leaving a church


Imperfect People Among Imperfect People

Top imageThe church is made up of imperfect people among imperfect people. That may sound like a strangely clumsy statement, but let me explain.

In my last two articles, I made the claim that ‘our churches today are crowded with Christianised people who have never been born again. Therefore they have no real relationship with God, no empowerment for life and ministry, and no evidence of ‘salvation’ beyond rule-keeping, rituals, good works, and some bible knowledge.’ I did not mean this either as a criticism or as a judgement, but simply as my observation of a real condition. People who are not born again are imperfect at a fundament level of their being, yet in many ways, many of them are less imperfect than some of those who are born again. Spiritual rebirth is the start of a process of growth into the perfection of Christ Jesus, but it is by no means the end. Spiritually, we can be born again in an instant, but our thinking, character, emotions, words and actions need a lifetime before they even approach anything less than imperfection.

Jesus told a story of weeds and wheat and it goes like this:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.  But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds , you may root up the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'”  Matthew 13:24-30

The Nature of the Local Church

Every local church is a microcosm of the Kingdom of God, and each one is full of both weeds and wheat, unregenerate and spiritually regenerate people; but all imperfect people. A local church is neither a building nor a formal organisation although it usually has both of these elements. Rather, a church is a collection of people seeking to live out some form of community life centred on the Lord Jesus Christ. Strange as it may seem, one of the ways such a disparate bunch of people maintain themselves as a group, is the realisation that they are all imperfect. A church, by its truest definition, is a part of the body of Christ and should as such only be composed of born again people. An alien cell does not belong in a human body and an unregenerate person does not belong in the body of Christ, yet the formal and visible ‘church’ is a mixture of regenerate and unregenerate ‘cells’, the wheat and the weeds. This is the reality that Jesus acknowledged and addressed in His story of the wheat and the weeds. But, what I want to stress is that in so many ways the wheat is as imperfect as the weeds, and that too is a reality.

Unchurched Believers

Now, here is another reality – a vast number of born again believers have given up on the church because of the imperfections they encounter within it. In terms of Jesus’ story, they have not pulled the weeds out of the church, but instead, they have pulled themselves out. They are examples, millions of examples, of self-weeded wheat. Most times they blame others for their isolation from the church. Someone hurt their feelings, marginalised them, or was mean to them. Or, the pastor taught things that they believed to be wrong, self-serving, or nonsensical.  Or perhaps the music was too loud, or too boring. Or the sermons just didn’t ‘do anything’ for them… and so on. And it is true, we do sometimes get hurt in our church life, and sometimes things are just not what we would like them to be.

However, one of the main reasons that folk choose to leave a local church is because they cannot or will not recognise that they themselves are imperfect people among imperfect people.

A Personal Confession

I have a confession to make. Since retiring from pastoral ministry, I have more than once seriously considered leaving the local church I led for three decades. And the main reason for the very real emotional pain and turmoil I suffered at those times is that I became overwhelmed by the imperfection of some of those around me and underwhelmed by my own imperfection. In the past, I sometimes said to the congregation; “Hey, you may not like what I am saying, but you had better get used to it because we are going to be together for eternity.” It is only in my more self-honest moments that I realise that what I said applies equally to me. If we are born again of the Spirit, then we will be with each other in heaven for eternity, whether we like it or not. So we had better learn, now, how to get along.

Two Questions to Ask and Answer

Sure, most church leaders need to do regular reality checks on what is preached, how they lead, the realness of its fellowship, and so on. But, we who make up the bulk of the local church also need to conduct regular legality checks. The two main questions we each need to ask and answer are:

  1. How am I seeking to become more like Jesus? and
  2. How am I helping others to become more like Jesus?

Helping Others to be More Like Jesus

Part of helping others to become more like Jesus is to gently and respectfully share the need to be born again with those in the church (and also those outside the church) who’s lives do not evidence any real difference to the lives of unbelievers. This does not include moralistic pronouncements, implied criticisms, self-righteous condescension, or bible-bashing. Our approach must be what Peter had in mind when he wrote;  ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect .’ 1 Peter 3:15

It certainly does not help others to become more like Jesus if we live one way in the church fellowship and another way in business, private life, and so on. It also doesn’t help others to pretend that we are perfect or to share only our successes, achievements and ‘good deeds’.

