Can you grow out of a local church?

Michelle van Loon’s survey of 40+ leavers of churches includes the claim that some have outgrown what their local church offered.

Is it possible to spiritually “outgrow” a local congregation?

It is not only possible, it happens more often than you’d think. One trend I saw in my poll of those over 40 was that a notable percentage of those who’d changed churches or decreased their level of “official” involvement at their present congregation did so because they’d grown past what the church offered….

Those over 40 grew up in what was dubbed as the Me Generation. The questions of selfishness are legit and need to be answered. But as I’ve already pointed out here, many who leave churches have valid and important reasons for doing so. What I’m hearing from those who’ve responded to my survey is that growth has often taken them out of churches where they’ve grown weary of passivity (all meaningful ministry is reserved for paid staff, or limited by gender/racial beliefs held by the leadership team) or the constant requests for time and money to support the ego-driven “vision” of a leader. I believe both of those reasons are markers of growth in a leaver, not a sign of selfishness.

Others who’ve changed congregations or stopped attending entirely noted that they’d found other non-Sunday-morning-in-a-church-building-centric forms of community, worship and service. And if you think a church leader might struggle to release Ken and Julie to move from independent Baptist to mainline Lutheran, imagine how difficult (and at first – and maybe second blush, irresponsible and uncaring) it would seem for a leader to release someone to…a small group, a parachurch ministry or community service with a side of podcast or online sermon watching.

With or without a pastor’s “permission”, people do move on because they’ve outgrown a congregation. And I find myself wondering today if it is harder to outgrow a church that understands itself to be a resource and a launch pad than it is to leave a church that functions as a spiritual destination. Few churches use this language of themselves, but that doesn’t change the reality that some congregations are precisely that – organizational terminal points for learning, worship and service.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • BathtubHahn

    What about being called and committed to a body of believers? What about life-on-life relationships forged over several years? If I can outgrow my church, have I really given myself to anyone?

  • Denise

    That’s a good point. I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing for awhile now, and there’s a tension between being “fulfilled” in my local church experience and being part of it for the sake of the body of Christ. Not that I think I’m all that and have so very much to offer, but there is a reason we’re called to community. Still trying to work this out.

  • Rob

    Where does Scripture ever ask for a commitment to just one local meeting place? What if the place you went to doesn’t have others of like mind that want to develop relationships vulnerable to the Holy Spirit? For instance, groups that I have been to do not practice relationship “much past Sunday”. Certainly there is rarely a “confessing sins to one another”. Why not be open to fellowship wherever it arises?

  • Adam

    I definitely think this is the right question to ask, but there are also times when people need to move on because the current environment is toxic. What’s the difference between faithful commitment and enduring abuse?

  • Patrick O

    Commitment is a two way street. So often, like in marriage, one expects everything from the other but there’s no assumption of responsibility for one’s own part. In churches, there certainly can be the element of consumerism, but in my experiences there is just as much a problem of church leadership assuming people have to take whatever crumbs are offered. Which worked fine in a time of cultural Christianity, when people were willing to just show up. But, if a group of people have hit a wall of maturity or participation at a local church, they need to find a place where they are respected enough, and the Spirit is respected enough, not to have such walls in place.

  • Phil Miller

    Ideally, having that type of commitment to a local body can be great, but I think it’s getting harder and harder to find that sort of stability. American society in general is much more mobile than it used to be. It’s getting much more rare for people to live in the same community for there whole life. I also think that if there is a church where there’s a larger percentage of “lifers” in it, it can be very difficult for new people to feel like they can actually become part of the church.

    As far as outgrowing the church, I think a lot of it has to do with many churches perpetual adolescent focus. Personally, I feel like many churches are stuck with a perpetual “youth group” type of theology. And actually, if you listen to sermons given in a youth group environment and on a Sunday Morning, the theological depth really isn’t that much different.

  • BathtubHahn

    I don’t disagree, Adam, and I wouldn’t recommend someone stay for the sake of faithfulness in an abusive situations. But I didn’t entirely read the above article that way.

