Should I Change Congregations? I Get Emails

change-churchI get emails. Sometimes nearly the same email from two different people the same day. Both have been edited to preserve anonymity —

Email 1

I am unsure if this goes straight to Jay Guin, or if it is read by other people — but hello!

[JFG: Straight to me and no one else.]

I am of the same restoration heritage as you. I am newly married and after much deliberation and prayer, my wife and I decided that the congregation I was attending was not the community I wanted to raise my family in. Long story short, we are attending a non-denominational church plant that we’ve found to be a wonderfully healthy church community, filled with loving people who love to study the word and live life along side each other… But it isn’t a church of Christ affiliated church.

My parents and grandparents on both sides of my family have been brought up in the conservative segment of the churches of Christ, and I just had my first conversation with on pair of grandparents about our decision. 

My conversation with my grandparents didn’t go well. It came down to instrumental music and how we use the “necessary inference/silence” aspect of interpreting the scriptures.

I have gotten a couple Facebook messages from my grandma after our conversation that make me feel like she’s perusing my congregation’s website and finding all the things she disagrees with, which makes me feel like this isn’t going to be an easy attempt at reconciliation. Anyways, I am seeking the Lord for peace, and I desire to be united with my family and not divided.

I was wondering if you could please share some wisdom as to how you navigate talking to people you love who have a very different lens with which they see the church and salvation?

Email 2

I find your blog a source of great inspiration and I thank you for that and for your courage to write what you do.  I turn to your writings often to sharpen my view or challenge my thinking. 

For the past 2 years, I have been experiencing a profound disgust with my church home — a church of Christ.  The Churches (not this one in particular) have been my church home for all my life and for 3 generations before I existed.  I had no choice but to be a Campbellite, if you know what I mean. 

I find myself so deeply disagreeing with the pulpit that I leave each Sunday disgusted, angered, and saddened.  It’s affecting everything.  My wife and I are starving.  I recently asked the preacher to have a discussion about some of NT Wright’s works, and he said, “Who? Never heard of him.”  Seriously.  I teach classes there, lead singing, preach on occasion, and we are involved in all the fabric of the group, but it feels totally parasitic at this point.  I am torn.  

We are considering leaving, but I’m plagued with guilt.  For one reason, what of all those people who look up to us?  Shall we just leave them behind?  On the other hand, what of my family?  We ache for spiritual growth and nourishment and are reduced to listening to preachers from other denominations by podcast. 

I went to the elders … Nothing.  It’s a board of businessmen, not pastors.  The deacons?  Even worse.  They were working on a snow shoveling schedule.

I hear sermons all the time about why to come to the church of Christ, but now I’m figuring, why stay?

Have you counseled this problem before?  Have you written about it?  Can you shed a light?  

I get emails and calls along these lines pretty regularly. I think most families with Church of Christ roots have had these struggles. My own extended family has had these struggles. Rick Atchley (preacher for The Hills Church of Christ in Ft. Worth) had to deal with these issues with his own father when his congregation began an instrumental service. He’s preached about his personal situation more than once.

Here’s what I can say for sure:

  1. I’m a strong advocate for staying and being an agent for change (yep: a “Change Agent”) if doing so will not hurt your children’s spirituality. I would never sacrifice my own child in the hopes of changing a congregation.
  2. If you need to leave for the sake of your children, leave. Meet with the elders and tell them exactly why you’re leaving. They need to hear it first hand. But rescue your children. Be kind and polite, but speak frankly and plainly. Don’t let them misunderstand where you’re coming from. (I’m a retired elder. This is truly right and necessary.)
  3. Some people have the ability to lead change in a church. Some don’t but are able to support and encourage others who do. If it won’t hurt your children, stay and lead or stay and encourage. But don’t just stay and do nothing.
  4. Not everyone is gifted to help bring about change. If so, leave. Meet with the elders, and maybe your departure will help change their minds. It may take years, but as more and more leave over the legalism, maybe they’ll be open to change. I’ve seen some churches change that I thought were beyond all hope — but the Spirit is often more powerful than I dare hope.
  5. I am very blessed that my parents have always supported me as I’ve become a notorious Change Agent and apostate heretic. And my siblings have at least tolerated me. So I’ve not had the miserable family experiences that many have. Therefore, I encourage the readers to pitch in with their own stories. I know many have been through this.
  6. A few thoughts on those who’ve left and found their parents or grandparents upset.
    1. First, they still love you and will likely give it a rest once they’ve exhausted their efforts to make sure you’ve read all the tracts. We had one student at my own church who was disfellowshipped by his own father for attending our church (we clapped during the singing)! Seriously. It took a few years, but his father ultimately repented and apologized.
    2. I’ve lost all my grandparents but loved them all dearly. But raising my children with a healthy relationship with Jesus was far more important than my relationship with my grandparents. My duty as a father is to my immediate family. The statistics show that children who grow up in legalistic congregations are likely to leave Christianity and Jesus altogether. I would never pay that price — even to please my grandparents or parents.
    3. Leave room for prayer and the Spirit to work. It may test your patience, but I’ve seen plenty of parents and grandparents changed by the courage of their children or grandchildren. It took years, but Rick Atchley’s father repented and apologized — eventually.
    4. The question I always ask is: Where does the Bible tell us which issues are salvation issues? How do I know that instrumental music damns and the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit does not? What is the standard that defines what is and what isn’t a salvation issue? What does your preacher tell you? If you don’t know, ask him. Insist that he write down the book, chapter, and verse that says that we must divide over the frequency of communion but not over women wearing hats in the assembly. I’m not asking for proof that this or that issue is right or wrong. I want to know whether it’s a salvation issue — and exactly where the Bible says so. (Even the editors of our church periodicals can’t answer this one — and for some, it’s the first step toward a little theological humility.) Don’t get into the proofs for and against a cappella singing. Just ask why it’s a salvation issue? And if you don’t know, how do you dare damn without authority? And do not let them change the subject. Pretty soon, they’ll have to admit they’re teaching a doctrine made by men — not scriptural doctrine at all. And then you can have a genuine spiritual conversation. But you have to dig your heels in, insist on the topic, and not let them shift to familiar ground. The goal is not to “win” an argument but to undermine the assumption that “we are right” because we’re people of the book.

