Recently I was talking with a co-worker about the number of people we know who left churches and claimed to have been “burned” by the experience. Both of us are 30, and most of the people who came to mind were young Christians about our age. But I know of older “burn” victims, as well. The claim has become popular, as has the decision to move from one church to another.
It’s easy to leave a church and speak ill of it. And sometimes wrongs are committed at churches, but more often, I think, these hurt feelings come from members’ dissatisfaction, a product of unmet expectations or unmet needs. Sure, it could be the church’s fault, but our dissatisfaction may be because we had unrealistic expectations of what the church could or should do for us. But that isn’t the same as being burned.
My wife and I left a church a few years ago out of a sense of dissatisfaction. We had been there for several years and the leadership had cared for and helped us through an incredibly hard time. But the church couldn’t provide what we needed for the long term, so we left. It would be easy to speak disparagingly of our experience as if the church had wronged us (and I have slipped into that mode at times). But we were not burned—it was not painful to move on.
To be truly burned is to be sinned against by the church. It might be a fault in the leadership, hidden or systemic sin that leads them to care poorly for the members. It might be unresolved disputes leading to rivalries and factions. I have left a church for those reasons, too. Unlike the situation I described above, this one hurt: The church was unwilling or unable to resolve sins at the corporate and leadership level. I felt burned.
Of course, every church has its faults—the result of what happens when a group of sinners tries to come together to do … well … most anything. Disappointment with a church is inevitable. People will disappoint. Processes will disappoint. Leadership will disappoint. And often we are disappointed because of our unrealistic expectations.
When we falsely claim—either out of misunderstanding or sin—a church has burned us, we are demeaning the body of Christ. Moving from one church to another is a decision not to be taken lightly, and we should be careful in making accusations of wrongdoing in the process. Our goal is to represent Christ well, and to honor His bride. So we must be cautious in our claims and gracious in our interpretations.