Church Membership: Do I Stay or Do I Go Now?

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on September 11, 2013.]

One of the topics I  teach on regularly at Southeastern Seminary and in local churches is the nature of church membership. When teaching on membership, I’m frequently asked two questions: 1) What criteria should I use when deciding whether or not to join a particular church? 2) What criteria should I use when deciding whether or not to leave the church of which I’m a member? I answer by sharing four criteria for each question. I list them below, in the order that I personally prioritize them.

Criteria for Joining a Church

1. Doctrine: What does the church believe about primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines? How clear are they in their doctrinal commitments? Do you share the church’s core beliefs? Are you willing to submit to the teaching ministry of the church when it comes to (presumably minor) doctrines where you might disagree?

2. Emphases: Does the pastor (or pastors) emphasize text-driven preaching and teaching? Does the church emphasize discipleship, accountability, and spiritual formation for all its members? Does the church emphasize personal evangelism and global missions?

3. Geography: Do you live close enough to regularly worship with this particular body of believers? Do you live close enough to regularly serve alongside the members of this church? If you live more than 20 minutes away from the church’s gathering place, are you willing to either drive frequently or relocate closer so that you can be vitally involved in the body life of the church?

4. Preferences: Are you comfortable with the church’s approach to music and worship? Are you comfortable with the church’s approach to age- or gender-specific ministry? Are you comfortable with the general ambience or atmosphere that is being fostered by the church?

Criteria for Leaving a Church

1. Geography: Have you relocated far enough from the church’s gathering place that it is no longer possible to be meaningfully involved? (e.g. you move across town)

2. Doctrine: Has there been a change in the doctrinal convictions you hold or those espoused by the church’s leadership that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the church changes its position on female pastors, baptism, speaking in tongues, or eternal security)

3. Emphases: Has there been a change in the church’s emphases that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the pastor has abandoned text-driven teaching and preaching or the leadership refuses to emphasize evangelism and missions)

4. Preferences: Has there been a change in how the church handles some of your preferences that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the music style has changed, the children’s ministry strategy has changed, church gatherings have become more or less casual than they were)

I am convinced that one of the reasons we have so much church-shopping and church-hopping in American evangelicalism is because we tend to join and leave a church based more upon our preferences rather than other matters that are more important. Perhaps better ordering our priorities will help us to be more discerning in pursuing and/or ending church membership.

Some of you may quibble with me over where I rank some of these matters–there is room for debate. Nevertheless, I hope you find these lists helpful.


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  1. Nathaniel   •  

    I noticed that moral failure on the part of church leadership didn’t make the list of reasons to leave. Is this because it isn’t a legit reason to leave or because it fits in one of your four categories?

  2. Nathaniel Simmons   •  

    Thanks for the helpful article. I am curious if you consider moral failure by the church leadership to be sufficient criteria for leaving the church.

    Unfortunately moral failure is a common reason for leaving the church. However, the category “moral failure” is quite broad. Certainly some people have sat under a pastor caught in adultery, and they correctly identify that as moral failure. Other’s have noticed their pastor treating someone harshly or unlovingly and have cited that as moral failure. Either way, the response that leaving church members give is that if they cannot respect or trust the leadership, they cannot in good conscience remain a member.

    Is moral failure ever an appropriate criteria for leaving a church? If so, is there a framework that helps us process when to stay and when to go?

  3. Brett Beasley   •  

    Good post Dr. Finn. I would ask that you would consider following this up with a “How to Leave Your Church” in the event a person deems it necessary. There is such a cavalier approach to church membership by many among the rank and file today. I can tell you from the pastor’s side, it leaves us broken hearted, and left to answer question after question from our members concerning the whereabouts of those “who used to attend.” Dever has a wonderful section on this in his book “What Is a Healthy Church”. I would love to read your insights, and you may have already written on such. I would also ask that you would consider a post on “ministerial integrity” when it comes to dealing with folks leaving a church. Seems to be a real lack of it, even among we “cooperating” Baptists these days. I always appreciate not only your articles, but your responses to comments as well. Thank you.

    In Christ,

    Pastor Brett Beasley

  4. Brett Beasley   •  

    Please allow me to clarify a statement in my earlier response. By “ministerial integrity” with regard to those leaving a church, specifically I mean the pastor of the church where the departing people might be considering going. That’s where there seems to be a lack of integrity. It leads to our churches passing members back and forth and never holding people accountable.

  5. Robert Vaughn   •  

    Nathan, I could find some things to discuss and debate. Rather, I want to note that the greatest importance of your post and criteria is that you have some and are discussing it! There is “much church-shopping and church-hopping” among Baptists in the U.S. are I’d dare say that very little of it is acted upon with any scriptural, or even practical or logical, criteria. Thanks for opening up the discussion.

  6. Andrew W   •  

    Some, possibly many pastors restrict their Biblical teachings in fear of ‘offending’ the congregation, or losing members, due to strong Biblical teachings. I know this first hand. Pastors are compromising the Word of God, for the sake of membership, or the limitations that have been put upon them by their “religious obligations.”
    It is a shame; the Word of our Lord Jesus Christ cannot, and will not be compromised. Some of us (myself) are well read in the Word of God, and when we hear limited, and/or watered down messages, Big Red Flags are raised!
    We live in dire times, the world is drastically changing, Bible prophecy is unfolding at a tremendous rate, the Lord’s Parousia is near, so why are pastors preaching watered down messages?
    We all believers need the body of Christ, we all need to build each other up in Christ, if the teaching is watered down, members (some) will seek elsewhere.

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