Tuesday, April 19, 2005

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".


Anonymous Nato said...

I can see what you are saying, but in my initial objections, I wasn't thinking about short-term commitment (i.e. that everyone should contribute), but rather the long-term structure of the church (i.e. what the church is actually made of). A church is composed of the people that attend it. Elders, etc, are usually chosen from among the members. If people were to follow your framework, then at the most they can only serve for 4 years at a given church. This will lead to a fair amount of instability. Implicit in your assumption was that pastors don't move around. But pastors are christians right? So should pastors move round often?

My suggestion is that your comment is great, but it is focused on people in a similar situation to yourself, one where life changes year to year, as you change flats, perhaps change degrees, get involved in all sorts of different things. So in this situation, life is changing a lot, so changing churches is a good idea every so often. However, once 'settling down' occurs, I doubt this will be as applicable. When one begins to raise children, it becomes far more difficult to simply switch churches - doing so may make it difficult for your children to have consistent christian friends.

So to use your analogy, we do go through a variety of educational institutions, but at the end of it, we usually settle down for quite some time at one place. So to people who are in our situation, I would encourage them to follow your advice (3-5 years is a long time when your in your 20s), but settling down should eventually happen (in which case you should consider moving after a longer period of time).

So in conclusion, I don't disagree with the essence of what you say, except for the time idea. 3-5 years is good, but it probably doesn't fit everyone.

Blogger Andrew said...

Of course.

Blogger Christina said...

"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."

Feeling? Andrew, please. I thought you of all people would be beyond the whole needing feelings to validate their faith thing. They're extremely unreliable, and as such probably the worst indicator of being 'spiritual' or where your faith is at. For the most part though, I'd have to say I agree with Nato.

Blogger Katherine said...

'...writers who have ranted on the subject and complained at how short people stay in their churches'

Well why pick on short people in particular, I'd like to know? Just because everyone else does it... (sorry, couldn't resist)

I still can't help but feel that it's a little rude to be investing in the lives of people at one place, then moving on every few years. How does one develop meaningful relationships that way? If you're a small group leader especially, you're leaving a major gap, which, sure, someone else might be able to fill, but they'll have to start from scratch in getting to know people and their history and gaining their trust and all. You can't go promising to keep in contact with them all once you leave either - there's just not room in life for so many people. The result, presumably, would be that people's relationships would tend to get shallower, because they would suspect that it wasn't going to be for the long haul.

On the other hand, I suppose you could argue that, if there was a reasonably frequent turnover, everyone would eventually find someone who they really clicked with, and maintain a close relationship with a small number of people they really get on with, instead of making do with whatever leader they happen to have.

And a side-effect would be, I guess, that one would get fairly well acquainted with the Christian community as a whole, which would make visits to other churches rather friendlier.

Gah, not sure.

Anonymous Nato said...

Just linking to the location where you made the comment: Here One day someone might want to follow it

Blogger Andrew said...

I orginally agreed with Nathan's post, but the more I have thought about the subject over the past week the more I am inclined to generally disagree.

Firstly, while some people 'settle down' and get a house and a job and stay in that same house and job for the next 50 years of their life, that is not the norm. I recall seeing statistics that said that average adult changes jobs numerous times in their life and has multiple major career changes. I imagine the average adult also moves house with reasonable frequency. If we move jobs and house regularly, why not churches?

Yes, there are drawbacks to moving jobs and houses and it happens that you will often lose contact with old friends. Yet people do move houses and jobs regularly, and I presume this is largely because the gains outweight the losses. Why shouldn't the same apply to churches?

As for elders, that's not really an issue:
Some churches elect their elders every year (eg Baptist) so it doesn't matter if you're only at one church for 5 years as you can serve several periods as elder quite easily. Other denominations (eg some Presbytarians) have a policy whereby once a person is granted elder status they can move around and still be an elder. Either way I see no problem with elders moving regularly.

Pastors moving seems a bit strange - is there actually any point in moving from a pastor's point of view?