Then we all need to read, and re-read Pauls inspired instructions to us:

‘As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all’.  Ephesians 4:1-6

On a Lighter Note

After reading this article, I hope no one will be tempted to go off and start a new church called ‘The First Perfect Church’, for if I, or anyone else, joined it then it would immediately be even more imperfect than when it had just one member. 🙂

Imperfect People Among Imperfect People Read More »

Where have all the burnt stones gone…

…long time passing?

I was useless at mathematics when I was at school, but by the time I attended Business School I had warmed to statistics, graphs, and equations.  We all know the statement that “there are lies, then wopping lies, then statistics”.  There is some truth to that, yet statistics do alert us to trends and significant anomalies.

Here are some interesting statistics concerning the church:

  • George Barna estimated that in the United States 28% of the population is unchurched, and that 61% of these people described themselves as Christians.
  • Of these 18% stated that they are ‘born again’ and that their faith is of daily importance to them. To a reasonable extent the South African church statistics traditionally mirror those of the USA.
  • This means that there are roughly 8,000,000 people in South Africa who regard themselves as Christians yet do not attend church of any sort. Perhaps the majority of these folk are Christians by family history only. However, if the statistics are in any way reflective of reality, there are about 1,500,000 ‘born again’ believers who do not attend church.

I am not sure who first coined the term ‘burnt stones’ to describe these folk, but I think it was Ern Baxter.  Nehemiah describes how Sanballat ridiculed the Jews who were attempting to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He sneered, “Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble – burned as they are?” (Neh 4:1-2) Very few people become disciples of Jesus Christ and do not initially attend church.

So, the one and a half million believers who do not attend must have dropped out for some reason or another. The most common reason given is “we were burned”.
By this, they mean that they were hurt, disappointed, disillusioned, financially milked, or over-worked by the church they were attending. There are other reasons cited but they are no more flattering to the perception of ‘church’ – boring, irrelevant, legalistic, manipulative, unfriendly, money-grabbing… the list goes on.

I am one of those who believe in the church. I see her as a precious body of believers, the apple of God’s eye. As a pastor, I know that church leadership often gets things wrong. Sometimes they try to structure the church as a business and as a result tend to produce spiritually bankrupt adherents to the Christian Faith. Sometimes they structure the church as an army and leave many wounded souls lying in their wake as they march on to ‘victory’. But the fault doesn’t lie solely with church leadership.

In essence, the church is the household of God (Ephesians 2:19).  It is a family (1 Peter 4:17),  yet so many of its members do not seem to appreciate that they are part of a real spiritual family. From time to time I learn that someone who has been attending for years has suddenly left and joined another local church or are not attending church anywhere. No reasons given; no goodbye and God bless you; just … gone. Of course, we follow up and usually find out that someone in the church ticked them off, or their children’s friends attend another church, or whatever. The question remains, ‘why did they just up and leave their spiritual family?’ In truth, the answer probably is that either they don’t regard the church as a family, or they have a warped view of what a family is and how it functions.

For too long now, too many churches have been setting themselves up as spiritual entertainment centres, colleges, clubs, or hospitals.
If the church presents itself as a supplier then it is hardly surprising if its ‘members’ behave as typical consumers. If a consumer doesn’t get what it feels it needs then it goes somewhere else. If the other church ‘suppliers’ don’t meet the need then the consumer becomes an unchurched ‘burnt stone’. A consumer says, “What can I get from this church?” whilst a family member says, “How can I contribute to this church family?”

Alternatively, so many people come from dysfunctional families that they think it normal to behave as though the church too is a dysfunctional family, even when it isn’t. Fathers walk out on their children, children rebel and leave home, so why not just leave church for whatever reason seems good at the time?

One and a half million ‘burnt stones’ – just think of that! What can be done? Well, if you are one of these, then I appeal to you to consider again just how important the family of God is. Acts 20:28-29 describes the local church as ‘the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.’  Now that makes the church important and valuable!

You have a place within the church, as a living stone, not a burnt one.
If you know folk who are ‘burned’ then why not try to lovingly explain what church really is and then invite them to connect with it again.


Where have all the burnt stones gone… Read More »

About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.