leaving a church well (or, is your church spiritually co-dependent?)

I’ve left 11 churches in my life.

I never bothered counting, but I did this morning as I was thinking about this post.

No, I was never kicked out (sorry to disappoint). Some departures were due to moves to and from schools, etc. Other moves were conscious decisions for other reasons.

About 10 years ago, my wife and I made the conscious decision to begin attending a local Nazarene church. Our reasons had a lot to do family factors and very little, if anything, to do with theology. We needed a major break and our family was at a stage where a change had to happen. We wound up staying with these Nazarenes for about 6 years.

Early on in our stay, the senior pastor told me that sometimes families wind up in this church, stay for a while, catch their breath, relax a bit, and then move on to the next phase of  their journey. He felt that being a spiritual inn, an oasis, a place of refuge, was part of that church’s ministry. He sensed already we might fit that description.

As it turned out, after 6 years and what seemed like thousands of spiritual miles, we wound up leaving these Nazarenes for an Episcopal church. The transition was supported, encouraged, and blessed by the Nazarenes, and we’ve been doing the stand, kneel, prayer book, 12 minute homily thing for 3 years now.

There was no expectation that this particular Nazarene church, its leaders, its programs, or its doctrine were intended by God to be the final word for everyone who walks through the door.

I have not always had this experience when leaving a church. Moving to the Nazarene church was interpreted by our previous church leadership as spiritually unwise, willfully risking the confidence provided by (one version of ) “sound doctrine” and subjecting myself and my family to “false teaching.”

The unstated (but didn’t really need to be) subtext was that this church and its denomination represented the best and most true expression of the Christian faith, and to depart from it was settling for something less than what God wanted, ever bordering on spiritual rebellion.

That latter experience was similar to the following story I recently read in David G. Benner’s Spirituality and the Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation (for previous posts on this book see here, here, and here).

Benner recounts how he was called in to help a church deal with their dwindling numbers. Many in that congregation were leaving for churches that had a more contemplative/liturgical dimension.

Fearful of their shrinking numbers, this church wanted to bring a contemplative dimension to their church, too, and asked Benner for help. Picking up Benner’s description:

When I asked why they wouldn’t feel gratified that they had been able to help more people move to the stage of their journey where they could now benefit from something a little different, one of the senior pastors said, “I hate to use business terms, but the short answer is that we are concerned about losing our market share.”

Covering for him, another quickly added that of course they were concerned about the continuing spiritual growth of their members, not just market share, and that they really believed that they were in the best position in their city to give people what they needed–and to give them everything that they needed for every stage of their spiritual journey.

I was quite taken aback by the arrogance this displayed but on reflection realized how typical their possessiveness of adherents probably was. Perhaps what made them different from most other churches was simply their success in keeping as many people dependent on them for as long as they did. But many other churches undoubtedly share their assumption that they have everything their members and adherents could ever need spiritually….

Nothing is harder for communities than to support members who feel they need to move beyond the community. The healthiest communities of belonging do this well and therefore always remain an important part of the person who needs to move beyond them.

The unhealthiest are those who perceive as failure the fact that they do not have everything members need at every stage of their journey. But this is simply taking the matter too personally. It is tribal functioning rather than truly communal functioning.

Such groups need to get over themselves and see that communities exist for the support of others, not their control. Like enmeshed familes or codependent marriages and partnerships, such communities fail to see the other as separate from themselves and to celebrate this fact and then help people achieve this differentiation in a healthy manner. (my emphasis; pp. 177-178)

I am glad for how this Nazarene church handled our transition, for, as Benner says, this congregation will forever “remain an important part” of who we are and who we are becoming.

If you ask me, one reason God might have for different denominations and traditions is that they reflect different stages of the spiritual journey. This view can be contrasted to the notion that only one denomination or theological tradition is essentially “correct” and others are “false” or of less value and simply need to catch up.

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  • Brian P.

