Guest Post: Moving On – The Theory Part 1, The Questions

A couple of months ago I asked Tim if he would like to write a few guest blogs.  Never one to shy away from controversy he has started to explore the issue of “what happens when you stop going to the same church”.  It is probably best if I hand straight over to him and invite you all to join in the discussion.



Every once in a while, one of my church-going friends will move away from their current church and (probably) begin attending another somewhere else.  And every time, every single time, I hear the same complaints from some of those left behind.

Apparently, anybody not completely satisfied with the way things are at their church is caught up in the morass of a consumer church mentality; anybody attending a church for any length of time has become part of that congregation for better or for worse, ‘til death do them part; anybody who moves away other than for reasons of distance or ‘being sent out’ is ‘scum’ and ‘we’re better off without them’.

All I know is that many of my friends have found themselves unable to carry on attending their current church.  I refuse to believe that they’re all flighty flim-flams who turn tail and run at the first sign of difficulty.  So, why does the remaining congregation take a huff in such a fashion?  Where does this attitude of ‘once you start you can’t stop’ come from?  It seems dangerously close to the ‘disfellowshipping’ or some of the practices as reported about Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill establishment.

Does the church have any responsibility to those in its care?  Is it wrong for those who feel let down and failed to look elsewhere?  Is a congregation automatically better off without those willing to even consider leaving?  Are we meant to blindly follow our church leaders because we believe they’ve been put there by God?

In brief: yes, no, not remotely, and no.  More detailed answers will be following in the near future…


So what do you think about the issue of moving church?  What are your experiences of people leaving?  Why not share them here and see if the discussion bears fruit?


15 Responses

  1. What a can of worms Tim!

    Firstly there is a huge question about human nature that is raised by your questions.

    When someone moves from one fellowship to another because they have relocated (as Ruth and I did) it is obvious why you are leaving. You are leaving for work/family etc.

    When someone leaves a church to go and worship in another church down the road it raises questions of community and rejection. “Why doesn’t she want to worship with us anymore”? “What have we done wrong”? “Doesn’t he like us”? “We thought he was our friend”.

    As I know you, I suspect that you are paraphrasing your experiences of the reactions people have had in a Timesque manner. I doubt anyone has said “scum” but that the feelings are fraught and that is the perception given rather than the words used. Bearing in mind the things I have said about feeling rejected it is possible to see how this would occur.

    Once upon a time there was a fox walking through a vineyard who chanced upon some succulent looking grapes. No matter how high he jumped he could not reach the grapes. After some considerable time the fox decided that the grapes were way out of reach and consigned himself to the fact that he would never attain them. He continued his path through the vineyard and as he did he contemplated the grapes. He thought to himself that it was probably as well that he didn’t manage to reach them. They were probably sour anyway.

    [As an aside I love that story. It is much more insightful that the phrase “sour grapes” and the much more accusatory tone that it offers].

  2. Hi – would also add that someone moving on from a church shouldn’t be loaded with the assumption that they have been ‘let down’ by a particular leadership or way of worship. It is not possible for every church to please all the people all the time. I would be devastated if I thought someone had lost faith in God because of my leadership in church, but not overly worried if someone wanted to move somewhere which they felt suited them better. One more step along the world and all that.

  3. Hi Rach,

    I think the question is more to do with group dynamics rather than leadership per se. When someone either joins or leaves a group there are questions that are brought up by both parties that aren’t necessarily to do with leadership or faith.

    To illustrate, Van Halen (why does he always bring it back to The Metal?) have been a group that has always had a turbulent dynamic without the added dimension of faith. When David Lee Roth left in 1984 it created all sorts of commotion and very public backlash from both sides out of their sense of being hurt by the ending of a relationship that had been a source of joy. The same thing is currently happening since they have split from Sammy Hagar and reunited with DLR.

    We see these kinds of tensions and feelings overspill on a regular basis when we experience families and marriages breaking down. How many relationships that were a source of joy can turn sour in the aftermath of a divorce?

    We often lose the ability to see the great good that was when in the midst of great pain caused by the split.

    As I ramble on… what about the reformation for example. Schism led to many a pitched battle over what both ‘sides’ saw as their ‘legitimate grievance’.

    Sadly I suspect that human nature is an overarching factor in change. When one party wants to continue and another wants to move on it is always going to cause turmoil.

    Then there is the faith aspect that you mention….

  4. I suspect that leaving a church can be down to a number of factors, one of which might be losing faith in God. In my case, it was due to that, but I would say it was the culture of that particular denomination, which was paternal and treated parishioners with little respect for their dignity. I also had disagreements with their doctrine and leadership, which didn’t allow clergy any freedom of thought and action. In the end, I just got fed up with it all and found myself better off without all of the hassle of being one of them.

    After a gap of 23 years, God called me back, not to my church of origin, but to a particular parish, within the CofE. Here I found real fellowship, matched with a freedom of thought and expression, Where Clergy, had complete freedom to lead and to inspire, without big brother looking over their shoulder. Sure it’s not perfect, but it’s a complete contrast to my previous experience. It has nurtured a vocation, which is now coming towards fruition and has been totally supportive of me, despite all of my failings and blemishes.

