10 Thoughts On Exiting the Local Church—A Response To Donald Miller

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Donald Miller’s blog posts about his decision to not attend church very often has spawned a huge discussion.

In some ways, as much as all this leaving breaks my heart, it’s good the discussion is happening.

Here’s what’s happening all around us:

People who grew up in the church are leaving the church.

People, like Donald, who were converted in the church often stop attending.

People are leaving your church and the one in which I serve.

Of course in some cases more people are still joining than are leaving. I am grateful I get to lead one of those churches.

I wrestled with whether to post this, but I think a lot is at stake for many of us. So I’m responding with 10 reasons why I would make a different decision than Donald Miller.

If it helps you wrestle through the issue, I’m grateful.

If it helps you stay part of a local church, I’ll be even more grateful.

 

Let’s Clear Up A Few Things First

There are a few things I need to say before we go any further:

I am a pastor of a local church. I completely understand that I have a built in bias toward the church. I’m a pastor. I get paid a salary to lead a church. I realize that puts me a ‘conflict of interest’ or the ‘of course he’s going to say that’ category. But as Donald helpfully pointed out, many local pastors who serve the local church have other options. Many could make more money in the marketplace. Most are there because of calling. I’ve chosen to be part of the church and believe I will choose to be part of the church for the rest of my life whether I am in vocational ministry or not. My comments don’t spring entirely from my calling but from my conviction.

Although I don’t know Donald Miller, I respect him. I haven’t met Donald Miller (even though we’ve been at many of the same events). I don’t know him personally. But I respect him. His works have been a significant influence in my life as they have on millions of others. You should not and cannot dismiss a personal like Donald Miller categorically, but neither should you accept his view point as justification for exiting a church when you haven’t wrestled through the issue personally.

His posts on not attending church much are thoughtful, important and contain some signficant truth. Although I don’t believe I would choose the path Donald appears to be on, his posts are (as always) thought provoking. I actually agree with about half of what he says. He makes some great points every church leader needs to wrestle with (and he raises issues I’ve tried to address before).

You should read what Donald actually said before saying anything. Don’t base your discussion, comments or dialogue on a tweet you saw, this blog post, something you heard or (worse) your pre-existent biases. Lack of thoughtful, considered discussion is actually one of the reasons many people leave the church. David Kinnaman has chronicled that brilliantly.  Donald’s first post is here. And this is his follow up.

The Church is bigger than your church. I agree that the true Church is invisible. It something Christ alone sees. Your local church and mine is a reflection of it. Sometimes a poor reflection; sometimes a magnificent one. But the true Church is bigger than my church, your church or all of our churches combined. There are Christians outside the small c church and some who are in the small c church who are not Christians. I get that. I don’t have a monopoly on church nor do you. Jesus does. And he judges perfectly.

With that understood, here we go.

10 Reasons To Reconsider Leaving the Local Church

As I’ve wrestled through this issue again over the last few days, here’s why I would make a different decision than Donald Miller, even if I wasn’t a pastor of a local church.

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1. A step out of a local church is many times a step away from God

I honestly just haven’t met that many people who would say they are closer to God for having left the organized church. I realize that some exist (and some regularly comment on this blog).

But the vast majority of people who leave the church don’t leave in order to grow closer to God and rarely end up closer to him. They are often discouraged, hurt, lonely and sometimes angry. Meet them years later and almost every time, their passion for Christ has faded. They are not living a more vibrant life. Usually quite the opposite is true.

What often begins as respite from a situation of hurt or an attempt to get closer to God without the church often results in a deeper disconnect from God than most people had previously experienced.

I’m not saying you can’t grow closer to God away from the church. I’m just saying very few people actually, authentically do.

 2. The church puts us into contact with people with whom we would rather not associate.

We tend to find people who affirm what we want to hear. As Geoff Surratt so eloquently pointed out, the church is an organization that regularly puts us into contact with people who are different than we are. Different socio-economically, politically and even spiritually.

This is good. Maybe you can cultivate that kind of community on your own, but most people won’t, and don’t.

Being in intentional community with people who are different than me is actually a huge part of my spiritual growth these days. I learn to love people I wouldn’t normally love, and it helps me love people outside the church in the same way. Don’t discount the power of community that often uniquely assembles in the church.

3. A step away from organized community is often a step away from accountability.

We tend to find people who affirm what we want to hear.

The church doesn’t always do community and authority well, but when we do, the result are amazing. I am never more accountable than when I am in close Christian community.

It is possible to find this outside the church, but again, most never do. If I am going to live a deep life in Christ, accountability is non-negotiable. The most dangerous leaders in the world are leaders without accountability or authority over them.

4. A movement is more effective when it has leadership and authority.

When you simply serve Christ as an individual in the world, you are actually under no human authority other than Christ. While this seems spiritual, it sounds more spiritual than it really is.

Throughout scripture, God organized his people in community with a structure. And while kings were an accession to people’s unwillingness to submit to God alone, they have organized us for millennia. And God uses human authority and asks us to respect it even when we disagree with it. (Romans 13 in case you were wondering.)