    Good ecclesiology, good theology, good liturgy, and perhaps even good homiletics would be able to accommodate breadth as well as depth of journey. Sadly, I think some of Protestantism’s historic and contemporary movements were founded in growing in intensity (which is different from growing in depth) of a given stage or other meaningfulness of the journey. American Revivalism tends to throw a wide net to help many catch up to where its institutions originators and preservers reached. If an ultimately surrendered cruciform life is not reached by the leadership one should not be surprised by recentering on power, control, and other things foundational to spiritual insecurity and immaturity. That Protestantism could hold together a meaningful ecclesiology and humility as related to spiritual development is cause and consequence to what you’ve identified. Perhaps some Nones have greater spiritual maturity than some of these current institutions’ preservers. Meh, let the chaff burn and trust that the Way itself can go unthwarted. And be patient with those finding their way too, especially those who already think they’re in the know and in good too. We know what Jesus had to say about the likes of them. Perhaps we don’t even need to be as in-your-face as he was.

  • I get you in this matter only our story is in reverse. My husband was raised Nazarene by his father who was a Nazarene pastor (and his father and mother were Nazarene pastors.) We now attend an Anglican congregation. Sadly, for my husband, the Nazarene congregation (the one we chose to attend after his father’s passing) made him unwelcome, but the Anglican congregation has embraced us fully in a such a loving manner. They are the ones that remind him most of his Father’s Nazarene ministry.

  • Matthew Hamilton

    This is a great post, thank you!

    I do want to add, with tongue placed firmly in cheek, that I’m quite sure that United Methodism must represent the final and most mature stage of the journey, so it is fair for us who are United Methodists to expect people to stay.

    • Brian P.

      Exactly! (Though I’ve never really gotten into Methodism myself along my journey.)

      • Matthew Hamilton

        Don’t worry Brian. You’ll reach that stage eventually. Probably as you become more spiritually mature. (tongue still in cheek)

    • peteenns

      Hehe. Actually, people have told me that my way of thinking about the Bible and theology is more Methodist than anything. So there’s a strike against you guys.

      • Matthew Hamilton

        Hey, if your theology is more Methodist than anything, then you must be well on your way in your journey of, as we Methodists say, moving on to perfection!

    • Lise

      There is much of value in the Methodist tradition. 🙂

  • As one who has journeyed from Free Will Baptist to Church of God (Cleveland) to Assemblies of God to Presbyterian, USA, I can really appreciate your perspective.
    Each of them represented a stage in my journey, and each stage was important to me and is part of my spiritual heritage.

  • K

    It is always hard to hear how a Nazarene church swooped in and saved the day when it is because of the dishonesty, hurt, and pain I received from multiple Nazarene churches that I no longer am apart of the church.

    • peteenns

      This was a very unusual Nazarene church.

      • Jerry Asbridge

        Not necessarily unusual. I had a very similar experience to yours, Pete. It isn’t about the denominational label–it’s all about the grace.

  • Lise

    Thank you for this transparent post. I find it hard to relate to a Christianity that would think one of its denominations is superior to another, but this is naive on my part, and theology is a central consideration when making decisions about church membership. That said, consciously leaving a beloved church behind for a new one can be a fraught decision and hard to execute.

    The church where I felt a connection to Christ for the first time in my life welcomed me with open arms. Nothing could have surprised me more. Not only did I encounter a profound sense of love, the environment was far from where I imagined myself worshiping. There were balloons in the parking lot and kids everywhere. I definitely felt like I was in the wrong place, particularly when everyone started waving their hands to Jesus during worship. And yet this magical place became my home for a number of years, catapulted me into seminary and re-arranged my spiritual DNA. Yet suddenly, I felt as if I needed something different. Like a rebellious teen, I felt a need to bust out. And this scared and worried me. Leaving was painful. Unlike in my profession of psychotherapy, where closure is something we work on during the termination process, when you leave a church, you tell a few people and then exit. There is no ritual or formal way to honor the time spent together and the significance of the relationship. And it can be painstakingly difficult to develop friendships in a new community. I remember telling a seminary professor that the whole experience felt like a weird breakup. And he said, “I’m kind of glad you feel that way because the relationship with a church, if a good one, should be intimate. But the church is a body that extends everywhere.”

    The other day at my new church (well, I’ve been there two years), I ran into people I knew in the bathroom, in my church pew, and at the table with the delicious scones. It felt a little like “Cheers” where everyone knows your name. But what is wonderful, is that I can go back to my old church and know that I will have to stay a good 45 minutes afterwards to say hi to people I’ve missed and to give and receive hugs. The old church let me leave. It wasn’t easy at first, but now like a college kid on break, I know there is still a place for me amongst my brothers and sisters. Theology does matter and should be considered. It’s something I take very seriously. But at the end of the day, church is not a building perse. It’s an experience that we carry within that we then take out into the world.