Recall that in practice since people do change houses and cities occasionally they are often forced to change churches. As I mentioned: that's what my old church found the major cause of regulars leaving its congregation was. My point is: If quite a high percentage of people move around anyway, it seems a bit unreasonable to impose strictures on the remaining populace that they shouldn't move around churches. Because what we are really talking about is that fact that people who have been going to a church for a few hundred weeks often reach the stage where they want to move on but are held back by feelings of guilt.

Blogger Jim said...

pastors do move around...

When my parents left their old church, they had been there through about 3 different pastors in the course of around 20 years.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your thoughts. They were original, insightful, and well thought-out.
You made a comment that I completely agree with:

"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."

No, faith isn't based on feeling, but oftentimes the decision to attend church or not attend church is based on feeling. And, if you're not attending church, your spiritual life suffers, and sometimes withers away to nothing.

So bravo to you, Theo Geek, for thinking outside the box and challenging convention. While I wouldn't completely adhere to your themework, I think the principle behind it is right on target.

Thanks again!

Blogger C. Michael Pilato said...

I can't help but to read more of the typical "what can I get out of church" philosophy here. How can I become well-rounded? How can I not be bored?

The post does, thankfully, praise commitment as a positive thing. Sadly, for far too many folks, "commitment" is not much more than "attendance loyalty". They are committed only as deeply as required for the particular assembly to influence them, but not enough to assert influence on the assembly.

It's just too bad that the use of "change churches" in the post's title was less about changing the church, and more about changing a person's chances of having (for themselves) a more exciting church experience.

Blogger iortizvictory said...

This blog post is an answer to prayer and is exactly what I've been struggling with lately. Thank you so much for your post!

Blogger iortizvictory said...

At first we were thinking about changing churches due to conflicting schedules but I really feel that I need to perserve and work through these conflicts. Everyone's situation is different. Very interesting topic!

Blogger elnora said...

This article has been like balm to my heart. I've been going to the same church for 18 years. I always thought that there was something really special between me and some of the core membership. For quite some time, though, things have happened that kind of showed me that NO, actually, I didn't matter that much to these people. Which is fine. But there's come a time when the mental associations of being in a certain place become gradually ever more negative than positive. All this to say--that as sad as I've gradually become it never occurred to me that I could leave! It was like a marriage, I thought I was stuck there forever, doomed to feel less and less. But ever since I've thought about a fresh start...it's like a weight lifted off me. I'm beginning to realize and remember--God's House is wherever HE is. I can be at home with Him in another building. And that's okay.

Blogger ErinM said...

I am very thankful to have found this article. My husband and I moved to a new town when we were starting college. Since his sister was already in that town, we just started attending the church she and her family attended. We have both been members in the worship team since we came to the church, and it has now been 5 years here. Now, looking back, I feel like we should have taken the time to look around and find a church that fit us instead of just attending a church because we knew someone there. We have both become discontent with the church and sometimes, just don't attend Sunday morning. We both leave the services feeling unchanged and unaffected. The church is a good church, and the pastor who came last year is doing a great job in trying to bring the church body closer together and grow spiritually, but we just don't feel like this church is the right fit for us. It has been ridiculing me with guilt over the last 6 months or so while we debated whether or not to find a new church. I felt like I was being shallow for wanting to look around for a new church body. This article has helped me to realize that people change, and although our current church is heading in a good direction, it just isn't the right place for us. It does us no good spiritually to attend the services and go through the motions out of loyalty, when we are not growing spiritually in our own lives.

Blogger Holly said...

Actually being military we have been somewhat forced to do just this...

As the question of meaningful relationships it can certainly happen but we must be willing to let down the walls and be vulnerable with one another. We are at a new church in a civilian community and a comment was made that some people were "new" in town ---- they've lived here at least 10 years!! That's not NEW people, and I don't have that kind of time to wait to get to know you, get involved etc but we have had a really hard time feeling connected here or cared about, there is much to be said for people growing stagnant. I agree with the original post

Blogger Susan Hill said...

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