Should we stay or should we go?
Many in Chicago-area churches have been wrestling with discerning God’s will for their church. Disillusioned by seemingly high profile stories where character flaws have divided churches, some have concluded that they ought to start looking for a new church home. This is not an easy process, it requires a careful and deliberate effort to determine the will of God for you and your family. It can be gut-wrenching and anxiety riddled to leave a church and risk the disappointment of those staying behind. How do we practice discernment when it come to this choice?
In counseling, we are often asked to assist people facing major life changes.
We desire to help them deepen their experience of God and to discern their life choices (like their church home) in a prayerful way. We all need a method for discerning life decisions, noticing God’s presence and being assured of his favor as we make decisions congruent with God’s call on our life. We need to learn to make decisions free from personal attachments that obstruct us from hearing/receiving God’s lead with confidence. The goal is that all of our decisions should be accompanied by an inner confidence that comes from our pursuit to align with God’s desire for us. We move from uncertainty to a point of conviction that God desires a certain decision.
Eugene Peterson in his book The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is The Way, describes how this decision-making process works as he talks about Abraham’s faith.
“Was it not this lifetime of internalizing the commanding and promising but invisible God and then stepping out on the road in obedience? Was it not this readiness to leave wherever he was and leave whatever he had in order to embrace the vision, the covenant, the command? Was it not a life of responsive openness to God and a matching indifference to whatever conditions he found himself in? Was it not a lifetime disposition to receive God rather than to satisfy himself?”
In other words, Abraham had consistently sought to glorify God in his decisions, even when they were hard, and his trust allowed him to make excruciatingly hard decisions when he faced them.
Getting Practical with Discernment
When we are learning discernment, we must start to notice patterns of attraction and repulsion when we are contemplating our choices. We are looking for how we are being drawn by recurrent deep desires and experiences that give us, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). We search for ways in which we are tempted to be disobedient to the will and command of God. When our heart is aligned with God’s, he gives us the desires of our heart and conversely, we experience the turmoil of self-centered pursuits.
A Practical and Biblical Discernment Process
- Formulate the question or decision that we are facing or the issue we need to resolve.
- Be open to not incline more toward one option rather than another, but allow our preferences to be shaped by our ability to love God and others. We must be willing to be influenced by God’s guidance.
- Take time to pray over the matter paying attention to how we are being drawn or led.
- Make a choice based on the results of “head work” and “heart work.” Head work is the process of weighing the pros and cons as we consider all relevant information. Heart work includes sitting with the choice our reasoning has determined to be the best and checking to see if our feelings go along with what our mind had decided. Our feelings can confirm or call into question the decision made through our thinking process but they must work together with head work to be most effective.
- Discuss the matter with a trusted friend or someone who is committed to helping us be truthful, patient, and persevering in our search for God’s call. This is a good protection against our self-deception.
- Talk with everyone who will be intimately affected by the decision being made.
- Trust God and act even though we might feel fearful and uncertain. We are called to trust God’s power at work to bring good out of everything. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
A well-discerned choice may include enduring some periods of struggle and pain while being supported by a deep sense of God being with us and for us. We should avoid making a decision if we are feeling confused, anxious, or distant from God.
“Faith is a trusting obedient life on the road, the way. Faith is a resolute “Yes” to the promises and commands of the living God, God as present. And faith is a firm “No” to an idol subject to manipulation and control, a god that we can see and touch and test.” (Peterson, 46).
Discernment when it comes to leaving a church or staying to help
1. What is the question to resolve?
Should I stay at the church I am in?
2. What are the possible options?
I can stay and try to advocate for change to make things better or I can leave and find a situation where I can grow more fully.
I can give up on church altogether and feed myself on the internet, concerts etc. or I can find another flawed church.
I must blow the whistle on the dishonesty / injustice I see or I walk away peacefully.
3. Take time to pray for discernment
Typically, I recommend people stay and pray for at least 3 months. Pray and fast for the decision that God has for you and your family.
4. Heart Work and Head Work
Head work will involve discerning if the issues are going to be addressed, will the direction or problematic issue change. What are the pro’s and con’s for this church, for this season of life, or for you?
Heart Work will involve working through the emotions which hold you back from making a decision. Don’t leave a church angry or fearful if you can avoid it. However, if there is a legitimate reason for your fear or anger, work it through if at all possible before you leave.
5. Discuss the matter with a trusted friend
Find someone impartial who knows you and talk it through. Is your headwork and heart work spiritually mature? Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.
6. Talk with everyone involved
Don’t just leave your church family without graciously communicating what you are up to. You might be tempted to, but that’s just fear talking. Even if there is great sadness and softening anger, for your good and the good of the church you are leaving behind, communicate what you are planning to do.
7. Trust God and Act
Do some research about other church options that you agree with philosophically and methodologically. Try a church out for a couple of weeks at a time. Set a time limit and then seek God’s will to discern which flawed church is best for you and your family. They all will have strengths and weaknesses. Be gracious and open to what God has for you.