5 Good Reasons to (Temporarily) Leave the Church

In my recent response to Christianity Today‘s take on Don Miller (and, by some degree of separation, Rob Bell and Brian McLaren), I said, Farewell.

And while I intended that farewell to be somewhat ironic (playing off the famous Farewell, Rob Bell from conservative Calvinist gatekeeper John Piper) and nuanced, some commenters took it as a harsh line in the sand toward Don. They saw Don’s statement about no longer attending church as a sign of transition. He is just making his way out of the problematic institutional evangelical church, and we should respect his journey.

First off, I think I made it clear that Don is – IS! – a brother in Christ, and the theological gripes cited in the CT piece (gay issues, hell issues) as the primary problems are not huge problems for me, and don’t, interestingly, even apply that much to Don’s public writing and speaking. The CT critique was thus over the top. Finding balance, then, I am simply taking Don at his word that he has left behind the formative practice of gathering with the church for worship and instruction on a regular basis, in favor of having a good community of Christian friends around. In that sense, my Farewell is basically and exclusively ecclesial. And, my desire for Don to come back is likewise basically and exclusively ecclesial.

My belief is that Don has, intelligently and knowingly, decided regular gathering for worship in a local, ecclesial form is not for him. I give him credit for his intelligent, public decision to not participate in a local church. And, with N.T. Wright I simply respond, regarding the nature of the church: “If it is not local, it is not real.”

Further, while Don may be in transition, his public statement did not indicate transition. It indicated decision, finality. So yeah, obviously, I totally agree that we must respect the journey of those making their way out of the problematic institutional evangelical church. In fact, it’s a journey I myself have taken! I have left the church too, at a couple different points along the way.

So here are 5 good reasons to (temporarily) leave the church, reasons that resonate with my journey and perhaps contrast Don’s statement:

1. Life Transition
When a major life transition hits, everything is thrown into disarray. This can be caused by changes in one’s emotional, financial, educational, health, relational, or family situation, and often entails tragedy or hardship. Sometimes, the church community can become a hindrance to healthy transition rather than a help. And in that case, it might be time to leave. (Notice that life transition is not a permanent statement of “graduation” from the local church as Don’s statement seems to be.)

2. Theological Transition
Brian McLaren’s response to the CT piece beautifully outlined the importance of acting on one’s convictions and the joy of living life without fear of the gatekeepers. His implication is that the theological transition he underwent resulted in some measure of expulsion from certain streams of the church. This is a sad reality. But instead of an ecclesial statement (I don’t need local, organized church worship anymore), his statement is one of commitment to finding a way forward. Theological transition is a good reason to (temporarily) leave the church. In fact, this kind of transition was precisely what led us and our friends to leave an institutional evangelical church and eventually plant a new community called Dwell. (Notice that heartfelt theological transition is likely to open up new ecclesial realities, not just leave those realities behind.)

 3. No Good Options
Let’s be honest. Sometimes there are simply no good church options that fit where we are on the journey. While it might sound radically individualistic to suggest that you shouldn’t just join a church to join a church, I think being severely out of sync with the churches in your area is a good reason to leave. It’s often healthiest to do so, for everyone involved. (Notice that having no good church options is not a statement of permanent conviction – instead, the hope and intention is to find or create a suitable worshiping community as soon as possible.)

4. Abuse and Pain
This, to me, is one of the most important reasons to leave the church – and fast. When you have endured significant abuse or pain from a church environment or church leadership, you need to leave. And, honestly, this is the one situation in which a long break from any kind of church involvement may be necessary. In fact, I believe there are situations where the abuse has been so severe that being part of a church will never feel safe again. In such exceptional cases, the heart of God is big, and somehow, some way, the local Body of Christ can still manifest around those victimized. (Notice again: this is not a theoretical ecclesial statement or decision.)

5. Discernment and Sabbatical
Most recently in my own journey, a year-plus season of discernment and sabbatical has been necessary after an intense season of church planting ministry. While I’ve still attended a local church, my family’s involvement has been minimal. Leaving the church for a time has been necessary to heal and gain clarity for the next season of ministry. (Notice finally: this is not a decisive ecclesial statement, but a temporary withdrawal for the sake of future reengagement.)

How about you? Have you temporarily left the local church? Have you decided to completely leave it behind? Do you still think Don is right? Let me know!

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter was released in 2012. Twitter & Facebook.