What to do if You’re Unhappy at Your Church

The fact is there are lots of awesome church people out there that have decided it’s not okay for them to leave their churches because they don’t really have biblical reasons to do so.

So they are staying. Right where they are. And, truth be told, they are miserable. They find it difficult to be at their churches. They aren’t happy, and unhappy people have difficulty connecting with others and with God.

What then?

Are they obligated to stay at their churches and be miserable?

No.

God doesn’t want you  miserable at your church. Barring any unbiblical things going on, God wants you happy at your church. 

Read that again.

God wants you happy at your church, not at a new church. 

How do I know that?

a) God loves us and wants us to be happy (Psalm 68:3). God is a compassionate God who weeps with us and rejoices with us and is able to relate to every emotion we have (Matthew 14:14, John 11:35, Hebrews 4:15). He desires for us to feel happy, but that is not the end all be all of our existence, and if our happiness and our growth in Christ are at odds with one another, God will choose to attempt to grow us every time (2 Corinthians 3:18).

b) If there is one thing the New Testament stresses to the church, it’s unity (2 Corinthians 13:11). When people leave their church bodies in search of personal happiness in a new church body, whether they intend to or not, they effectively stress fracture their former body. Whether they leave quietly or recruit loudly as they go, they weaken other believers in that body by taking away their services (assuming they were serving in the first place) and by causing other believers to wonder if they should leave too.

When the body gets multiple stress fractures from multiple people leaving, it becomes so weak it breaks. And when the body breaks in multiple places, it hurts. A lot. For a long time. Ministry is crippled, to some degree, among the remaining church members as they are left to try to salvage the body. Energy and resources have to be focused on healing the body rather than on what the church should be focusing on: spreading the Gospel and discipling believers.

c) Every time we feel like our happiness is at odds with an opportunity for us to grow, we aren’t viewing the situation how we should (James 1:2-3). We need a heart change quick. We should value above all else our conformation to the image of Christ. That should be our chief source of happiness, and being miserable at your church affords you the perfect opportunity to grow. Rejoice.

So, if you’re unhappy at your church, can I gently challenge you to stop waiting for the things around you to change to suit your preferences and to start changing yourself?

If you want to feel happy about going to your church, stop the self-focus – “What am I not getting?” – and train your mind to focus on others (Philippians 2:3-4) – “How can I serve others here today?” If you’re not serving, start (1 Peter 4:10).

Now, the tricky part is we can serve until we’re blue in the face and still feel unhappy about our churches because our hearts are still focusing on ourselves while we go through the motions of serving others. Psalms says God doesn’t value that kind of external sacrifice, he wants our hearts (Psalm 51:16-17). When we serve with the motivation to honor the Lord, others will experience the love and truth of Jesus, and we will gain joy knowing the Lord is happy with us (Ephesians 6:7). 

If you are among the minority of church members who do serve and are others focused, but you still feel unhappy with your church, there is one other area that needs to change.
Consider that everything your church does is not for your benefit. If you’re a seasoned believer, the outreach arm of your church is not trying to make you happy, it is trying to reach unbelievers and new believers and welcome them into the church so they can come to know Christ. What’s more important than that? (Matthew 28:18-19)
Knowing this, seasoned believers should approach outreach times not with an “I’m not getting anything out of this” attitude but with a rejoicing heart that the Gospel is being preached and non and young believers are getting exactly what they need – small doses of scripture and basic truths (1 Corinthians 3:2). Your jobs during outreach, seasoned believers, is to bring non and new believers so they can grow and to pray for the Spirit to move. Rejoice that seekers are being introduced to Christ at your church!
Likewise, if you’re a young believer, the intensive Bible studies that are way over your head are not trying to make you happy, they are trying to help seasoned believers go deeper in their relationships with the Lord (Hebrews 5:14). If you’re in one of these classes, and your eyes are glazing over because you don’t care about the original Greek, your job is to pray that the Spirit would move and grow these other members in their walks with Him. Rejoice that seasoned believers can grow at your church!
This is the kind of perspective change – to value others more than ourselves – that is called maturing in Christ. If you church-hop in this moment, you lose. You lose the opportunity to mature in your faith (Ephesians 4:15). You lose the opportunity to be apart of others coming to know the Lord.
If none of this is helpful, you need to call your pastor, schedule a meeting, and have an open, honest discussion with him about how you’re feeling. Tell him that you are unhappy and that you don’t want to leave, but you don’t know how to get happy, and allow him to speak to the sources of your unhappiness. Some of the very things that cause you the most trouble could be simple misunderstandings. Or they could be legitimate problems that your pastor needs to be aware of so he can redirect the church.
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One Benefit of Being a Sinner

Over the weekend, a teacher at my church blew my mind. Allow me to plagiarize him so your mind can be blown too. (It’s okay, he probably read this idea in a book he didn’t write.)

