You heard the old adage:

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

There may be a corollary for when members leave a church.

“If someone leaves a church and there are people all around, does anyone notice?”

Leaving ChurchI never thought that leaving a church could be so emotionally unsatisfying and frustrating. The church that we are leaving is a good church doing good things. No doubt about it. Unfortunately, it is a closed church in the sense that people who have the personal relationships with the pastors receive preference and the focus is on certain schools in the youth programs. It seems to take a more exclusive, rather than inclusive, approach to its membership.

I know. I sound just like another bitter former member who did not get his way. You’ll have to trust me. I have thought a lot about that possibility and have questioned myself many times about my motives and thoughts. I know I am frustrated and feel like I have been expelled from school without a hearing. I feel that I have done nothing wrong, yet I am being treated like I did.

Over four years, I was very active in the youth programs, specifically in the Confirmation program. One summer about a year ago, while attending my first Willow Creek Leadership Summit, I caught a spark about finding or starting a new youth program focused on leadership, choices, and faith. The more I investigated and worked through it, the more excited I became. I started to craft the program since nothing similar was to be found. I then met with our director of student ministries. He got excited about it. The wheels of motion and progress were turning.

Over the next four months, we ran two pilots of four classes each. We tested the concept. The response from the youth was very positive. We were ready for a full launch in the Fall.

And then it happened. The youth director did not answer my emails and seemed to dodge me on launch plans. What seemed to stop it was another adult who did not want the program to impact their plans. Given the relationships between the director and the other adult, the program stopped, and I just pulled out, got out-of-the-way. I did not want to play the game. I thought we moved beyond this type of maneuverings many centuries ago.

Yes, I pulled the plug on it, but the one reaction and the lack of response really left only one choice.

We all made our choices. Choices define our paths. The church selected their path, and I picked mine. Both paths have resulted in new directions. Nothing bad, just different. The hope is that both are good paths or, maybe it isn’t hope, it’s faith.

Maybe I am too much of a populist at heart, but staying did not seem to be a good option. So, we began to explore. Over the past several months, we have attended a large church, a start-up church, and an on-line church. It has been an interesting time as part of the discovery, yet our family needs to find a church in which we can call home.

To say the least, finding the “right” church is no easy task. Skepticism sets in about whether the image is real and the motives are good. What does this church really want from its members? Is it just money? Is it just to participate in the things that have always been done a certain way? What is the real mission of this new church?

Maybe the reason some churches struggle is because of the ulterior motives or personal relationships. For those who show up eager to serve, it is disheartening and can raise questions about the real value of an organized church. If the church just devolves into a high school clique, then what is the purpose? If it just wants members to clock in on Sundays and put some money in the plate, how meaningful is that?

I know there is more to many churches. In my unscientific survey of churches, the independent or non-denominational churches seem to be the ones that are growing, doing more to engage their members, and working more in their communities. They are more open to serve, to expand, to challenge, and to give.

We all have responsibilities… the church, me, my family. I am unsure what we will do next, but I am encouraged by a start-up church we have been attending. Maybe it is the entrepreneurial aspect of it. Maybe it is the clean slate. Maybe it is the new, developing relationships. I want to jump in again, and I want to find the place where our family is welcomed and un-judged by what we do or don’t do.

And, going back to the opening, the answer is generally “no.” People do not notice when you leave a church.

My belief is many think you just don’t go anymore to any worship service. The few who do notice don’t express surprise; they usually share a similar story about the church but just may not have taken the next step of leaving. It is hard to leave a church which you have committed to and engaged with. The easy thing would be to stay and fade in. By far, the harder thing to do is leave.

Like any relationship which ends, trusting again is a critical step forward. The love of God and the Spirit within keeps us wanting to do more and find the venue to worship, learn, and give back to the community around us. I truly thank God for the gifts he has given me, my family, and all that is around us. It is time to move onward.