Jonathan Leeman writes,
In the West today, individuals and families often resign their church membership like they check out of hotels. They make sure they have all their belongings, inform the management, and then go. In fact, many church members don’t do this much. People leave and tell no one. I suppose it’s only because the hotels have our credit card numbers on file that we afford them that courtesy.
This is true in most parts of the world, where the social cost of professing the name of Christ is low. This consumer mindset plagues the non-persecuted church. But who is to blame for this? Well, the church; particularly, her leaders.
Insofar as this practice is widespread, churches themselves are at least partly to blame. We have not taught our members otherwise. We have not taught them that church membership enacts on earth our unity with Christ and His people in heaven. We have not taught them about the nature of church authority and Christ’s command to submit to it. We have not taught them that Jesus said obedience defines love.1
Leeman is correct. Many Christians do view the church like they view a hotel—a place to check in and to be served. Some view it as a two-star hotel, not expecting to receive much while at the same time not expecting to give much. Others expect a lot because of their investment. After all, they contribute financially, they give their time to gather, and in many cases, they serve. Therefore, they expect a five-star experience—including being waited on hand and foot. They want the multi-staffed concierge of the eldership to check on them to ensure that they are having a good time. They want “room service” when they are in need and they want it now. When they gather for their spiritual meals, they expect them to be gourmet and just to their liking. They want them served on time and never exceeding the time! After all, they need to get to their other activities before returning to the hotel for more service.
Whether the consumer-minded church member views the church as a two- or five-star experience, when they decide that it is time to check out they often do so as Leeman suggests: They leave without telling anyone. They figure that they have already paid their bill and they owe no one the courtesy of explaining their next move. And this is tragic.
Over the years I have personally witnessed such behaviour. Church members have simply moved on—“checked out” without telling anyone. Only through the grapevine do I later learn that they have checked into another local church in the area. Sadly, in many cases, the new pastor/elders do not check out how these church members left their previous church. And sometimes (though certainly not always) they have left behind a lot of damage; damage that their former church now has to try and repair. They have left secretly, have now checked in somewhere else, and are not being held accountable for their behaviour. In some cases, they cause the same damage at their next stay.
Perhaps at this point, the metaphor has gone far enough. But I hope you get the point. The local church is not to be treated like a hotel. It is to be respected as the dwelling place of God, the place where He dwells with His people. She deserves respect and commitment. And it is for this reason that our church is careful to explain the expectations, as well as the privileges, to those whom God leads to check in with us.
We have a membership process that is deliberate, precisely because we want those who become members to understand that we are a Body of people who serve the Lord together by lovingly serving one another. We provide “room service” but we do so with the understanding that we are more like a medical hotel than a consumer-pampered luxury hotel. Those who are served are equally expected to serve those serving. We are all patients helping fellow patients.
Just like a hotel, there is a cost involved: the cost of discipleship. This is the cost of carrying our cross, and dying to our selfish desires in order to serve the needs of others. This includes the cost of our time, our monies, our compassionate care, and numerous other things. Yet it is a strange kind of cost, for we are rewarded in return (1 Corinthians 3:5–15; Matthew 6:19–21). No Hotel Rewards Program can match this!
But what about checking out? Is there ever a time when a church member should move on to another church? This is a very important question. The local church is not like the Eagles’ Hotel California where “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” Our church does not lock the door once someone joins. There are legitimate reasons for someone to leave a church.
For instance, God may move a church member geographically to another part of town, or to another part of the country, or to a different country altogether. God might move a church member, or many members, to serve and strengthen another church. But it is assumed that, in these cases, the church has been consulted and that it has commended those making the move. That is, they have properly “checked out.”
I also believe that there are situations when the best thing for a church member’s spiritual welfare is to move their membership to another church. In some situations, a move is justified because the church they are leaving is not faithful to the Word of God. The shepherds are not feeding, leading and giving heed to the flock. In such a case, if reform is not on the horizon, then for the sake of one’s soul—and that of their family—a move is necessary. But again, no one should merely sneak out. Rather, the leadership, and the membership via the leadership, should be informed. Even an unhealthy church is still the Lord’s church and is deserving of respect.
Finally, sometimes church members are just not able to find happiness in their current church. Should they “check out”? There is no easy answer. In an ideal world, the answer would always be no. But sometimes things can get complex. I believe that every effort should be made to persevere and to become happy where you are. But there may be unusual circumstances where, perhaps in spite of making every effort, a church member finds they are frustrated as they attend the services. They may be of the conviction that they and/or their family are not doing as well spiritually as they would elsewhere. Perhaps in some cases an individual is developing a critical spirit as they gather with the church, and in other cases a church member may become tone deaf to the voice of the shepherds, as well as to the voices of the sheep as a whole, and they find themselves craving greener pastures. In such a scenario, a move may be what the Chief Shepherd calls for. But if He does, then He expects you to check out honourably. Inform the eldership and be willing to talk with them. It is often the case that a healthy and transparent discussion removes the desire to depart. Sadly, on occasion, I have received letters from those leaving the church which concluded with, “I don’t want to discuss this so please do not contact me.” The result is that they leave with baggage in hand and sometimes with baggage left in their “room.” And we have no idea what to do with it.
I hope that you never have to “check out.” But if you do, then be sure to first stop by the desk. As you depart down the road, we’d love to be able to send you with our blessing.