He said when Christ comes back and establishes the new earth, it will not be a “return to Eden” type of situation. Yes, He will wipe out sin, there will be no more pain, etc., but it will be even better than the pre-Fall Eden was.

Why?

Because before the Fall, Adam and Eve were clueless about at least one characteristic of God (and I suspect many more). Without sin in their lives, they were unable to experience God as Redeemer. There was nothing from which He needed to rescue them. All was well.

Not so with us.

Because we’ve committed more sin and experienced more effects of sin than we can quantify, we are perfectly positioned to experience God as Redeemer. And, if we make it to Heaven, we definitely will have experienced God as Redeemer in at least one way: His saving us from the death our sin deserves.

So, when we’re standing there in Heaven, enjoying the complete absence of all things bad and the complete fulfillment of our souls, our memories of our lives on Earth will stand in stark contrast to our experiences in our eternal home. No doubt, our hearts will swell with thankfulness and appreciation of our God, our Redeemer.

I’m taking this idea a step further and saying we don’t have to wait until Heaven to appreciate this aspect of God.

Psalm 130:5 (NIV) reads, “I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.”

Read a couple different translations for different nuances.

“I am counting on the LORD; yes, I am counting on him. I have put my hope in his word,” (NLT).

“I hoped [for] Jehovah — hoped hath my soul, And for His word I have waited,” (YLT).

The psalmist isn’t hanging out in a hard circumstance, playing Solitaire, flipping through a magazine, waiting for God to do something. No, the writer is hopefully expectant of God, confident God will come through, according to His Word.

In other words, the psalmist believes God is the Redeemer. The writer has read about God acting as Israel’s Redeemer in the past. He’s read about God’s promise to be Israel’s Redeemer in the future. He’s choosing to believe God will come through.

We need to do that, too.

God has redeemed us from hard, broken situations in the past. His Word says He is redeeming us from current painful circumstances right now (Romans 8:28). And He will redeem us in the grandest of fashions when Christ returns (Revelation 21).

Count on the Lord. Hopefully expect the redemption His Word promises you.

 

Honorable Mention

I remember my first marathon. Maybe because it was my only marathon.

I ran the whole thing – from the starting line, around the playground, around the open field behind the school, and to the finish line.

Fifth grade Field Day. I was hand-picked by my P.E. teacher, along with 8 others, to compete in the “marathon”. I was nervous. I couldn’t believe she thought so highly of me. It was a long way to go (maybe a mile and a half?), and I wasn’t so sure I could make it. But Mrs. Bateman picked me, so I rose to the occasion.

We all lined up at the starting line – four girls, five boys. Our parents, our teachers, and the entire student body lined the designated path. The bullhorn sounded. I sprinted off the line, unaware that conserving energy is generally a better strategy in a long race.

On the back side of the school property, we were too far away from the crowd to hear them. All I heard was the rocks beneath my feet that created the path outlining the school’s property. I was toward the back of the pack. I wondered if I could really finish this race.

Girls were competing against girls, and boys were competing against boys, so I really only had 3 people to beat.

But there was a problem.

God didn’t make me fast.

Athletic, yes. Competitive, yes. Coordinated, yes. But not fast.

Winding back toward the finish line, I already knew the only person I was going to beat was the slowest boy of all, Evan. I wasn’t even going to place. The unfamiliar disappointment of not being the best at a sport sunk in to my 11 year old heart.

I crossed the finish line. People cheered. But I didn’t.

image via kleertech.com

They handed me a ribbon that said “Honorable Mention”.

Seriously? What is that? It may as well have read “Lost”. Everyone knew I hadn’t accomplished anything spectacular. The ribbon just seemed to mock me.

This memory came back to me this week when God told me I treat Him as if He were an Honorable Mention ribbon.

God has been on a mission to get me to realize He is first prize, always. I rarely recognize this fact, so He is kindly helping me grow in that area. By taking away all the prized people I value more than Him.

As He says to me, “I delight in you, and I want you to delight in Me. I want to be your primary source of love, assurance, security, joy, peace, and esteem. Primary. First. Most-oft pursued and looked to.”

I’ve been gritting my teeth during this process, begrudgingly obeying Him. I’ve been saying to myself, “I don’t have my most important friends anymore… I guess I have no choice but to settle for friendship with God.”

And God says, “Hey, I’m not chopped liver. I’m no Honorable Mention. In fact, Dear One, I am first place. I’m what you’ve really wanted all along. I will fulfill you like no other.”

I haven’t experienced this yet because I am stuck dwelling on the losses. But I believe it can be true if I cooperate with God.

Trust in the Lord. Lean not on my own understanding. And He will make my paths straight. They may be straight up, but they will lead straight to Him, First Prize.

