Written by Annie Caldwell, USA
I remember the first time I really considered leaving my tiny church of 30 congregants. After enduring weeks of what felt like targeted sermons, the messages were beginning to feel like an avenue for reprimanding the congregation. Questions were hurled at us with excessive fervor: Why did we come to church? Were we being authentic in our relationships with one another? What grudges were we holding? How was God calling us to change or act differently?
The questions themselves were good, but I realized something was off the day my pastor preached about how we needed to step up as parents, and I left service wrecked with a heavy sense of guilt. You see, I don’t have kids. I’m not a parent, yet something about the way the message was delivered, was just off-putting and aggressive enough to make me feel bad for no reason at all.
My husband and I spent the next several months in a limbo—we were frustrated with our church and our pastor. We were tired, and looking for a change. The aggressive sermons were just one item on the ever-growing list of reasons to leave.
Things were disorganized. Incredibly so. Events were planned and canceled last minute. Announcements were made and follow-through never came. The sermons were often hard to follow and far from the clear, informed, exegetical sermons I used to hear at my previous church. One of the other men in the church had a disliking for my husband due to a misunderstanding when they first met. Despite our efforts, the relationship was still tense. There weren’t many people at the church . . . let alone a thriving community of young people our age.
As we stepped back to consider what we should do, we were nothing if not well-stocked with what seemed like perfectly legitimate reasons to cut our losses, leave the community, and find another church.
But, God had other plans.
I knew my own tendency to be overly defensive was at least partially to blame for how negatively I had been receiving our pastor’s sermons. And the vast majority of our frustrations could be linked to personal preferences about communication and organization. The sermons, though rather intense and disorganized, still preached biblical truths, often from a place of genuine concern for the growth of the church body.
Even in the midst of our frustrations, nothing was unbiblical, or foundationally wrong. So, we decided not to make any decisions until God directed us one way or the other.For a long time, God was silent, and we kept dragging ourselves to church, hoping things improved, and praying for affirmation and direction to find a new church home.
Now, nearly a year later, I can look back on the months of limbo, see how God has worked in our community, and give Him praise for restoring, growing, and reminding us how important (and beautiful) unity in His church is.
An Unexpected Union
In most of his letters to churches, Paul emphasizes unity a lot. In Galatians, he reminds us that we are all made one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Ephesians tells of a peaceful unity among believers that results from humility, gentleness, and patience (Ephesians 4:2-3). And in the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul urges an apparently divisive community of believers to agree with one another and be perfectly united in mind and thought (1 Corinthians 1:10).
Over the last few months, I’ve developed a new sense of appreciation for unity. And that’s because my church just celebrated the two-month anniversary of a merge with another local church. In an only-God-can-orchestrate-it kind of way, my pastor got connected with an older church on the west side of the city, which had been prayerfully searching for a pastor for years. At the same time, we were running into issues with the land owner of the building we had been meeting in, and were looking for a new place to meet.
As both bodies of believers prayerfully sought God’s direction and leading, He brought us together. Along with the merge, came a new, clearly defined set of bylaws, packed with a host of clarifications about important topics like membership, structure, and vision that I had been so eagerly desiring. A new leadership team was formed, and people from both churches stepped into new roles to organize church small groups, hospitality, logistics, and planning. We even have bulletins now that include a sermon outline—something that my persistent (maybe unhealthy?) need for order drives me to smile at when I see it each week.
There are still times when I cringe a little at how my pastor phrases things, wishing he spent more time refining his communication. But I’m learning to humbly receive his messages, and sort through them with God instead of jumping right to the defense. I trust that my pastor is in God’s hand, too, and in good time, God will grow and teach him as well.
My church isn’t perfect. And if I’m honest, my husband and I are still praying through whether or not God wants us to stay at our church long-term. Sometimes, leaving a church is the right thing to do. If we had believed leadership was acting in an unbiblical way, we would have quickly acted to seek counsel from other trusted Christians, do our best to address our concerns with leadership, and make a humble and swift departure. But that was not our situation.The truth is, even good churches can be messy, and hard. But we were never promised that unity would be easy.
So if you find yourself feeling unsatisfied with your church, instead of losing yourself to the temptation of endless complaints, I’d encourage you to try sticking around. Join me in praying for God to help us faithfully bear with our fellow believers in love until and if He leads us clearly to our next chapter.