (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Do not expect to find a perfect church, but do not settle for false teaching.
False doctrine is soul poison (Colossians 2:8, 18; 1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 3:5; 2 Peter 3:16–17). “Take heed that no one deceives you” (Matthew 24:4; Ephesians 4:14). How?
Research. It is worth the effort to try again, but before a first visit, look at the church’s website. Read posts and articles. Listen to sermons and podcasts. Look at activities and events. Look for sound doctrine (2 Timothy 1:13).
Converse. On the first visit, arrive early and talk with members. Meet your child’s teacher. Tour the facilities and pick up literature. Ask for a plan of work describing programs, activities, and events.
Observe. How do people interact with each other? How is the service conducted? Is worship scriptural and heart-felt? (John 4:24). Did the Sunday service consist of preaching, praying, singing, giving, and the Lord’s Supper? This is the New Testament pattern (Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Ephesians 5:19). Was a piano used? Did women lead any part of the service? Did a choir or soloist sing to the congregation? These are without scriptural authority (Colossians 3:16–17; 1 Timothy 2:8–11).
Listen. Did the preacher give an understandable, Bible-based, Scripture-filled sermon? Do not judge his preaching by how likable he is, but by how his sermon lines up with Scripture. “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). We should not believe every teacher, but test them, whether they are of God (1 John 4:1; Acts 17:11).
If one goes to church looking for God and gospel but has difficulty finding them, it makes sense to go elsewhere.
A weary pilgrim finds a haven of hospitality (Acts 28:11–16).
Christians know what the discouraged need to hear: “Don’t give up; don’t abandon the church; Jesus still loves you” (Hebrews 10:25). Christians love like Christ (John 13:34). As He would never harshly scold a returning prodigal, neither do they.
As Paul the prisoner journeyed to Rome, Christians from Rome came out several miles to meet him at Appii Forum and the Three Inns, two ancient rest stops. “When Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage” (Acts 28:15). Like them, today’s Christians leave their comfort zones and meet others during their difficult times.
The church stands ready to welcome you, take you in, nourish your faith, and give you a spiritual home. Let us begin to make up for the pain in your past.
We will meet you at the front door on Sunday.
1 Adapted from thomrainer.com/2014/10/fourteen-symptoms-toxic-church-leaders/
2 Generally attributed to Augustine.