It is the conversation with church members every pastor dreads but inevitably comes to every man who shepherds a local flock: “Pastor, we need to meet with you and discuss our future at the church. We have been praying about transferring our membership to another church.” Naturally, you ask the inevitable question, “Why?”

The answers are as varied as the variety found in wayfaring members, ranging from “The church up the street has more to offer my youth/children” to “We just don’t find things exciting here anymore,” or most troubling, “We love you and your preaching, pastor, but we we don’t really like this church.”

How should we respond to such a conversation? How do you counsel a member who wants to leave the congregation you lead for another? Your answer may depend on the rationale behind that person’s desire to vacate their membership.

Church hopping

There are certainly legitimate reasons to leave a church and sadly, it sometimes become necessary or even a duty to find a more biblically faithful body. Sometimes churches become theologically or morally bankrupt, leaving a sound believer no choice. But it seems in our self-absorbed, consumer-driven evangelical culture, what is often referred to as “church hopping” is widespread among evangelicals. I’m aware of one family that has joined five churches in the past seven years.

RELATED: Should I leave my church? 8 critical questions

There are any number of reasons for the existence of church hopping with biblical illiteracy, a loss of a robust ecclesiology, a distaste for authority, the disappearance of church discipline and the decay of meaningful church membership ranking high among them. A serious, robust church membership process as a front door guards both the health of the local church and those seeking to join it.

A time to stay

When should a person consider leaving the church? I think it is helpful to first think through a number of reasons why not to go. Here are a few illegitimate reasons I have heard over the years:

  • Because our children want to go to another church. This is perhaps the most common reason I have heard for people leaving a church. The most spiritually immature (presumably) family members should not single-handedly make one of the single most important decisions facing a family.
  • Because there aren’t many people here my age. The body of Christ is supposed to reflect the culture which is made up of a diversity of ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. The church is not a social club, but the gathering of sinners saved by grace. The world should be at odds to explain the church. It should wonder, “What is it that brings together such a diverse collection of people in such a tight bond of love?
  • Because I don’t like the music. The contemporary/traditional question is usually wrongheaded. Of greater importance is the question: What is the content of the songs being sung? Is the church singing good theology? Are the words biblical and do the tunes fit the texts? Is corporate worship serious yet joyful?
  • Because the pastor’s sermons are too long. Preaching is the central act of Christian worship and should receive the lion’s share of the time. Pray for your pastor. Pray that he will grow and mature in his ability to preach God’s Word.
  • Because there are too many sinners in the church. I once had a member give this as a reason for leaving. As Luther put it, followers of Christ are simul iustus et peccator— simultaneously a saint and a sinner. The local church is a hospital for the terminally sick, not a university for grace graduates. Obviously, there is a serious sickness where open, wanton, unconfessed sin is tolerated, but that is not what I have in view here.
  • Because the pastor doesn’t do things the way we did back in 19__ (add your favorite year). One of the most discouraging questions a member ever asked me was whether I was going to return the church to its glory years of the 1970s. Images of big hair, John Travolta, and disco balls immediately danced through my mind. Since our church was interested in truly staying alive, I doubt we’d want to recover that. Tradition can be helpful, but traditionalism is where churches go to die a thousand painful (and often slow) deaths.
  • Because they don’t have a good youth/children’s program here. Parents are the spiritual caretakers for the children. The church should merely reinforce the biblical truths taught in the home. No church program will adequately shepherd our children; that is the calling of parents, particularly fathers.
  • Because the worship/preaching is boring. The aim of worship is God’s glory, not our amusement.
  • Because they have/don’t have Sunday school. The gospel and theological truth—not secondary convictions such as how we educate our children, preferred music styles or Bible translations—are the proper unifying principle for a local church.


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Essential Reading on Preaching

Those are merely a few invalid reasons for leaving a church; no doubt dozens more could be listed. There does come a time when seeking a new church home is a legitimate consideration, but hopefully as we seek to shepherd God’s people biblically and faithfully, these reasons will not describe our churches. Still, every pastor will interview membership candidates for his own church and it’s always wise to ask why the potential member left his or her previous congregation.

A time to go

So, when should one leave a church? John MacArthur is helpful here. He advises (and provides biblical rationale) members to seriously consider leaving when:

  1. Heresy on some fundamental truth is being taught from the pulpit and the teacher does not accept gracious correction (Gal. 1:7-9).
  2. The church is characterized by a wanton disregard for Scripture, such as a refusal to discipline members who are sinning blatantly (1 Cor. 5:1-7).
  3. Unholy living is tolerated in the church (1 Cor. 5:9-11).
  4. The church is seriously out of step with the biblical pattern for the church (2 Thess. 3:6, 14).
  5. The church is marked by gross hypocrisy, giving lip service to biblical Christianity but refusing to acknowledge its true power (2 Tim. 3:5).

When members or friends have discussed leaving a church with me through the years, I have typically advised them to stick around and be a gracious, reforming presence and avoid exacerbating the problems in their local body. Sometimes that’s possible, but not always. Both joining and leaving a local church are serious business, business for which we will give an account before God.

As pastors, we must lovingly guide those whom God has placed under our care to steward their privilege of church membership well.