So, readers, help me out here. What advice do you have to offer?

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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15 Responses to Should I Change Congregations? I Get Emails

  1. Kathy says:

    Following. Wish there was a “like” button.

  2. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Kathy,

    Thanks. Used to have a Like button feature but we’re stripping out some features in hopes of debugging the site. So I hope to have it back up in short order — with bugs removed.

  3. Alabama John says:

    Jay, you are so right that most that grew up in the strict conservative churches have left all churches and do not worship anywhere but at their home.
    When talking to the conservatives I refer their teaching and belief to being on a religious God fearing tight rope, one slip and you are lost, going to hell, and then you repent and get forgiveness. You are once again back on the rope with both feet, constantly adjusting your balance, until shortly you slip off again with one foot or the other and are once again lost. What a way to live always afraid you just might suddenly die and be lost regardless of all the good you have done. Talk about fear of falling.
    Who wants to go through life that uncertain?
    That gets their attention better and faster than anything I know of and will start the thinking and talk to alleviate that constant fear no one wants to live with.
    Examples like this works best and starting off quoting scriptures back and forth doesn’t.

  4. Dwight says:

    What is worse is that fear creates an environment of in action. People don’t do things because they haven’t been told they can. Liberty is not part of the conservative coC vocabulary.

  5. Ben says:

    Well, these hit close to home. I would think that I wrote Email 2 if snow shoveling schedule were replaced with work day schedule. I even had the same conversation with my preacher about NT Wright (‘How can you not know of the most prolific Christian scholar of our time?,’ I said politely with tones of condescension). Did they hand out copies of Muscle and a Shovel to everyone as well? My wife, who wasn’t raised in the cofC, finds the patternistic formulas very foreign and we both struggle with “pinball theology” sermons that bounce around the bible without regard to context, smashing authorial intent and collecting points for some game of doctrine. As such, I don’t have many keen insights — mainly just empathy — but I continually work on improving my understanding of their positions so I can articulate disagreements with a spirit of grace, to become as one under legalism though not under legalism myself.

    I try to speak directly to the heart of the matter, namely God’s image as revealed in Jesus vs. a god eager to damn for inferred and seemingly insignificant technical errors. This trickles down in a few ways: (1) we imitate and become the god we worship, (2) it influences our understanding of Scripture, and (3) it molds what we believe to be the purpose and mission of the gospel. I suppose CENI coupled with a flat, atomistic reading of Scripture may be sensible if your chief aim is ordering the assembly.

    I will persevere for the sake of my brothers to win some over and I do commend their commitment to Christian character. Ultimately, I will likely leave for the sake of my daughter for an environment where she can pursue righteousness, faith, hope, and love along with those who call on the Lord with a pure heart. I say this with a heavy heart as we will leave behind a family — a family in error, but I know of no other kind.

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Ben,

    Thanks for your testimony. And may God bless your efforts to bring much-needed change

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dwight wrote,

    What is worse is that fear creates an environment of inaction.

    I couldn’t agree more.

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    AJ wrote,

    What a way to live always afraid you just might suddenly die and be lost regardless of all the good you have done. Talk about fear of falling. Who wants to go through life that uncertain?

    Amen.

