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When is Church Loyalty Unhealthy?

I recently spoke to some friends — we’ll call them Sean and Kate — who attended the same church for thirty years. During their tenure, they’d seen the congregation relocate several times. They’d watched the pastoral staff change and members come and go. They’d taught their children in Sunday school, watched them grow up, get married, and move away. Sean and Kate were loyal church members. They were supportive of their pastor, involved in the ministry, regular givers. But eventually, the unspeakable happened — they began to sense that God wanted them to move on.

This would be a very difficult feat for Sean and Kate.

It wasn’t because the couple was obstinate or inflexible. It wasn’t because they lived in Siberia and the next closest church was five hours away via dogsled. It wasn’ t because the couple had relatives in the church who demanded they stay. It wasn’t because the couple had plans to eventually seize the reins of the leadership.

It was because they believed in church loyalty.

For a long time, I too believed in church loyalty. Like Sean and Kate, I  believed that sticking it out with a local body of believers was important, that working through problems was the Christian thing to do. I valued long-term commitments and believed that hop-scotching through churches for whatever reason was often an excuse and would never produce the type of character Christ desired.

Eugene Peterson, when asked what advice he would give to younger Christians who are looking for more authentic discipleship, said this in a recent interview:

Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for 6 months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place. That’s what I always told people. If people were leaving my congregation to go to another place of work, I’d say, “The smallest church, the closest church, and stay there for 6 months.” Sometimes it doesn’t work. Some pastors are just incompetent. And some are flat out bad. So I don’t think that’s the answer to everything, but it’s a better place to start than going to the one with all the programs, the glitz, all that stuff.

I think Peterson is right that “the programs, the glitz” can tempt a congregant from the most essential of disciplines. That of staying. That of committing oneself to any concrete block of time. Sure, in the long-run, not every pastor or church will be a good fit. But unless we are resolute about a “long-run,” in giving certain churches a chance, we are potentially doomed to wandering.

But while being loyal to a specific pastor or church can be a good thing, it can also take on unhealthy proportions. Sean and Kate took their leaving seriously. They met with the pastor, reaffirmed their love for him and the body, but acknowledged that they felt God was calling them elsewhere. The pastor understood and, while he hated to see them go, blessed them on their new adventure.

Thus, Sean and Kate embarked on a journey that led them to multiple churches of extremely contrasting ministry styles. They gave themselves permission to sit back and appreciate the rich differences of God’s family. Being involved in the same church for thirty years was a testament to their personal stability and loyalty. They needn’t prove that again. However, it had also left them feeling insulated.

The family of God was quite big. Their loyalty to one church had kept them from enjoying that bigness.

Having been a loyal church member for over thirty years, having pastored for eleven of them, I can testify to the value of church loyalty. But like Sean and Kate, I’ve learned that there is a downside to such a commitment. Church loyalty, or loyalty to a specific pastor or ministry, can sometimes be a hindrance to actually following God. Staying can become an idol.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I have a serious Pharisaical streak. Surprise. Part of that rears its head in this discussion. I dislike spiritual drifting. I believe the “Follow Christ / Quit Christianity” trend has produced a generation of spiritual transients. I believe the call to follow Christ is simultaneously a call to be in community with His other followers. An inability to settle down long-term in a church can be a sign of serious problems in a Christian’s life.


Loyalty to God and loyalty to a church are two different things.

Thankfully, there are still people like Sean and Kate, those who commit to a congregation through thick and thin. Those who weather storms of change and disagreement. Those who don’t require “the programs, the glitz” to continue showing up. Would to God that every church and every pastor has a Sean and Kate in their fold.

But following God can mean leaving a church as much as remaining in a church. When is church loyalty unhealthy? At the point when God wants you to leave, and you don’t. Or can’t.

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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Nikole Hahn December 11, 2013, 8:57 AM

    Thank you for this post. Its thought provoking.

  • Lori Stanley Roeleveld December 11, 2013, 9:16 AM

    “Staying can become an idol.” I love that. As someone who wages a constant war against her inner Pharisee, I appreciate your transparency and your perspective on this! The first time I “left” a church except for relocation reasons, it felt like a divorce and I wrestled with guilt for a long time (even though there were clearly Biblical reasons to leave.) Love the wisdom you’ve shared in this post.

    • Lynette December 11, 2013, 10:05 AM

      I understand the feeling of guilt — and it seems that others who hear my husband and I left our church we were loyal to for 17 years, well, amazingly, they were very understanding. And you’re right, it felt divorce-ish, although I’ve never been through something like that.

  • Jessica E. Thomas December 11, 2013, 9:42 AM

    You almost lost me at Eugene Peterson…

    But, I don’t think any Christian is required or expected to stay loyal to a church that is teaching warped, unBiblically-based doctrines. And those warped unBiblically-based doctrines don’t always slap us across the face, but can be very subtle and deceiving. The church-goer needs to be attentive and watchful to what is being taught and use discernment when/if wolves in sheep’s clothing are milling about. I’m not sure at which point a Christian decides the existance of the wolves merrit leaving. (Perhaps when it’s apparent that they’ve taken over?) That would have to be decided on a case by case basis.

  • Jessica E. Thomas December 11, 2013, 9:47 AM

    …otherwise, I would say people are free to change churches for a variety of practical and spiritual reasons, although I do think too much coming and going is unhealthy for a church. Americans, in particular, seem to enjoy our freedoms so much that we forget consistency and longterm relationship building are important too. Especially for kids, who seem to naturally thrive in a consistent community atmosphere. One of my greatest challenges is providing that for my kids, because not many people seem to value it.

  • Lynette December 11, 2013, 10:03 AM

    I totally understand this because this is one reason why my husband and I left our church of 17 years–we were married there, in fact. Our world had gotten so narrow that staying out of loyalty alone was not enough, and it was hurting us. I hadn’t realized the right words for it until now, almost 4 years later: “Being involved in the same church for thirty years was a testament to their personal stability and loyalty. They needn’t prove that again. However, it had also left them feeling insulated. The family of God was quite big. Their loyalty to one church had kept them from enjoying that bigness.” Yes, that says it for me.

  • Thea van Diepen December 11, 2013, 11:09 AM

    Thank you for this post -it’s probably the best and most freeing one I’ve read on this topic, especially the last couple sentences:

    “When is church loyalty unhealthy? At the point when God wants you to leave, and you don’t. Or can’t.”

    I felt like a burden had been lifted from my heart when I read that.

  • Sincerely December 30, 2013, 12:42 AM

    We have been loyal to our Church for twenty years. I have never desired to leave until the big changes that occured. It wasn’t just the changes. It was the new Leadership I disagree with, the inability for My Pastor to manage it anymore and the condemnation we are now hearing, which I so much disagree with. We adore our Pastors, so this is even more heart wrenching to consider leaving them. We are so torn. Our Pastor suffered a stroke two years ago. His wife was left in charge. She is an awesome person, but not good at managing things. Since she’s been in charge, bad Leaders have manipulated her. She does not have anyone else to turn to,or trust. We had chosen to stay by their side, thick or thin. But, these new Leaders are condescending and now some old Leaders we have been friends with all these years are following suit. We feel more rejected now when we go, and more so when we can’t go because we are not feeling up to being tormented by their words when we do end up going. We have not been to church in the past year nearly 10 months out the year now because of the emotional pain we’ve been put through by these people. We feel betrayed in a sense, but we still feel obligated not to leave our Pastors side. What is that Line? We too are wondering. We don’t know what this new year will bring. Starting off sad and concerned. We need to be somewhere supportive but this isn’t cutting it so far.

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