Why People Should Change Churches
Recently I made the comment that I think people ought to change churches every 3-5 years. A few people seemed quite shocked by this. So here I will defend my thesis.
When being educated we usually move through a variety of institutions: Primary school, Intermediate, High School, University. We certainly have a lot of different teachers along the way. Now, imagine staying in one school for your entire education with, say, three teachers teaching you everything you learn. That's what's effectively happening with your spiritual growth if you stay at the same church for 20 years.
No pastor is perfect and no church is pefect. Every person and church has their strengths and weaknesses, their emphases on some areas and their weakness in other areas. My mother often said that it was important I participated in a variety of groups and activities outside of school so that I would be a "well-rounded" person. It's every bit as important to be well-rounded spiritually, and being at the same church and hearing from the same few preachers for too long will not give you that. Furthermore there is the obvious danger of brainwashing and overzealousness - if you are never exposed to any other opinions you are far more likely to both get tied into what your church teaches and to be a vigorous defender of them, regardless of how likely the teachings are to be accurate.
In short, each church has its strengths and weaknesses, each has something to give and something for you to give it, but staying too long can easily lead to spiritual stagnation and complacency. There comes a time when it's time to move on, when you're getting stuck in a rut, and the same old church just isn't working any more. A lot of people tend to blame themselves when they realise that they're feeling less spiritual than they were, and think that if only they tried harder they would feel spiritual again. I think that often a change of scene with a new church would solve their problems. I have talked to a lot of people online who lost their faith altogether and I believe a reasonable proportion of them would have retained their faith if they had seen that they needed to change churches and done so earlier.
It's simply a fact of human psychology that we enjoy the new and the novel and are eventually bored by the same old routine each sunday. Slowly we begin to associate our dislike of church with a dislike of spirituality and ulimately a dislike of Christianity. The results are bad for everyone concerned - both for us and for those around us. Our feelings can infect others, and we do not perform at our best when we are not enjoying ourselves.
People say to me what about commitment to a church? Isn't it important to be committed? But the answer is that staying in a church when you're in this situation can do more harm than good to the church, as you're just as liable to drag others down with you as pull yourself back up, and the second is unlikely if it's the environment that's caused your problems in the first place. Commitment, that seems to be the main objection people have to my suggestion. We all know that church hopping is a very bad sin and I've certainly heard enough preachers and read writers who have ranted on the subject and complained at how short people stay in their churches. (My old church actually was so concerned at the turnover of people in their church that they did a serious investigation into it - and concluded that most people who left the church actually did so because they moved house to the other side of the city or to another city) But I'm not advocating church hopping, nor am I advocating a lack of commitment - far from it. To attend a church regularly every sunday for 200 sundays in a row is not "church hopping" by ANY definition. I fully believe we should be commited to the church we attend and actively involved in the church for the time we are attending it. Whether you spend two hundred weeks in a church or two thousand, the opportunity is there for you to get involved and commited.
I am not attacking commitment at all - I support it! I think every Christian should be commited to a local church. What I am attacking is the notion of commitment that claims that once you have spent a few years commited to a church, supporting it, and actively involved in it, you cannot shift and become commited to a different church without being some sort of traitor. That is just total rubbish. Commitment isn't measured in length of time that you stay somewhere you don't want to be and is harming you (the name for that is "stupidity"), commitment is how much you give while you are where you are.
Lots of people seem to think that if they're involved at all in their current church then they can't leave because that would be selfishly placing their own needs over the good that they are doing in their current church - naively ignoring the fact that they could do the same or a similar thing at their new church. For any good thing you are contributing to your current church, you could probably equally contribute to another church - probably better if the church fitted you more. It is not a choice between yourself and others, you can and should continue to benefit others!
You have a duty to God to grow spiritually and you have a duty to the Church to help it as best you can. The first means changing local churches occasionally and the second means helping out wherever you are for as long as you are there. Jim and I were talking and came up with 3-5 years is an appropriate time to change churches. After that length of time in one church I believe any person should very seriously consider their spiritual state and relationship with their church and consider whether or not they would benefit both themselves and others by changing churches. It may well be that they conclude that they should stay where they are, that is certainly an option. But I believe that: they should think about it; that it harms people more than they realise to stay for too long; and that they Church as a whole needs to accept the practical need for people to change churches and stop condemning it based on a misguided understanding of "commitment".