  9. Scott says:

    I am a former preacher of 10 years. MSOP grad. B.A. M.A. Biblical Studies from Amridge U. We ONLY attend house churches now. The institutional model does not need “changing,” it needs abandoning

  10. bcampagnolo says:

    Are there tips or ideas for how to best change things in Christ like manner? Asking pointed questions in class? Volunteering to preach lessons? I would not want to gather folks for subversive post sermon comments or ‘corrections’. I’m also unsure if asking good questions in class will be effective. I tend to be almost dismissed as that “sort of off the wall Holy Spirit” guy. I wonder if I can be effective, or should I simply always be as Kingdom minded as I can and just be there to challenge the ideas and thoughts that are not based on Galatians. Only faith working through love. . .

  11. Dwight says:

    bcampagnolo,
    The first an only thing I have noticed is that you almost have to confront the voice and conscience of the congregation, namely the preacher. I have given my preacher some studies, to which I was attacked, but within his preaching I noticed some changes when he brought up the subjects in the article. Now mind you most preachers will preach along party lines.
    Volunteering to preach and do teaching should make an impact as well if the preacher is present.
    My point is that it almost doesn’t matter what the assembly thinks as the preacher-in-charge will preach what he has been taught or what he thinks is the truth.
    You only change things, when you change people and this almost never happens without confrontation on some level, even when done in love. So challenge away, but be prepared for a beating.
    So I cannot say run, because all congregations need another voice/voices, but don’t stay if they seek to stone you or suppress your voice. This isn’t love. This isn’t reasoning. This is fear of truth. And this is not letting God’s people make up their own minds.

  12. Mark says:

    The preacher usually does what the leadership wants and the smart ones know what is best for their continued employment.

  13. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    bcampagnolo,

    You ask a good question, and I don’t know the answer. That is, I think the answer depends on the church and the elders.

    I’ve been blessed to be part of a church that allowed me to teach grace and the Holy Spirit as an adult Bible class teacher. Other taught other perspectives in the early years, but over time, grace and the Spirit prevailed without elders votes, white papers, or such. People just got into the word and studied their way out of legalism — but encouraged by the teaching of some grace-convicted teachers (not just me).

    In other congregations, the doctrine of grace would be considered heretical and not allowed to be taught. In such a case, you have to persuade whoever controls the Bible class curriculum — the preacher and/or the elders ultimately. And if they won’t listen, you have no good way to change the church.

    In some churches, members form small Bible study groups apart from the organized ministry of the church. Four to eight get together for breakfast weekly and pour over the text together — studying together at their own pace. I’ve done some of this. And over time, one or more members of the group becomes an elder and things begin to change. If an elder wishes to join the group, great! But only as a student not as a policeman. He has to be willing to be a fellow student. I’ve seen this work out very well.

    My recommendation would be to study a book of the Bible, such as Galatians or Romans, but with study materials (such as OIJ posts or a good commentary — depends on the group). The NIV Application Commentaries are inexpensive (they were on sale for $9.99 over Christmas in Kindle format) and written at a layman’s level — no Greek. I would personally prefer these to Wright’s The NT for Everyone series, as Wright’s commentaries don’t speak in terms that most people in our heritage will readily grasp. They are excellent but come from such a different perspective that they’ll frustrate the group.

    The Story of God Commentary series seems very promising to me. I’ve read Scot McKnight’s volume on the SOTM, and it was very lucid and appropriate for a small group study. Haven’t read other volumes from the series, but it would be worth checking out.

  14. Alabama John says:

    Scott,

    That is exactly what many have done and are doing today.

    Seeing all the arguing, debating, splitting, condemning of others for not seeing things exactly as they do, has caused many to just leave churches.

    The truth is all that going on today is simply, because of all the negativity, making folks believe our God and the writers of the bible were just not capable of writing a simple message but could only write one so badly that it has caused all this disagreement. Instead of seeing the written word as inspired, it is seen as contradictory by picking out scriptures, confusing at best and that is being kind. Hundreds of Denominations, 27 or more disagreeing with each other COC alone.

    So, more and more are trying to build a relationship between God and themselves as close as they possibly can and skip all the disagreements and dividing. Praying that God will give them mercy and grace, having faith that he is reading their hearts and seeing their faith that he will understand why they have left this debacle and just simply want to love God more than the confusing law and bible as we have it chosen, interpreted and printed.

  15. bcampagnolo says:

    Thanks y’all. I have the current NT Wright book “The day the Revolution began” and we are currently studying Luke, and having sermons from Luke, so I did pick up a copy of “Luke for everyone”. We also have started a series from Answers in Genesis, and I am now teaching the HS class. I’ll admit, I just want to teach about the Kingdom! So, I’m folding in as much as I can while we cover that other material.
    I really enjoy this sight and the comments, it’s my virtual bible class. I have also shared a few links from this site to folks when questions and discussions arise. . .
    I will add those others to my ever increasing list of material!

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