While the idea of releasing people organically in the world to make a difference is appealing, the truth is history has shown the church has always been at its most effective when it has been a movement with some structure and leadership.

People resisted the Apostle Paul’s leadership. I get that. But so many more people were converted to this Jesus under his leadership than via other means. Think about that.

5. There is tremendous potential when people are aligned and released around a common mission, vision and strategy.

Sure, you could organically release Christians into businesses, the arts, education, science and more. And they could do great work there.

But the truth is, that’s already happening. And the majority of Christians who are making a difference in those fields are people associated with a local church.

What’s particularly unique about the local church is the power that is released when people are aligned around a common mission, vision and strategy. I believe that’s how our gifts have maximum impact. Consider Be Rich, a North Point initiative that released millions of dollars and thousands of hours of service to support local and global nonprofit causes.

Or churches that are reaching thousands or hundreds of people in their community.

I realize Donald appreciates the work of these churches (he really does), but if we all bailed, where would we be?

Would anything like this happen? I doubt it. Not on this scale. Not with this effectiveness.

Releasing people into the community and having a strong local church is not an either/or proposition. It’s a both/and equation. Effective local churches rally people around causes that they could never accomplish on their own AND release people daily into business, the arts, education, science and more.

6. An outward focus of the church is best maintained when people gather intentionally.

One of the basic human struggles is the struggle against self. I tend to become self-occupied, and my guess is so do you.

While every church struggles with focusing on insiders, effective churches focus on outsiders; they exist for the sake of the world Jesus loves.

I’m just not sure Christians would easily maintain a laser focus on outsiders if we all dispersed. And I believe we might become collectively less effective at making an impact on the world for this reason and many already stated. And in a world where so many don’t know Christ, that’s a risk I don’t think we can take.

When I gather in an intentional community that is committed to impacting the wider community and world, my life stops being so much about me and begins to be more about Christ and others. I’m not saying this can’t happen outside of the local church. I’m just not sure it does or that it will happen nearly as effectively as through the local church.

7. The faith you cherish is built on the foundation of people who were part of the local church

I love that Donald Miller is not abandoning Christianity. Nor are many who exit the church. I do believe some will drift away, but I’m sure some won’t.

And yet it’s somewhat ironic that the faith we continue to embrace was forged through the crucible of the local church. The great thinkers, writers, practitioners, mystics and theologians of the centuries are those whose faith was shaped, expressed and lived out in the context of the community of the local church.

Why we think we will reach similar levels of contribution or enlightenment apart from the local church is a bit of mystery to me. If thousand of years of the best of Christianity was forged through flawed local churches, why would future will be any different? It may actually be that the frailty of the local church produced the brilliance and relevance of best thinking, writing, practice and mysticism of the past several millennia.

8. A wound created in community is best healed in community.

Donald Miller isn’t leaving the church because he was hurt, but instead because he says he’s bored and unmoved by it. I understand that. I think it happens to all of us in seasons, including those of us who lead churches.

If you’re bored, why not work to make it better?

But let me do a sideways step to address what is probably the most common reason people leave the church: because they have been wounded by someone in a church.

The challenge with leaving because of an unresolved issue like a wound (or even boredom) is that a wound created in one place is often never healed by walking away.

A wound created in community is best healed in community. So many people I know who walked away from church are still limping. That limp will only be healed (I think) when they either go back to the community where the hurt happened to find confession, forgiveness and reconciliation, or when they find a new community that loves them in a way the old community did not.

A healthy church experience can heal the wounds of a bad church experience. And similarly, a boring or irrelevant church experience is best remedied by creating a better church experience.

In some ways, that’s how the Reformation happened. The people who had been hurt in the church were healed in the church.

9. The promise of the church is still greater than the problems of the church

I agree the church has problems. Deep problems.

But in some ways that is a symbol of it’s beauty. God chooses to use a flawed, stumbling group of people to transform the world. It’s really what God specializes in.

And because the church (even the local church in its many expressions) is not a human idea but a divine idea, the church ultimately will not be defeated.

Because it is Christ’s body, the promise of the church is still greater than the problems of the church.

We need a new generation to rise up and seize the promise.

10. Trying something new is better than walking away.

Maybe Donald’s random-Christians-who-don’t-intentionally-assemble-because-they’ve-graduated-from-church is a better idea and the way of the future. But I don’t think so. I just don’t see how it could be.

I agree with Donald that things are changing. And I agree that the church has been remarkably adept at adapting to the culture around it and becoming effective at reaching the current generation.

I would counter, though, with the proposal that trying something new is better than walking away.

This, maybe more than any time in recent memory, is a time to try new things.  There are many frontiers the church needs to crack. Better connections with unchurched people. Community involvement. Online engagement. Impacting families at home. The list could fill another blog post.

You can try something new in an existing local church. That kind of change is necessary and needed. (I wrote more about that kind of change here.) And we need leaders to try radical new things by starting new kinds of churches.

We need next generation leaders committed to trying new things until it redefines what the local church is, not next generation leaders who walk away.

That’s why I don’t think I could ever walk away from the local church.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.

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