God’s guidance

6 Wrong Ways to Leave a Church

My friend “Stewart” (not his real name) is one of the friendliest pastors I know—and his wife is also an exemplary leader. But a few years ago, they began getting emails from an anonymous church member. The messages were severely critical and laced with threats. Then a small package arrived at the church. It was filled with a white powder.

Stewart called the police to be on the safe side—and the powder turned out to be yeast. The pastor and his wife learned firsthand that the ominous messages and the package came from a former member who was upset. The person’s odd behavior proved that some Christians don’t act like Christians when they decide to leave a church.

Many of my pastor friends have similar stories of people who leave churches in dramatic and inappropriate ways. They all recognize that this is one of the most serious occupational hazards of ministry. Pastors are going to feel rejected when people leave, even when God is leading those people to make an exit. But if you are directed by the Holy Spirit to leave a church, please do it the right way.

1. Don’t leave mad. If you are leaving because you are angry at the pastor or another member, you are proving your immaturity. Offense is never a reason to leave a church. Jesus told us to go to the person who offends us (Matt. 18:15). And Proverbs 19:11 says: “The discretion of a man defers his anger, and it is his glory to pass over a transgression.” If you break a relationship every time you are offended, you will never grow up. Even if you are called to leave a church, you should never hold a grudge. Have the courage to face your offense and disarm it.

2. Don’t leave and make threats. Some people get so angry, they want to hurt the church when they leave. They want the pastor to suffer. One man told a pastor I know that he hoped the church would go bankrupt after he stopped tithing to it. (Instead, God sent other people whose donations more than covered the lost income!) Romans 12:19 says, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves.” Even if the pastor or church members are doing inappropriate things, it is not your job to punish them.

3. Don’t leave secretly. When I was a boy, my mother taught me to say: “I enjoyed my meal. May I be excused?” when I finished eating. I was not allowed to leave the table without this announcement. A similar rule applies to leaving a church. It’s rude to walk out with no explanation. Your pastor deserves to know why. You can write a letter, but it’s better to say it in person—and to include some words of thanks for the way the church has helped you in the past.

4. Don’t leave and talk about it on social media. Proverbs 6:19 says God hates the one who “sows discord among brethren.” Those are strong words! Some people actually think they are doing God’s work by badmouthing a pastor, but they are digging a ditch that they will soon fall into. Keep your judgments to yourself. Posting the details of your rant on Facebook only shows how petty and self-centered you are.

5. Don’t leave and try to take others with you. If God is calling you to switch churches, that’s fine. God will bless your transition if you do it in a healthy way. But if you try to stage a massive walkout, you are undermining God’s authority. Don’t allow the enemy to use you as an agent of division.

6. Don’t leave and stay away from church altogether. I have often heard people say they feel God is leading them to leave a church to go elsewhere. But then I find out, after three years, that “elsewhere” really meant “nowhere.” They quit church altogether! This is usually a sign of either deep disappointment or an unresolved conflict. You should never, ever give up on church. It is God’s family. No Christian should live in isolation.

Obviously there are times when we must leave a church. It happens because of job transfers, family issues, ministry preferences, driving distance and many other reasons. And some churches have unresolved problems that make them unhealthy—and God does not necessarily require us to stay there. The Holy Spirit is the one who directs us to the right congregation.

Good pastors know they cannot hold onto people in a possessive way. Healthy churches remind people that the exit door is unlocked, and that members are free to go as the Holy Spirit leads. Deuteronomy 28:6 says: “You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.” Pastors should bless people who leave—but members should leave in a respectful way that invites that blessing.

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4 Ways to Hear God’s Voice Clearly

When I was in my 20s I was praying about whether I should enroll in graduate school. Then one morning in my devotional time I came to Psalm 32:8 and it seemed to be flashing like a neon sign. It said: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go.”

The Holy Spirit was emphasizing to me that God would teach me and that I didn’t need additional schooling. That’s not to say graduate school is wrong for everyone else; it was just not God’s plan for me at that time. And God used a Scripture to clearly show me what path I should take.

The Bible promises that God will guide us. But many Christians find it difficult to hear God’s voice. And in some charismatic churches we complicate things when we try to make guidance mystical or weird—as if you have to hear an audible voice from heaven about what color shirt to wear.

Years ago I learned from author Henry Blackaby that there are four distinct ways we receive divine guidance:

1. You can hear God’s voice by reading the Bible. Friends have sometimes complained to me: “I just never hear God speaking.” Yet when I ask if they read the Bible regularly, they say they’re too busy.

God supernaturally inspired 40 authors over a period of 1,600 years to compile His love letter to us. After the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, many people were martyred because they translated it in a modern language. God went to a lot of trouble to compile the Bible. Yet today Bibles are collecting dust in the homes of people who are too busy to read God’s most direct message to Planet Earth!

When you read Scripture with a prayerful heart, God can cause a verse to jump off the page as a direct message to you. British preacher Charles Spurgeon recognized this years ago when he wrote: “When I have been in trouble, I have read the Bible until a text has seemed to stand out of the Book, and salute me, saying, ‘I was written specially for you.'” Expect God to speak directly to you from Scripture.

2. You can hear God’s voice through the supernatural inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not an eerie presence that just hangs around. He lives in every born-again Christian, and He comforts us and actively speaks to us. He can do this in many ways: through dreams, visions, warnings, a sense of conviction, or—most often—through what we know as the “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) of the Spirit.

I have had prophetic dreams and visions over the years, but the most common way the Spirit speaks to me is through a deep sense of inward knowing. I will never forget a time in 1985 when God spoke to me while I was driving my car in Florida. A message came to me, not audibly but in my spirit: “You will move to Washington, D.C.” It seemed to come out of the blue, and I knew it did not originate with me. Four years later I was offered a job in the Washington, D.C., area and I worked there for three years.

The ability to hear the Spirit’s voice is developed over years as we grow in Christ. If you really want to hear Him, you should ask God to fill you with His Spirit. As you allow more of the Spirit’s presence and power in your life, you will set aside your selfish agendas and sinful habits so God can communicate without any hindrance.

3. You can hear God’s voice through people. God never intended for us to live in isolation. We are members of His body, the church, and you will hear God better when you are in fellowship with His people. God can speak to you through a pastor’s sermon, a friend’s wise counsel, a mother’s rebuke, a mentor’s phone call or a prophetic word given to you by one of God’s Spirit-filled servants.

God uses the gift of prophecy, but you should never chase after prophecies. I know Christians who will travel across the country to attend a prophetic conference to get a word from God, yet they have not read the Bible in months or sat still long enough to hear from God on their own. Never treat the holy gift of prophecy like fortune telling. When God needs to speak to you in an unusual way, He has faithful messengers who will deliver it to you at the exact time you need it.

4. You can hear God’s voice through circumstances. Not everything that happens to you is God’s will. But God is sovereign, and He has power over nature, over government leaders and over all the details of your life. He opens doors that no man can shut. If you have been praying about getting a job at one company, and suddenly you get an offer at a different company, this may be God’s sign that He has a better place for you to work.

My oldest daughter wanted to attend a college in Tennessee, and we were praying about her decision. Right after we prayed I got a call from the president of a college in Georgia. He was inviting me to speak at the school, but in our conversation I learned that this school was willing to offer my daughter a scholarship. She ended up enrolling in that school, meeting her future husband there and graduating four years later. God was totally involved in that phone call from Georgia!

As you begin this New Year, ask God to tune your ears to His voice in a fresh way. Guidance is not complicated when you sincerely want to hear Him speak.

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