What would you say would be a really good reason for leaving a church? Pastor and blogger Aaron Loy* has five reasons he thinks are really bad, but I don't think I agree with him.
No doubt, as a pastor and church planter Aaron Loy has heard the concerns and complaints of many members of his congregation. And this post must have been borne out of a certain amount of frustration at concerns and complaints that he can't fully address or resolve, because some of that responsibility lies with someone else, even the complainant themselves. But my own concern is that just as we can be pretty one-sided in the way we look at issues in our church life, his response to this was just as one-sided and actually comes across as dismissive and patronising, hurtful to those dealing with the issues he lists, and even going as far as to remove responsibility and accountability from leaders.
Discussing the post on Twitter, someone I know commented that it read "too much like cajoling someone to stay in an abusive relationship".
As I read through Loy's five "really bad reasons", my first reaction was to become steadily more irritated. Not because I think we need to move churches at the slightest hint of conflict or dissatisfaction, but because of how I'd feel if I received these answers in response to raising a concern. Under "I'm not being fed", he writes:
"Do pastors have a responsibility to steward the scriptures and care for their church spiritually? You bet they do."
This, however, doesn't stop him believing that the access to "substance" we have through books and the internet makes it a "cop-out" to expect to get what we want or feel we need, teaching-wise, on a Sunday morning. I'd say it's just as much of a cop-out to respond to people concerned about the quality or depth of teaching by telling them to go and get it elsewhere when they might not have the first clue where to start. I believe that a church with the resources to do so has a responsibility to serve its congregation, teaching-wise, at different stages of their faith life. Not by offering these opportunities only to those who are being mentored and trained on some sort of leadership track, but with teaching days, evenings, weekends, papers. There is a difference between spoon-feeding the selfish and ignoring valid concerns about teaching.
Many people spend many years of their lives serving the church and "contributing" to their community, but I also believe there are times when this is not possible, and a bit of consumption of something, anything, is exactly what's needed. That could be down to illness, work pressures, or parenting pressures. From personal experience, I know that when you're going through a stage like that and feel that "contributing" is a struggle, and people to give you the impression that you must give more, do more, expend more of yourself, it can make you feel resentful and cynical.
Not everyone feels comfortable in the same sort of church set-up, and it's here that I worry about Loy's response to his second point - "It's getting too big".
"If you have a problem with big churches, you really wouldn’t have liked the first church and you definitely won’t like heaven. To be frank, if you have a problem with the inevitable growth that happens when lives are changed by the gospel, you have some serious repenting to do."
Feeling comfortable in a smaller group of people, in a quieter and more intimate church service or community has got nothing to do with having a problem with people's lives being changed by the gospel, and I think that's actually quite a nasty way of framing it. On one hand I can see his point about people being dissatisfied when 'things aren't how they used to be' because they are resistant to any sort of change. But small churches and the people who prefer to worship in them, are not 'wrong'. This point also seemed to highlight the oft-discussed divide between extroverted and introverted churchgoers, and the way that extrovert characteristics are often prized by Christian culture. For some people, large groups, noise and crowds are emotionally draining and a huge source of anxiety. Do they need to be ordered to 'repent' as well?
I'm not going to argue with Loy's point on "I don't agree with everything that's being preached"; that's fair enough. But his fourth "really bad reason", "My needs aren't being met", needs some looking at. Again it's important to note there are two sides to every story. No-one can totally have their needs met by a church. But when someone speaks to a church leader about a concern they have, it should not be dismissed as a question of needing to "put away the shopping cart and pick up a shovel". What is the need and why isn't it being met? Can the church help? Is it a petty request or gripe, or an issue where someone needs pastoral support? Is it an issue that has been raised numerous times by numerous different people? If so, it might be time to consider change.
I know that the issues Loy has identified must be a source of frustration for countless church leaders who are working hard and doing their best and trying to accommodate people, but it goes both ways. After reading his post, I felt his overriding message was "Don't try to implicate the church, its leaders, or the way it has dealt with issues - the problem is YOU. If you were less selfish, less needy, and more willing to suck it up and give more rather than expect something in return, you wouldn;'t be in this mess."
We all have issues with the church. Sometimes these issues can and should be addressed. Sometimes, we need to talk them through and understand that we have to take some responsibility for solving these issues (sometimes we truly are the victims of something terrible, other times, we're not and need to keep things in perspective), or that we need to look at them from a different angle and see the nuance.
Aaron Loy's "really bad reasons" might not be the greatest of reasons for leaving a church. But his responses to them are exactly the reasons I have often been fearful of raising church-related issues with people: that in doing so, I would be dismissed and given the impression that the problem lies only with me and my selfishness. People I know have experienced it too, in conversations with church leaders and even in response to blog posts. It is perhaps one of the most common sights below the line in some corners of the Christian blogosphere - someone writes about a negative experience with church; someone else rushes to tell them that they're actually the one at fault. When we address the issues that arise on our journeys of faith, the reaction of the church should not be to absolve itself of any responsibility, but to see both sides of the story and think about what could be done to help.
*who I had never come across before today - which leads me to say that I don't regularly read his blog or know about anything else he has written on this subject. I felt the post discussed here was problematic and hurtful, and felt moved to explain why.