  • Grant Turner

    Perhaps the answer lies less in seeing different church traditions as representing a spiritual journey for the individual believer (while that is a Western way of looking at things, I’m not always sure it’s the best way when looking at a community) but rather invoking the idea of the Body of Christ being composed different parts but working together in unity. While this often applied to Christians as part of their individual churches, I think it has some purchase to be applied to the church on a larger scale, even world-wide, of allowing our individual traditions to fully express themselves in unity together, so no one is losing anyone, but rather it is the larger community working together to support each other in love and support, and working to bring God’s healing, reconciliation and love to the world around us.

    This links with something that NT Wright has been saying was one of if not the most important themes for Paul, that it was radical unity in the Messiah that was of fundamental importance for him, and of a new life was to be characterized by reconciliation at all levels. He also suggested in one video I was watching that the one thing that would have Paul most distressed today would be the disunity that now characterizes so much about the church, that this would be an anathema to him.

  • Eric

    I really appreciate you writing about this important topic. I’m afraid I’ve experienced this type of authoritarian structure more often than not. But I’ve gotten over (most of) my bitterness about it.

  • Wonderful, Peter! Of course, even the died in the wool, old-school fundamentalists who think their way is the only right way have their function. In my own “Sympathetic Critique of Fundamentalism”, I attempt to be both critical and respectful–concluding as follows:

    Finally, this is not meant to be a condemnation of those who defend
    the older evangelical or fundamentalist worldview, as it stands, and
    who– in sharp contrast to the more progressive voices echoed here –are
    taking their stand in opposition to what they conceive of as serious
    threats to the fundamentals of the faith. If these more conservative
    voices must be left behind, so to speak, it is not without a
    certain respect and gratitude for that which they have contributed and
    will continue to contribute to the life of the church. They will
    continue to function in much the same way that the inside of a tree
    trunk functions (without being immediately involved in its current
    growth). The tree must continue to grow on the outside–sending its roots
    deeper and its branches upward and outward while, at the same time,
    expanding it’s trunk. And while it’s inner trunk may, in a sense, be
    “history”, it is by no means irrelevant to its contemporary growth and
    development. So– to the more conservative and even reactionary voices
    throughout the broad spectrum of protestant Christendom –we may
    sincerely say:

    Thank you for your support!


  • Agni Ashwin

    Would the Nazarenes have been as happy if your spiritual growth had led you to, say, Islam, or an atheistic humanism?

    • peteenns

      Probably not, but that is not the experience I am blogging about.

  • rvs

    I especially appreciated this comment: “There was no expectation that this particular Nazarene church, its leaders, its programs, or its doctrine were intended by God to be the final word for everyone who walks through the door.”

  • Mido F

    Thank you for sharing Professor Enns! Although I have to admit I cringed a little bit when you said: “If you ask me, one reason God might have for different denominations and traditions is that they reflect different stages of the spiritual journey”. On the one hand I agree that this may be one of the reasons, but on the other hand I feel like that attitude has a danger of trivializing significant differences between denominations. I’m sure that there are (or at least can be) ways of discussing those differences and treating them as important matters, without being sectarian. I find this is much easier to do when in dialogue with fellow Christians as opposed to discussing issues of faith with my non-Christian friends….still trying to figure that one out.

  • Guest

    What a wonderful, godly response from the Nazarene church. It sounds like they understand their role in the larger global family of believers. I have also benefited from the spiritual nurture of different traditions. One caveat that does come up for me is the potential for individualism, consumerism, and the wanderlust of American culture. Should our own personal interests and desires be the driving factor in where we attend church? And do we lose something when we forsake the “wisdom of stability” (as the title of one of Jonathan Hartgrove-Wilson’s books reads on committing to a neighborhood and place). Part of growing in chesed–loyal love–is being committed to the same community over the long haul. When we don’t have the option of seeking a better partner or a better church or a better whatever it may be, we have to get in touch with an even deeper level of patience, kindness, goodness. This is not to say that we should never consider attending a different church. Its just to say that its helpful, when a decision needs to be made, to contemplate the possibility we are being tempted to individualism, consumerism, or wanderlust. That is, with every decision we make, we have to examine our motives. In some cases, going to a new church might be a genuine movement of the Spirit. In other cases, it might be a symptom of something else.