  • metanoia

    Interestingly in my 30+ of ministry practice, I heard an increasing number of people use that same excuse when they wanted out of their marriage. It is possible to outgrow a relationship, a church, a career, etc. But I wonder how much of a contribution is made by these individuals to the continued growth of the marriages, churches, careers, etc. Currently I am no longer in pastoral ministry. In a sense, I’ve “outgrown” what the church can do for me, but I find tremendous pleasure in contributing my skills, talents, and treasure to help the church we are attending to grow.

  • Rob

    Good point, Adam. I would add that one might move on if he finds a more fervent, willing individual(s) elsewhere. If the people that one is with aren’t interested in the kind of relationship that Scripture asks us to cultivate, why not go with those who are? So not just abuse, but if others are lukewarm about relationship.

  • Adam

    Personally, I consider the “lukewarm” as a kind of abuse. Technically it’s betrayal through disengagement.

    I see commitment and abuse as two extremes of the same continuum with every variation in between. For the sake of conversation, where in the continuum is the point where we change from “sticking with it” for commitment to “moving on”.

  • Rob

    Metanoia, the marriage analogy would only apply if, indeed, a commitment to relationship had actually been made. Most people that I meet in church have no commitment, for instance to confessing sins to each other, or encouraging *daily*. It’s more like encouraging weekly (or whenever, or never!). The close knitted quality of the early house churches seems absent, and the following of various classes or programs is emphasized more than actual relationship…..just thoughts that I am considering, feel free to lambaste and critique!

  • Pat68

    Thank you, Adam. I’m not one for leaving at the first sign of trouble, but sometimes you have to weigh out if your own soul is being damaged in the process and whether or not God is calling you to stay or to go. We sometimes quickly criticize those for leaving without ever considering that God may be calling them away from a fellowship. To leave A church, is not to leave THE Church, but sometimes it feels as though people get those two mixed up. And sometimes, I think some people have an unhealthy attachment to their church that is more about them than their relationship with Christ. Whether to stay or to go really requires soul-searching. Something I’ve counseled people to do in the past and something I’ve done myself to make sure I was clear about my reasoning,

  • metanoia

    I was just sharing my observation that “outgrowing” is a symptom that is often treated as the disease. Why do people feel they have outgrown their churches, marriages, careers, etc.? My guess is that they have unrealistic expectations, or powerlessness to effect change. A number of excellent scenarios have been proffered in the thread already. If a church attendee feels relational disconnect, a perpetual propagation of youth ministry, irrelevant ministry programming etc., there is a reason why this has been allowed to continue. But haven’t we all been called to be catalysts for positive change? My particular personality gravitates toward doing something about what I perceive to be a weakness in relationships, work, or church. The old adage, “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” motivates me.

  • Guest

    I think commitment is important and you have to be careful not to leave on a whim or for non-essentials. You’ll end up being disappointed elsewhere because the grass is usually not greener there and no church is perfect.

    That being said, we shouldn’t discount genuine concerns that people have, including people who are very active in a church. I’m myself in that situation. I’m involved in lots of ministries and, on any given week, I probably spend 7-10 hours working for the church (i.e. as much as some of our paid part-time staff).

    Yet, for the past year, I’ve been feeling increasingly alienated from the church. Our long-term pastor retired and I have a hard time relating to the theology of his current replacement (very strongly YEC, to the extent that it has caused ripples in the congregation with several high-profile departures). I see many signs that this is not an isolated event

  • Rob

    Yes, but why assume that these types of relationships are only to be pursued in one setting? Why not take advantage of such relationships wherever they are found?

  • Rob

    Go where the iron is hot?

  • Rob

    Is it “abuse”? Is is really “betrayal” to move on to what you see as a more biblical model of discipleship? When we choose a mate are we not careful and discerning? Or do we feel that we have to marry the first one that we date? Why not evolve in how we understand the teachings of Jesus vs. remain commited to one groups’ interpretation come “hell or high water?