    I often attend other parishes of the CofE or varying traditions, not just my own and have felt uniformly welcomed by them. They understand my position, my loyalty to my parent parish, but welcome me with open arms. Demonstrating that love and inspirational fellowship, which has increased my commitment to the wider church, not just my own parish.

    I must admit that I don’t like or understand the term of consumer Christianity as it fails to see or appreciate the underlying influences that cause people to move between parishes or even denominations. Much worse if they do as I did, abandon God completely feeling completely turned off from God as well as organised religion. That would be something to worry about.

  5. Thanks for the replies – very thought-provoking, I’m away from a proper connection at the moment and using my phone so I’ll reply properly later on when I’m back home and have had a bit of a think…

  6. @Robb: Cans of worms, controversy and sour grapes – do you think I should continue chasing this one? I’m just trying to get to the bottom of it.

    I think the rejection felt may well be from wrongly inferred criticism and the responses prompted by this similarly misfounded (and yes, a slight paraphrasing (no doubt coloured by my own dodgy inferences) – but the overall impression was that if those who left were prepared to leave then they weren’t considered worthy Christians).

    @Rachel: I agree, sometimes it’s simply time for change – ‘one more step’ as you say. But it’s heartening to hear it coming from somebody else.

    @Robb: Yeah, it’s more about the groups involved than the actual leadership (although, my final question does follow on from things I’ve often heard said during discussion of people having left).

    @UKViewer: Thanks for sharing your story – it’s good to hear that you found your way back and about the uniformity of welcome you’ve experienced. I hate the phrase ‘consumer Christianity’ – and the underlying assumption that one size fits all, so long as it’s ‘our size’.

    An extra couple of questions:
    What difference does the size of the congregation make to all of the above – do larger congregations foster more ‘I’m all right Jack’ thinking?
    What’s a normal (healthy) annual turnover of a membership as a percentage?

  7. […] rest of the mini-article can be found over at the Changing Worship blog. Please have a look at the rest of Robb’s stuff whilst your there – he actually […]

  8. It is obviously going to be difficult to answer this question unless you leave but… don’t leave…. as you will not know what goes on as you’ve… left.

    From my experience of moving on, it depends on the theological perspective of the congregation. I worship here there and everywhere as part of church catholic. That doesn’t mean I am less committed to my home community, but that I am also committed to a bigger picture as well. I wonder if it is the same in a specifically congregational church?

    I would suspect that the larger the community, the more the sense of hurt will be. Any small community is going to feel more rejected because the feelings will be concentrated within a smaller group.

    I keep coming back to this as an issue of group dynamics. You can transplant this to most groups. When I was in a re-enactment group that split in two all of these feelings and reactions happened. “Well why isn’t our group of sword wielding maniacs good enough for you?!”

  9. Luke: So. You got your reward and you’re just leaving, then?
    Han Solo: That’s right, yeah. Got some old debts I gotta pay off with this stuff. Even if I didn’t, you don’t think I’d be fool enough to stick around here, do you? Why don’t you come with us? You’re pretty good in a fight. We could use you.
    Luke: Come on. Why don’t you take a look around. You know what’s about to happen, what they’re up against. They could use a good pilot like you, you’re turning your back on them.
    Han Solo: What good is a reward if you ain’t around to use it? Besides, attacking that battle station is not my idea of courage. It’s more like, suicide.
    Luke: [angry] Okay. Take care of yourself Han. I guess that’s what you’re best at isn’t it?
    Han Solo: [as Luke walks away] Hey, Luke. May the Force be with you.
    [to Chewbacca]
    Han Solo: What’re you lookin’ at? I know what I’m doin’.

  10. Nice, Graeme.
    And Robb, if most groups behave like this, should the church be following suit?

  11. You mistake what I have said Tim. I’m not suggesting a “model” for behaving that people can choose to follow or not, I’m commenting on human nature. Feeling rejected with happen regardless of “church” or “not church”.

  12. My own experience is this. A couple of years ago, I joined a CofE parish, because I felt it “high church”, while 99% of the RC were rather “low church”. Later, I acknowledged myself as a gay man, and at the first glance, there was no problem.

    But finally, my husband and I got kicked twice. By fundamentalists. At first, when we announced our betrothal to our church homegroup, two members left the parish, “because” of us. They sent e-mails to every parishioner, saying that it was all our fault. The reaction? The vicar preached about Ted Haggard, giving him as an example of repentance; the assistant priest, in his sermon, pointed forth that «we hold only Bible ethics». This was their only reaction. But we kept going to church there.

    Two weeks later, a lesbian fried of the parish was forbidden to go on her ministry of lay reader. Only because she was married (civilly) to another woman.

    Two months later, a family of fundamentalists refused to partake the Holy Communion when we were there, as they did wish to show their hostility to our presence. Once again, the clergy did nothing.

    We wrote to the bishop, and the bishop did nothing.

    Our only option was to leave. We became Old Catholics. But from times to times, we still enjoy going to a CofE parish, especially while traveling. And it’s so good to feel again the Anglican side of our “roots”!

  13. Thanks Georges – not sure what I can say to that except that I’m sorry people behaved like that (repeatedly), I’m glad you’ve found somewhere to settle, and trips back across the fence every once in a while sound healthy to me.
    The original post came off the back of ninety percent of my contemporaries vanishing into the ether and in the middle of me seeking pastures new myself – still kind of lacking the time to write more about it…

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