    • That is a good point, but I haven’t experienced too many traditions that allow people to grow (change) theologically, and very few that have options for different worship preferences (we have a local Lutheran church that has a traditional liturgy as well as a contemporary service). So staying and growing might not be plausible, especially on the doctrines front.

  • Jeff Martin

    What if God doesn’t have reasons for denominations? What if he expects us to exist in the church of “Such and such” city and allow people freedom to doubt and discuss and simply hold the eucharist in common? This is the new covenant in His blood.

    • How thoroughly have you thought about the “denomination question”? One justification for it might be the following:

      One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. (Rom 14:5-6a)

      There are certain logistical factors in the two views, here. But in general, I am strongly inclined toward the view that denominations, for the most part, are bad. On the other hand, maybe they’re required for people at their current maturity level? Christianity in the US seems to be quite weak these days. Christians are not known for pursuing social justice, economics which glorify God (see Ja 2:5-7 and 5:1-6), being leaders in their fields, etc. CS Lewis argued that we need more good books by Christians, not more books about Christianity.

      Have you read Os Guinness’ 1983 The Gravedigger File, by any chance? He has a 2010 update, The Last Christian on Earth.

      • Jeff Martin

        Unless Romans 14 is advocating for each person to have their own denomination, I would not consider that passage a strong argument for denominations.

        I agree with you Luke that denominations are bad. We should constantly be striving for more unity. That is how I see it. We should constantly be thinking what actions we can take that will make the church more like a healthy living body and less like Frankenstein.

        I don’t buy the idea that they are required for maturity levels. If that is not a backhanded compliment to certain denominations I don’t what is. Every denomination out there has got some hang up that helps lower the maturity level of Christians. The strong Christians simply ignore those aspects and charge on.

        • Unity with the Westboro Calvinists?

          • Jeff Martin

            They are a denomination?? More like an extended biological family.

          • Yeah, my point was that unity cannot be achieved at the cost of tolerating atrocious teachings.
            And I am convinced that consistent Calvinism is one: http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/naked-calvinism-motivation-and-methodology/

            2014-03-28 12:07 GMT+00:00 Disqus :

          • Jeff Martin


            I have gone to Reformed seminaries as an Arminian, and have worked in Calvinist churches. There is no denomination out there where their official statements can be taken as consistent Calvinism. In fact much of what is put on their own home page websites can easily contradict the Westminster Confession for example.

            I see the key being willingness of the leaders rather than the teaching. Part of what it means to unify means to compromise. I know because I am an Army Chaplain preaching with Protestants that fill the range of said group. It can be done, but some will see the result as too vanilla for them. But it doesn’t have to do done that way. The congregation understands that while reading the Bible people get different things from it. We as leaders need to use this as an advantage for unity sake. We should preface our statements when talking about something controversial with “It seems to me” or “This is what I take from this passage”.

            There are some denominations that have no desire to unify. Most of the time these are ones who claim some special revelation. Obviously it is not going to happen perfectly, but the goal is to always try every day

  • I think that this possessiveness is a brand feature of conservative Evangelicalism and is pretty much absent in more liberal Churches.

    Given the basic beliefs of Conservative Evangelicals, this is not astounding at all.

    If you are convinced that God will eternally torture billions of people for sins they were bound to commit, you are going to act in a way more or less consistent with the god you worship.

    There is no easy patch possible here, it is the whole belief system which must be torn down if one wants to avoid its harmful effects.

  • Ryan

    In my spiritual journey, I spent most my time as a pew warmer, so to speak, and then went to a new church where I was service crazy for 6 years to the point of burning out. Now I have completely quit going to church to a much more simpler life with God alone. I doubt this will be understood. As I was watching a few online streaming churches, seeing their whole services, there is just no way I could get myself to sit through that any more. Not everybody needs church their whole lives. Some churches are like mothers who can’t let their children go. They just can’t think that anyone could possibly fend for themselves.