  • metanoia

    I thought I was communicating my thoughts, not as an assumption, but rather a choice. Free will allows us to stay or leave. I think, in many cases, staying is a better choice. I have a very simple short list of reasons for leaving a church. If what is being accommodated is illegal, unethical, or heretical, leave like your pants are on fire. If not, hang around and try to effect positive change. As a former pastor I tried not to begrudge those who left for whatever reason. In a number of cases, I felt some left who would have made our church stronger if they stayed. Studies have shown that the revolving door in churches is gaining speed. It makes for church environments that are difficult to keep stable and growing. My 2cents, cause it probably isn’t worth a dime. ;-)

  • Rob

    Adam, you say that using the term “lukewarm” is abuse. Are you saying that we should never use it? That we are not able to spot it when it is there? I agree, be careful. But don’t deny its’ existence.

  • Wesleyan

    Sorry, I posted too quickly! I continue my message here:

    There seems to be a conscious desire to make us much, much more conservative that I am comfortable with. I already feel uneasy sharing some of my views because it has given rise to anxious e-mails from other members questioning my views.

    Will I leave the church? I don’t know. But that wouldn’t be an easy decision for me because this is the church that I’ve attended ever since I became a Christian. Leaving would be very, very hard.

    Would I say that I’ve “outgrown” the church? Probably not, because it sounds much too smug for me. But our paths are increasingly diverging, as I’ve become more “liberal” (i.e. I don’t toe the conservative evangelical line on issues such as evolution, women in ministry, inerrancy and maximal historicity of the OT as necessary for robust Christianity), while the church has been moving in a conservative, almost fundamentalist at times, direction. To the extent that I can’t see myself wanting my children to learn about Christianity from there. I’m old enough to be able to gain knowledge from other sources (e.g. Scot’s books and blog). But do I want my kids to be taught that Christianity is only true if the world was created in 6 days a couple thousand years ago? And to wonder why they’re being told one thing in church and a completely different one at home?

  • Kent Haley

    Yep – often its only crumbs that are leftover for the one’s who want to grow, while the leadership is busy tending to the “needs” of people who just want to maintain the status quo.

  • Ray

    @BathtubHahn, et al.: There is a big tension between 2 theological principles: steadfast commitment vs discernment & change for the sake of spiritual health. Not that these 2 are always mutually exclusive, but often they compete on a practical level.

    I do think it’s important for pastors/leaders to remind others about the value of being part of the solution, etc., but the reality is that some members/families are going to face continual discouragement if they perceive that the church is being led by impulses other than the Spirit of God. For a concrete example of this, consider the Westboro Baptist group. Would you have stayed or left?

    I don’t think there is one, pat answer or principle that should always take precedence. The “right thing to do” is going to be contextual on a case by case & person by person basis. So many variables that come into play. Ultimately those decisions are between individuals and God, and pastors/leaders need to respect that in love.

    In light of this last point, I have a hunch that when a church’s leadership is acting in ways like they ought (truly interested and respectful of members needs, not driven by ego, power & control, etc.), there is less of a chance of members getting fed up & leaving, as the article describes. These kinds of leaders are equippers, not controllers (which seems to parallel a church’s culture as being more of a “resource” than a “destination”).

  • Rob

    Again, the assumption is that a relationship is left simply because one doesn’t spend 1-2 hours Sunday morning with a person in a specific building. The rest of the week is still there! The early believers lived together, it was intimate. Big difference! Please, critique what I am saying, I have no implicit authority and need said critique. That’s part of “submit to one another”.

  • metanoia

    Sorry, I guess I wasn’t clear. When I think of church, I don’t think in terms of a Sunday service. Our present day way of doing church is extremely limited, but does have some advantages. The Sunday service is supposed to facilitate a number of things, relationship being an important one of those things. A church building often has the ability to accommodate the meeting of groups, and the ability to engage in group activities. These should encourage relationship building. If that isn’t happening, then the church is lacking. One must remember, that the early church believers didn’t maintain their meeting model for long for a variety of reasons. As the church grew it was more cumbersome. However, the most successful churches have a model of being a lot of small groups (churches) within a larger group (Sunday morning church). In creating those smaller groups, intimacy within the larger group is easier to replicate, thus theoretically making it more difficult to leave.

