Thinking of leaving church? Do so in style! You have probably already considered:
-Taking up work on a Sunday and whichever other day one of those church groups wants you to attend some group to do something churchy;
-‘Forgetting’ to turn up and hoping that others will return the favour by ‘forgetting’ to ask you to do so;
-Issuing a semi-formal and, over time, rehearsed statement of why going to church is unbiblical or just hasn’t worked for you, etc;
-Relocating to the mountains, or some pagan country;
-Telling former-fellow churchgoers you don’t speak their language (any more), in a thick heathen accent;
– Or, seeking out a new church where everyone spends their time playing Nintendo instead;
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The thoughtful apostate of the church (no! not necessarily of their faith) considers all of these options and more. I can very honestly¹ tell you that I have scraped the bottom of the ecclesiastical barrel looking for a church that spends their time playing Nintendo.
Now pose I a question to the thoughtful apostate: Is it indeed possible to leave church while remaining physically there?
Returns the Querdenker: Yes, in the same way somebody who attends a lecture elects to absent their mind in favour of sleep, yet why sleep in a lecture if you can sleep in a bed?
Pose I another question: What if this kind of leaving church is an active leaving rather than a passive?
Concludes the apostate: I think you’re just trying to trick me into going back to church through your linguistic manipulation, fool.
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How, then, could it be that the most styly way to leave church is to actually remain there? The Old Testament prophet Elijah exemplifies this.
Firstly the Spirit calls him away from his community to live in Zarephath, north of Israel in Sidon (1Kings 17:9). This is a physical departure, and I am sure people before have felt the call to leave their community physically for reasons such as being of better Kingdom use in another community, taking some time to look at the world through different lens or just finding it important to move on from any hurt they experienced in their former community. In Elijah’s new community he ministers to a widow by restoring her dead son to life. While he is gone, God is doubtless working in the hearts of his former community, as God also worked in the heart of the widow before Elijah met her.
After three years of being away from his community, the Lord calls Elijah back there (1Kings 18:1). The situation is dire: There is a three-year-long drought throughout the land, causing animals, people and crops to suffer, and much of the nation has turned to Baal, a foreign god. Prophets of Yaweh (the God of Israel), of which Elijah is one, are enthusiastically persecuted as the monarchy encourages Baal worship. Elijah’s community is fundamentally different to him in both ideology and practice. He can leave again to avoid persecution² or assimilate a large portion of himself to the new community identity. Instead, he chooses to do both and neither. He leaves the community by remaining with them and assimilates himself by retaining his prophet-hood. His value to his community is not as someone who contributes positively to their focus, but as a thorn in their side, an attendee who contributes to his community by steering it in a direction against that in which it is already heading.
The story goes that Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a divine showdown: Both are to prepare a sacrifice to their g/God and call upon him to burn it up³, a way of acknowledging and receiving the sacrifice. You may know that the prophets of Baal recite their prayers and do a little dance, etc, of which Elijah later makes light after they get no response. He then soaks his sacrifice in water and prays to Yaweh, who licks it up with fire from heaven, along with wood, stones and water that made up the altar. Thus begins among the people a return to their Lord.
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You may not find the faith to call fire down from heaven to prove your point, but the Spirit can still call people to ‘leave’ a church by remaining there. Your value is in insisting on more prayer when the congregation spends too much time in their heads. Conversely, you may bring to the light the glaring inconsistencies in the faith your community professes. If everyone feels alone, don’t leave because you feel lonely, but be the point of contention in your community. And if you’re among Calvinists, well…
This is not to say that you are the only wedge in a bowl of chips, but that your heterodoxy or counterspirituality may make you mindful of what others at work among your friends have been doing for a long time before you. Moreover, you may reignite some celestial fire in another’s heart or kindle in another a new one. You are not going to lecture because you are required to and then electing to fall asleep; rather you are going to the lecture and electing to be the only one who doesn’t fall asleep. It is better to leave church than remain there.
A further point is not to outline that all gatherings have faults and that you can better remedy those faults by leaving intellectually/spiritually instead of physically, but that departing a church is necessary to its heterogeneity, its life! Although some may be called to specific prophet-hood and steer the church in a particular direction, this departure for all to attend. Each of us is one of the many. Just as Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).
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¹Au contraire dear reader, I am lying for the sake of poetry and possibly irony.
²Later on in the story Elijah does leave, a mix of no results and fear of persecution, but this time his leaving is not initiated by the Spirit.
³This is especially significant as my annotated bible notes that Baal was a god of fire and lightening. The story may therefore be akin to some retired politician (who no-doubt worked out and attended the gym regularly) wiping the floor with David Tua in a boxing match. Tua and the politician switch places and we find that Tua was all talk in the first place.