Over the past few months, I seem to have had a higher than usual number of conversations with friends about their feelings of unhappiness in the various churches they belong to—including email feedback from some of you.
So in today’s episode, we thought it was time to explore this unhappy topic: what’s the best way to think about and respond to feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction in church?
Hope you find it useful, and shareable with struggling friends.
How to be Unhappy in Church
Tony Payne: When we have feelings of disengagement or disillusionment or unhappiness, how can we understand ourselves and our circumstances? In response to that, I thought I would rough out ten ‘mini diagnosis’ steps that we could go through to think about what’s going on and how we might respond to it. Let's give it a go and see what happens.
#1 - Be ready for it
Phillip, I know that you're generally a happy person, and you don't get unhappy in church, and I would have to say, I've also rarely really been unhappy and dissatisfied in the churches I've been in. Perhaps I've been very blessed in the churches I've been in. It is inevitable, though, that there are problems in churches. And even in New Testament churches, for example the Corinthian church, you imagine there'd be plenty of opportunities to feel disillusioned, unhappy, dissatisfied, and generally miserable at different points.
Phillip Jensen: Yes, certainly. But it’s the word ‘feel’ I’m uncertain about. It’s like this sign that has been going up in a lot of churches: “Everybody has a right to feel safe.” I think that's a nonsense. No one has the right to feel safe. Everybody should be safe, but you can be safe but still feel unsafe.
If you’re expecting church to be perfect, then you will be dissatisfied. We are part of the heavenly Church, but we've not arrived yet. We're in progress. So therefore, you’ve got to expect that there's going to be problems.
TP: And it'll often be things that you disagree with at some level, whether as a matter of preference or opinion, or maybe more a matter of conviction. There'll be approaches that you think are not the best ones. There'll be choices made that you think are unwise or unhelpful. There'll be all sorts of things, because church is made up of saved sinners. We've just got to expect that at some level, some degree of dissatisfaction and unhappiness will inevitably come up in church life.
PJ: Yes. If you've got unrealistic expectations, you'll be disappointed.
#2 - Is it a personal dispute?
TP: The problem might be that you have had a dispute or falling out with somebody else, or some difference of opinion or offense or misunderstanding that has led to heated words. That can lead to a real sense of unhappiness—I'm not enjoying being here. Every time I go, I think of this person and they're sitting on the other side of the room. It's kind of a Euodia and Syntyche situation, where the clear response is to implore them to agree with each other.
PJ: Yes, so you’ve got your Euodia and Syntyche, but you've also got Paul and Barnabas disagreeing about John Mark. Disagreements between people do happen and will happen. So get over it and resolve it.
But sometimes you can't resolve it. As in 1 Corinthians 7:10 addressing husbands and wives, where if you can't live together, then live separately. There is a sense in which some disputes are not resolvable in this world in this period of time. And to expect to be able to resolve every dispute, I think, is a recipe for disappointment.
TP: Yes, indeed. So if it’s a personal falling out, seek whatever level of reconciliation or resolution is possible.
#3 - Is the disagreement about something minor?
TP: Does the thing you are quarrelling or feeling dissatisfied about fall into that category of things that Paul warns about? Such as, don't quarrel about words, don't get bogged down in controversies about foolish things, about genealogies and so on. Is it one of those silly fights?
PJ: Yes, and here’s an example—I have always been a teetotaler; I think the abuse of alcohol in Australia is appalling. And the encouragement to drink is even worse. And our governments are guilty in this. But hey, the Bible doesn't say that alcohol is wrong or that drinking is sinful. In fact, just the reverse. It says wine makes the heart glad. And so here's something that I hold as an important social policy, but in Christian fellowship, it's really unimportant. One man drinks alcohol, another doesn’t. Each is answerable to God. It is not for me to criticize you because you drink wine any more than you should be criticizing me because I choose not to.
TP: You're raising the issue of Christian liberty in a sense here, and this is important. I think we'll come back to that in just a moment. But let’s keep moving.
#4 - Does it contravene the Bible’s teaching?
TP: Is this issue actually about something that the Bible is quite clear about? Is it, in other words, a question of wrong or false biblical teaching? If that's the case, then it depends a little bit on your position in the congregation. I suppose if you're one of the elders or teachers or overseers of the congregation, and you're in a real position to influence and change things quite explicitly, then do so. If you're not, then depending on your position and the circumstances, I would say it's important still to chase down exactly what's being said, make sure you've clarified the issue, and express your view in a gracious, godly, clear way. And if you get nowhere and you don't see any possibility of change, and this false teaching is going to continue then your place in that congregation starts to become difficult.
PJ: Again, it's situational, isn't it? That is, as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. There is a sense in which when the prophet speaks, the rest of the church needs to weigh what is being said. So one false exposition, or one false exegesis of text doesn't qualify a church as false or heretical. Paul tells Timothy that he must show his progress in life and in teaching. There will always be theological exposition or biblical mistakes in church. But if the standard and continuous teaching and position of the church is contrary to the Word of God, then yes, you really do need to take action.
TP: At that point, it has become a church where not only are you being taught what is not the gospel, or what is not the biblical teaching, but you are concerned for the others in the church, and for anyone you might want to bring along. So you've got to wonder at that point why you're continuing to support and have fellowship in that place.
PJ: That’s right. You can speak to people, twice or three times, but there comes a point at which you realise they are determined in their view, as I am in mine, and we really can't resolve it.
#5 - What if it does not clearly contravene the Bible’s teaching?