Seize the Future

My chief objective in life is to meet my needs and satisfy my wants myself right now.

Call it human nature.

Call it self-preservation.

Or call it what it really is – sin.

In no way, shape, or form is my approach to life biblical.  Nothing in it speaks of serving others, living a life of love, or dying to self.  In fact, it’s precisely the opposite of the Bible.

Why would I, someone who both knows and believes what the Bible says, consciously live a life opposed to the commands it contains?

I think, at least in part, it’s because I too often buy into the counter-biblical idea that now is all that is guaranteed.  The present is all I can control.  And if I spend my whole life living for others, I’m gonna miss my only chance to live a life that makes me happy.

In other words, I justify my self-centeredness with lies.

The truth is that because I have a relationship with Christ, now is not all there is.  I have an eternity in Heaven guaranteed me, and I will be happier there than I could ever be living life my way on earth.

The truth is this earthly life is just a drop in a bottomless bucket of time.  And if Jesus asks me to be a selfless servant for that fraction of eternity, I can do so joyfully with the understanding that my personal happiness will be fulfilled in the future.  In fact, if I choose to obey Jesus now by acting selflessly, my happiness in Heaven will be even greater than it will be if I disobey Him and live my earthly life my own way.

Psychologists muse that maturity is the willingness to delay gratification by choosing to wait for something even better.

Spiritual maturity works the same way.

Are we willing to delay our own happiness now by choosing to serve others, knowing that even more fulfilling, eternal happiness awaits us in Heaven?

 

Now or Later

Sometimes when God is calling us to choose between disobeying Him or obeying Him, He is really saying, “Do you want to be happy now or later?”  Disobeying Him now = present happiness but sorrowful future.  Obeying Him now = present sorrow but happy future.  (Note: I said sometimes.  Obviously, other times obeying God can result in immediate happiness, and the sheer act of obeying can produce a happiness all its own.)

I think this because there was a time in Jesus’ ministry that He basically said this.  (Good reason, eh?)  He was pretty popular/infamous at the time, and He was teaching “a large crowd of His disciples” and “a great number of people from all over … who had come to hear him and be healed” (Luke 6:17-18).  In other words, Jesus was simultaneously speaking to people who were already sold-out believers (disciples) as well as seekers who had come to see what He was all about and what He could do for them.  In other other words, the crowd’s complexion was not unlike any church congregation across America on any given Sunday.

As Jesus looked out over the crowd, He knew who was a first-time visitor and who was a whole-hearted follower.  He spoke to the disciples first (Luke 6:20).  Although the rest of the crowd could certainly hear Jesus, what He was saying was not for the seeker or the unbeliever.

To the believers Jesus started proclaiming blessings (Luke 6:20-22), but they weren’t necessarily blessings that they would’ve been excited about.  “Blessed are you who are poor…blessed are you who hunger now…blessed are you who weep…blessed are you when men hate you…”

What?

How are those blessed situations?  Being poor and hungry and sorrowful and hated are terrible things to be.  They feel awful.  We run from those things.  We work to not be those things.  We pursue relationships and vacations and corporate success so we won’t be those things.  Surely a good God would not lead us to such things.

Then Jesus flips the coin and starts proclaiming cautions to the believers (Luke 6:24-26).  “Woe to you who are rich…woe to you who are well fed now…woe to you who laugh now…woe to you when all men speak well of you.”

Huh?

What’s the deal?  That Jesus sure is a killjoy.  Who in their right mind would sign up for a life like this?  Why is Jesus so down on enjoying life now?

The general idea is if we live the good life now, which involves pleasing others to get the good life, we will probably have to sacrifice some things of the Lord to achieve it.  Conversely, if we live for the Lord now, we’ll probably upset some people, and that’ll make our lives difficult.

In fact, choosing to live for God now may even upset us.  Why?

WE WANT THE GOOD LIFE NOW!

But before we go writing off the Lord and pouring all our energy into earthly happiness, we have something else to consider.

Jesus promises that if we choose to delay our happiness and honor Him now, our reward will be “great in Heaven” (Luke 6:23).

So we have a decision to make.  What’s more important to us?  Temporary earthly happiness or eternal heavenly happiness?

It is that black and white in the pages of Scripture.  But trust me when I say I know it feels grayer when real life happens.  There are a lot of situations when we feel like waving the white flag.  We can’t see Heaven for all the pain we feel now.  We don’t feel like we can live another day choosing the Lord over our happiness.  We don’t have what it takes to remain faithful to Him.

What do we do then?

Psalm 120:1 says, “I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me.”

I really think it is that simple.  When we find ourselves living in the gray, all we can do, and all we must do, is ask the Lord to help us be faithful to Him.  In the words of Home Depot, we can do it; He can help.