We've changed churches enough in the past to see something of a pattern of losing contact with people from those congregations. It is the most painful aspect of changing churches, and the longer we're part of the church the more it hurts to leave. With the first church there was only a handful of people who we stayed in contact with. The next church had a number of people who were leaving about the time we did, and some of them we saw attending our next church as well, which eased the pain of that transition some. From the next church I think there were more hurt feelings. We were part of their missions commission and that was our closest group within it. I think they took it somewhat personally--leaving can make them feel like we've left rejecting them, rather than for other reasons. Each time, there's been something that I think most people would consider a solid reason.
I won't go into this recent one since it's more identifiable, but the first one we left because they didn't teach the Bible except in passing (that was my reason--I was newly saved and had heard on the radio that it was a good reason to change churches), and because Gary had a co-worker who was raving about this new church that was starting up (that was Gary's reason--Gary was not saved at this point--and it was God's provision that this co-worker caught his attention, because otherwise we might still be there!).
The second one we left because they stopped sharing the gospel at outreaches that seemed designed for sharing it, when the opportunity would have been perfect--and when questioned, an elder actually told us that it was because they didn't want to offend anyone. The associate pastor was there and defended his comment, too.
The third one we left because our daughter was in their youth ministry and the stuff they were teaching in there was unacceptable, and too much into promoting "self-esteem" and too little into Bible truth. The pastors also told us at the start of the year which of various behaviors that we would and wouldn't be told about if our teens were engaging in them. So we've attended a number of churches, but each time we've seen a new perspective and become a bit more alert and cautious about the next one.
This recent change is the first one where so many people have tracked the fact that we left. We were told today that one family noticed that we were gone--the first Sunday that we weren't there! This amazes me, perhaps because I'm never that observant myself, or else because I wonder how they'd notice so fast anyway, with so many other people around. They were even able to tell us specifically, this almost two months later.
At any rate, the more time that we invest with a church, the more intense the pain is in leaving. Each time that we see or hear from another family from there, it's like going through it all over again. And I think this congregation seems to care more that we're gone, combined with generally not taking it personally that we have left.
It makes life awkward, though. We have friends who are starting up homeschooling this year, and I had promised to help them and provide all that I could--but they are pretty new Christians, and it's just tough to think of approaching them even with this mundane purpose in mind, without having them wonder about the circumstances of our leaving. Then there are three families who we know pretty well, who we are convinced know we left, but who ignore the fact with us. What do we do about that? I guess we just leave it be and wonder at their silence. With each family it is different. It's frustrating, because it puts a weight where there ought to be none. These are still brothers and sisters in Christ; that will never change. But there's a separation, an awkwardness, a hurdle that should not be there and it's not really our doing. I think these are the worst parts about such a change.
On the other hand there are blessings that only come through this thing. We meet more brothers and sisters that we would never have met. We join a church with new strengths. We are reminded of forms of fellowship that weren't implemented in our old church. We hear the testimony of church missionaries and we see the congregation treated as a family even during the church service, interrupting announcements or whatever other part of the service if warranted to acknowledge one or another member--which I imagine is so much easier to do in a small church. The pastor is able to track what we're doing more, and so we feel not only more under his watchful eye but in his care.
So there is good and bad in such a thing. We left the last church with the claim ringing in our ears that there is no church for miles that teaches the Bible like they should--and we thought we were going to have to compromise to attend a church until we could move far away and find a better one. But God is faithful, and we only had to visit a few before one felt right. Even in the meantime, those we visited were very healing, comforting and refreshing; it was not a negative time in the least.
I realize God's ideal would be that we could all attend one church and get along, agreeing on all the vital things, seeking always to stay faithful to His truth, and loving one another as we should. Still, I am thankful to see that God has this variety of churches in America and not all of them are necessarily going off into apostasy. There are many which accommodate different needs among His people. We are individuals whom God has designed with a unique plan for each, in different stages of spiritual growth. I think God had us as a family go to each of the churches we attended for a reason that had to do with where we were spiritually at the time, and partially to increase our awareness and discernment. This path wouldn't have worked for everyone, but it has worked for us, painful though it was at times.
Looking back, I wouldn't have had it any other way. We wouldn't have wanted to stay at the first one; it wouldn't have taught us anything. I don't think we could have started at the last one; it would have been beyond our patience. Every church has its flaws, and those flaws can work to do various things in a person, to embitter them or to make them better. Every church has its strengths, too (at least those that teach the Bible to their best ability, and especially those that share the gospel with unbelievers and disciple believers). I hope to think every church we saw in the midst of this latest change is faithfully doing its best to involve the Holy Spirit in serving its congregation.
Be sure to keep your church and its leaders in prayer. They have their strengths and weaknesses, and Satan knows just what those are. Keep your eyes open. Handle problems scripturally, no matter how difficult it is; address problems to the leaders who can implement change, rather than leaving in a cloak of mystery, and maybe you will be influential. Don't stay under bad teaching if you have the option to find a better place; remember the following:
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.
This is a sobering psalm; I think I always thought of it as lovely and reassuring to the believer, but there's the flip side. It's a warning to be discerning, and to stay faithful to God rather than man. It never felt good to leave any congregation, but God has nevertheless called us to do so a few times, and has always clearly honored obedience in such things.
He never calls us to leave and refuse to join a church again, as we've seen some do:
Hebrews 10:23-25: "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near."