Why does the church make it so difficult to grow and go?

"Church Umbilical Cord" (cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward)
“Church Umbilical Cord” (cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward)

Before I launch into this topic, I have some questions for you:

Are you looking for a safe community? Are you longing for fellowship where you are free to grow in your own way? Do you need support while you explore, discover, and walk your own spiritual path? I warmly invite you to join The Lasting Supper. We’ll be waiting there for you with open arms!

Okay! So, why does the church make it so hard to grow and go? Here’s 10 reasons, but I’ll expand after. One or more of these may apply to any particular church:

  1. loss of relationship (they really love you);
  2. loss of volunteers (free help gone!);
  3. loss of control over your life (how you believe and behave);
  4. loss of revenue (tithes and offerings keep a church running);
  5. loss of good influencers on other members (if you’re mature you mentor others);
  6. loss of hope for dreams of a larger church (higher attendance rocks!);
  7. loss of salvation of a member (no salvation outside the church);
  8. loss of a person from “us/them” paradigm (real Christians don’t enter the world);
  9. loss of an evangelist (good members share how great the church is with others);
  10. loss of confidence in reputation (if you left, are we as great as we thought?).

Loss. And loss equals grief. And grief is always hard.

Like this cartoon suggests, clamping the umbilical cord is necessary at some point. The separation, or individuation, is natural and necessary. It doesn’t mean rejection. It means grow and go!

When I finally left the ministry in 2010, I also left the church. For the most part. But it was because I wasn’t really given a choice if I want to be conscientiously true to myself. I have attended church several times since. I’ve found one that works for me that I visit when I can. But when I left the church, it wasn’t so much over conflict (although there was that), but more over the sense that I no longer fit inside the box. In fact, I had a revelatory experience that there was no box! It was a growth moment for me. But, generally speaking, the church has no place for that in its paradigm. You’re either totally in or totally out.

I sometimes compare it to a young adult leaving home. It’s natural and necessary. If things are okay at home, it’s not because of conflict the young adult leaves. He or she leaves because it’s time to branch out on his or her own. It’s not a rejection of home, but simply a growing beyond it. Again, if things are okay, you may go back for visits and sometimes even to stay for a while if need be.

It is possible to stay in a church. Especially if the church provides a wide space to grow, even beyond its own theology and praxis. But most churches don’t and won’t do this. This far and no further is the unwritten manifesto.

What if the church, like a good parent, provides a large, safe space to grow? What if the church understood that there might come a time when it was necessary to move on in order to keep growing, especially if staying meant stunting growth? What if the church actually encouraged people to move on and start a family of their own? What if leaving a church didn’t necessarily mean a nasty divorce, but a gentle progression where we could return if we wanted or needed for a time or forever? What if the church understood that some people still interested in their spirituality can no longer abide ordered organizational, institutional, religious observance? What if churches provided a rich intellectual space for thought where people could explore all kinds of intellectual avenues, even if it included other religions, spiritualities, and philosophies, including agnosticism and atheism? What if… well… you get my point.

Here’s my advice to each one of you nevertheless: grow and go!


12 Replies to “Why does the church make it so difficult to grow and go?”

  1. When will we learn from nature that one of the responsibilities of parents is to teach and encourage our youngsters to leave the nest? We can also think of ‘church’ as a nest from which many need to move on.
    I’ve seen it suggested that ‘church’ is the only university from which the students are not encouraged to graduate.

  2. “What if churches provided a rich intellectual space for thought where people could explore all kinds of intellectual avenues, even if it included other religions, spiritualities, and philosophies, including agnosticism and atheism?”

    My initial reaction was to snort “well THAT will never happen.” But supposing it COULD – my loss of faith wouldn’t have ALSO resulted in my loss of community and family; a loss that still stings even after decades.

  3. I think of my dad – a lifelong and soon-to-be-retiring church pastor. He has never been a controller and he has always been happy to see people grow – he has never ousted or cornered someone for views he didn’t share.

    But the going part – the church puts so much emphasis on numbers. It’s a sign of success when you are growing and there are stiff penalties for a pastor’s church not growing – even loss of job. I know it has hurt my parents sometimes when people have left – it has had implications for them and so often it seems that people are looking for flashy, glossy churches and programs. But they have never held it against them and have always felt that people must be free.

    When my parents retire in a year – not something my dad asked for, btw – the church by-laws state that he and my mother cannot attend for 6-12 mos and that their case will then be reviewed. Can you believe that?? Not that they likely would attend – but to be cast out like that and treated like a potential troublemaker with NO cause when he will have pastored that congregation for 15 years by then – it boggles the mind. Where exactly are they supposed to go now, in their 60s, after 15 years? (My dad will be fine job-wise – he studied as a hospital chaplain and got a job there – but those calling the shots in his congregation would have retired him regardless of his job situation.) I know my parents will be a lot happier in the end though, and so do they.

    As for me, I am like you, David – after living my entire life going to church, I left a few years ago too. I didn’t intend at the time never to go back, but I have been deeply peaceful ever since. I haven’t had even a whisper of discomfort, and trust me, I have listened. I have found more evidence of a loving God since being on the outside than I ever did on the inside (and my experiences by and large inside were good ones – at least, they were for me at the time – but there is no going back for me.).

  4. (I ought to have said that is considered a sign of success when a church is growing numerically – I don’t believe that numerical growth is what counts at all.)

  5. We make our doctrines so absolute and we try to “enforce” our statement of belief, like we’re the thought police. By it’s very nature, faith should be elastic to accommodate growth. Faith comes from the imaginative side of the person where we can see the unseen. There must be room to explore.

  6. “This far and no further is the unwritten manifesto.” That really resonates with me. I never thought of it as an “unwritten manifesto” but you are absolutely right – that’s what it is. Fascinating.

  7. Any organisation can only take its members as far as its own traditions and beliefs will allow. Just consider the development of the internet. How could people even a few years ago have had the access to so many different thoughts and ideas that we can see hour by hour. It just wasn’t possible even in 1997 when I started using the internet with a dial up connection using Windows 95!

  8. My wife and I have also left the church, the building. We are active members of the Church, the body of people, those following Jesus. I certainly agree with the article, and as mentioned, the church or religion, seems to be controlling in the fact that they want you there, dependant on them. An organism, or family teaches you to grow and become a self supporting adult. The organization, or church seems to want to keep you a dependant child forever. Like you said, it seems you have to be either all in or all out. If you are out, those still there don’t want to accept you any longer. It is good to find a growing number of followers of Christ who get free from the walls of religion and live in the freedom and love of the Spirit of God. An article I wrote explains more about our walk away from the building known as church: http://donewithreligion.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/my-journey-to-leaving-church/

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