I Left My Church by Letting It Leave Me

It was 1992 and I was pastor of Westport Church in St. Louis, Missouri.  I had just received my Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary, having previously received my Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary.  Like any pastor, I wanted to grow, and I wanted my church to grow.

Our church was nondenominational, evangelical, and charismatic.  There were many such churches in St. Louis at the time and I kept close relations with many of the other pastors.  There were weekly prayer meetings as we all sought the hand of God on our ministries individually and our city collectively.  There were also periodic pastors’ conferences, near and far, to which several of us would go.  We related also to evangelical-minded denominational pastors in our region.  Our common interest was seeing the gospel of Jesus Christ magnified, and His church to grow as a result.

As pastors, we were always sharing ideas, experiences, and books with each other.  We were constantly looking for ways to bring more of the blessing of God on our congregations.  My association with Fuller Seminary was significant because it was the home of the Charles E. Fuller Institute for Evangelism and Church Growth – the epicenter of the church growth movement.  I studied under C. Peter Wagner, the protégé of Donald McGavran who was considered to have founded the Church Growth Movement.  My Doctor of Ministry dissertation was The Meaning and Mission of the Independent Charismatic Church.

I Loved the Church

My commitment to the church was as strong as it could be.  It never entered my mind that the church was not essential to living the Christian life.  All I cared about was doing church right.  I knew many pastors as well as parishioners who had been deeply hurt through church life.  I myself had been deeply hurt in a couple of earlier church experiences, but those pains never once gave me pause about pursuing church.  I just figured that such painful experiences were a result of doing church wrong – not a result of doing church.  I felt that anyone who left church because of a negative experience was simply being disobedient to God.  And even when my compassion for their pain made me understanding of their abandonment of church, I never thought they were right to leave it.

As far as what constituted “doing church right,” I looked to those pastors who had more experience than me, to books, and to my own increasing bank of experience.  By 1992, after ten years as a pastor, I was desperate for a solution to the revolving door I had seen church become.  My fellow pastors generally had the same experience.  That is, a church would begin small, would grow, and then experience turnover.  Such churches might stay the same size over a several year period but the composition of the congregation would have changed.  This was also true even for the few churches that continued to grow into what would come to be called “mega-churches.”  That is, a turnover of attendees afflicted all churches.  In fact, an adage among mega-church pastors  is that “The ones you start with aren’t the ones you finish with.”  To grow a church from 100 to 1,000 made no sense to me if you only retained 10 of the first hundred, and would only retain, say, 400 of the first thousand when you grew to two thousand.  Some pastors derisively called it “church hopping,” but most of us knew that there was more to it than that.

Growing church by growing its size was only half the answer I was seeking.  The other half, which was just as important if not more important, was knowing how you grow each person in the congregation to become more like Christ.  What good was an increasing quantity of believers if there wasn’t an increasing quality of believers?

My Search for True Church Becomes More Intense

The years of failed hopes made me more determined than ever.  I searched the Scriptures for answers like never before.  I prayed like never before.  I studied like never before.  This went on for months.  I was determined to bring all my experience and knowledge to bear and finally discover how to grow the Lord’s people and “do church right.”  It was then that I began to see something I had never seen before.

First, I came to the point where I acknowledged that in all my study and experience I had never found a church that operated like the ones in the New Testament.  Never.  All churches – denominational and nondenominational – operated in some way significantly different from those 1st Century gatherings.  The government of the church was different, and the services were different.  For one thing, we didn’t have apostles to run things and that left the door open to bishops or elders or shepherds or overseers – and no one to oversee them.  Every church, it seemed, looked to some particular verse to justify their church government, but no church could claim to comply with all the verses.  Besides church government varying from what I saw in the New Testament, the services also varied.  Even the charismatic churches, of which mine was one, could not claim to operate exactly like what you read about in 1 Corinthians 12-14.  As with the government issue, we could say we were complying partially with the Scripture but we could not say we were wholly obedient.

After realizing that there was no church which could demonstrate that it fully matched the New Testament church in government or behavior, I came to my next realization: that there was not actually enough instruction in the New Testament to actually build and operate a church.  There was no blueprint.  This hit me very hard.  I knew that God had provided Noah a blueprint for the ark, Moses a blueprint for the tabernacle, and David a blueprint for the temple.  If there was not a blueprint for the church, I needed to acknowledge the importance of that fact…and its implications.

My World Turns Upside Down

While I could not find a blueprint for church structure in the New Testament I found a repeated exhortation to be preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.  You could almost say that every time I went to the Bible to find out about how to build church, the Bible spoke to me to preach Christ.  I had always thought that my call was to do both:  preach Christ and build His church.  But then I remembered that Christ said, “I will build My church.”  If He was going to build it, what was there for me to do?

My fellow pastors and I had periodically rested in the Lord’s promise to build His church when we were trying to grow our own, but this was a newfound respect for those words of the Lord that I had.  I came to see that His church was the new wineskin, while our churches were the old wineskins that could not hold the new wine (Matthew 9:17).  The natural human response to this is, of course, to say, “But, Lord, how will we keep the people?”  That’s when I began to remember God’s call to Pharaoh, “Let My people go!”  I began to see how all these years I had been seeking to hold on to the Lord’s people when I should have been letting them go to Him.  I thought I was building His house, but I was really seeking to build my own.  Each of us as pastor was trying to build his own house instead of the Lord’s.  There were many more such scriptures the Lord began opening up to me.

Equally important, all the Lord’s teaching about the kingdom of God began coming back to my mind.  No wonder the kingdom of God was His central theme.  It described the way we were to live for Him!  The kingdom of God was everywhere at all times.  Therefore, a person could live for Jesus all the time through the kingdom of God, whereas church could at most be a part-time experience.

I changed our name from “Westport Church” to “Westport Ministry.”  I changed my title from “pastor” to “minister.”  I told the people I would continue preaching Christ and teaching the kingdom of God but I would no longer try to contain them in a structure – whether physical or sociological.  There were steps along the way and I did not come to all this understanding instantly, but by 1993 the metamorphosis had become complete.  In the end there were only three families that continued supporting us, and we eventually told them to stop.  I had left the church by letting it leave me.  I released the Lord’s people to Him.  Though it spelled the end of ministry as I had known it, I have never regretted it.  I was being obedient to the understanding that the Lord had been kind enough to give me.

Related posts:

To My Pastor and Minister Friends

About (my background)

Faith Sanctifies; Churchgoing Doesn’t