  • americanwoman343

    Again, I have left churches and so I don’t want to say one shouldn’t ever. But the call of Jesus was to love one another as he loves us – that’s a pretty high standard of self-giving. How do you justify leaving the people he called you to love because you’ve ‘outgrown’ them? I could understand needing to augment what you’re getting with deeper sources of teaching, but always these kinds of leaving stories treat the church like it is an institution and NOT a community of actual people you are choosing to leave, and take your gifts elsewhere (or more commonly, home with you). False teaching? Yes. Immorality in the leadership? Yes. “Outgrown”? Come on. When will we start calling out people who ought to be mature Christians for continuing to be babies who always have to have their needs met?

  • Denise

    I agree with you. Thankfully, within my local church, some of us who are like-minded have sought each other out frequently. What I’m wondering and praying about is what my role within the local church I’ve been a part of should be. I don’t believe I’m called to just surround myself with like-minded people, but to hear what others are saying, and hopefully we can help each other along. I’m not saying I’ll feel that way forever, but for now, that’s what it is.

  • Brian Rutherford

    I find the phrasing of this thought odd. If something “overgrows” in a human we call it cancer. People who “think” they outgrow their church are probably cancerous to the local body of believers anyway.

  • http://twitter.com/kimkarpeles Kim Karpeles

    I think every believer bears the responsibility for their personal spiritual
    formation and development. They also bear responsibility for passing on their
    knowledge and experience to others. For the over-40 crowd targeted in Michelle’s survey this includes the next generations.

    I see few local church bodies that provide opportunities for the accomplishment
    of both goals. The usual plethora of programs aimed toward children, youth and
    families definitely make the second goal easier to attain than the first.
    Mentoring programs are another way to facilitate baton-passing.

    Second-half-of-life believers have been around the block a few
    times. They’ve raised money, built buildings, watched worship trends come and go, and seen church-world celebrities rise and fall. Now they may desire more
    exposure to and teaching regarding contemplative practices and want to practice greater vulnerability in church groups. Maybe they want to invest in the local community in ways other than evangelism and outreach programs. Fewer church programs offer opportunities for these types of spiritual formation.

    This desire for depth and intensity and paucity of opportunity might lead one to think they have “outgrown” their church. The resultant decision to change churches and seek other avenues for ministry may appear selfish on the surface, but is anything but.

  • NateW

    Can you spiritually outgrow your church?
    Jesus Creed Blog

    I haven’t had time to read every response, but wanted to throw my .02 in. I appreciate the question and the conversation on this as its something I’ve thought about lately.

    I will echo Dietrich Bonhoeffer in saying that living in Spirit-filled community with brothers and sisters in Christ is a gracious blessing—not a right—and certainly not a need. For as long as we are allowed by God to enjoy fellowship in a loving and fulfilling community we should give thanks, as many never experience this joy. That said, it is not the place of the community to provide our spiritual (or intellectual) food. Christ alone is the bread of Life and it is ONLY in partaking of his form that we find the life we seek.

    What this means in any given church situation can’t be prescribed unilaterally except to say that the only reason to leave or remain within a church comminity is selfless love for one’s brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s of utmost importance that we remember that Christ was crucified by the religious structure that he was a part of and his disciples did not stop preaching in the synagogues until they were driven away. In some ways it seems inevitable that as long as a church resembles a corporate institution rather than a spirit-led fellowship, true spiritual growth will lead to one becoming an outcast. Whether this persecution is outright or not, the crucial thing at this point is that we do not leave in order to avoid bearing the cross of Christ in love for our misled brothers and sisters.

    It is conceivable that in a circumstance of community sin (Westboro baptist church comes to mind as a very extreme example)the path of deepest love for one’s community may well compel one to when staying would serve to enable sin. A co-dependent spouse who does not intentionally separate from an alcoholic and physically abusive husband may well enable him to become more deeply mired in sin.

    In any case, what is primary is not one’s own needs, rights, or desires, but partaking of and participation in the life and death of Christ in faith that Resurrection and redemption will follow.

  • NateW

    I agree that the phrasing is not ideal. To say that i have “outgrown” mu local church implies that the church exists primarily to empower me to achieve my “spiritual growth goals.” In Truth, the church exists not as a source of power, but as a body who’s power is solely in the daily death if each individual for love of every other.

    To the exact extent that I expect my church to fulfill my desires for knowledge, community, and growth I have made it an idol.


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