TP: That brings us to the next point. What if it's about one of those issues of liberty that might be influenced by or shaped by our theological views and by what the Bible teaches, but is not contravening a clear teaching of Scripture? For example, let's say that the nature of the music is heading in a direction that you find difficult, or you think theologically might be heading down a wrong track. Or some kind of philosophy or model of ministry that you feel has unhelpful aspects, is missing something, or losing some biblical emphases and so on. When it's that kind of issue, I'm much more inclined to say that we’ve got to allow for Christian liberty and allow room to keep talking with each other about these issues over time.
PJ: Yes, this is more difficult. In one sense, it's better to stay and fight it out. It's not a question of leaving. But it’s more difficult because most people think their theology which they've derived from the Scripture has the same authority as the Scripture. There’s a whole range of things that we think are based on the Bible even when they’re not as clear as we think. For example: baptism. There is no statement in the Bible as to how young a person can or cannot be to be baptized. You can have a theology of baptism that would include children, or you can have a theology of baptism that would exclude children. But that’s not the essence of baptism in the Bible. The essence of baptism has to do with repentance. Whether a child can or can't repent at a certain age, or parents can or can't repent for children, those are all decisions you have made that have been drawn from your theological position rather than explicitly from Scripture. But most people hold very strongly to what the Bible doesn't say, sometimes more than they actually hold to what the Bible does say. And we need to be careful in that regard.
TP: And when it is a matter of wisdom—a matter of thinking that is rooted the Bible and deliberating about the circumstances we're in and seeing how biblical wisdom frames and shapes what we should be doing—then you can have that discussion and debate. And you can disagree because you're talking about the application of principle to a particular practical circumstance. And we’d encourage you to be part of that conversation, contribute to it, be gracious, be loving, be godly. Listen carefully to the other people and what they think. And remember it's not the kind of clear biblical teaching issue where you'd have to say, “I can't be part of this church anymore”. And most usually, the best response is to put your head down and grit your teeth and be gracious and just get on with ministry together.
PJ: Yes, and one of the questions you’ve got to ask is: am I irritated or am I irritable?
TP: Well, that leads me on to my next point.
#6 - Am I the problem?
TP: Is the problem not out there, but rather in here—in my heart? Am I just an irritable person who gets riled easily? Do I have a grumbling, fault-finding spirit?
Philippians 2 tells us to do all things without grumbling or disputing. Sometimes it can be a critical spirit that some of us are afflicted by. Sometimes it can be other things going on in our lives that make us hypersensitive and hyper-critical and more easily dissatisfied. Things like personal struggles, the frailties and fragilities of our lives, mental health things that are happening, or sometimes just sin in our own lives that is affecting us and leading us to project our failings onto other people.
PJ: Yes, quite so. It's always easier to blame other people than to blame yourself.
Another example is taste and preference in music. Now we all like the music that we were raised with, or what we listened to in our early twenties or the type of music that was played in the church when I was first converted. That tends to stick with us as a mode of music and they become very emotionally important to me. And when the church moves on to different kinds of songs, it’s easy for me to feel like we’re not singing the “right” songs anymore.
TP: Yes. I think that can happen in different ways for people. If you've got more elevated or sophisticated musical tastes or you're a real musician, you might come to church and think, “This music is just so simplistic, so third rate, so crass and sentimental”. And the mistake there can be not just judging everybody else to feel and reinforce your sense of superiority, but it also can be a matter of not understanding what the purpose of the music is, which is to be folk music, easy music for everyone to sing.
PJ: Yeah, and the other way around is true as well. There are people who are so committed to folk music, to the enjoyable cultural music of the day, that they have a negative reaction to the great pieces of music of a different century, you know, the Handels and the Bachs.
TP: Yes, it’s a sort of a reverse cultural snobbery isn't it? And that's just as bad.
PJ: Yes. But there are also lyrics. I think lyrics are slightly different to music in that, for example, we shouldn't be singing in Latin. We've got to sing whatever the language of the people is. That is the biblical thing to do because 1 Corinthians 14 says that singing must be in comprehensible language. It is also very possible to have heresy in the lyrics, which is a clear problem. But then there are others which, well, are not heresy but just fairly meaningless.
TP: And banal perhaps, as opposed to heresy?
PJ: Yes. That’s right. So you see, I’ve got to reflect on myself. The people around me are loving these types of songs. It's not my choice of music, but I haven't gone to a concert. I've gone to church; I've gone to be with brothers and sisters, so if they love this music, I better learn to love it too.
TP: Yeah, and this relates to the next point.
#7 - Don’t search for happiness
TP: Happiness is one of those elusive things where the more you look for it, the more it tends to slip between your fingers. A little bit like love. In other words, if you're looking for happiness, or making happiness and satisfaction the barometer by which you judge church, you're kind of setting yourself up for a problem to start with, because we shouldn’t be going to church looking for happiness.
Instead the expectation is that I go to church in order to see other people satisfied. I want to love other people, not to feel loved. I want to contribute and think of the other person rather than myself. And it's not only true of church life; it's true of life more generally—the more you seek these things desperately, the more they elude you. And I would often say to people who are feeling, for example, a bit unloved in church—try loving people. And all of a sudden, you'll feel the love and you'll realize what rich relationships really are.
PJ: Yes, it is better to give than to receive. And you do tend to receive more love if you are giving it away.
#8 - Is it something you have personal responsibility for?
TP: Let's assume that you've worked through a lot of these points, and there's something going on in church that you really find difficult or you don't agree with. One of the questions I want to ask at this point is, is it something that you have personal responsibility for or not? Because within congregational life, some people have oversight and a role to shepherd and make decisions for the flock. And there's a real sense in which we're all a body together, so we all make our contribution to those discussions. But in the end, if something's not ultimately my responsibility to make a decision, I'm going to leave it to the people whose responsibility it is, and entrust that to God. And I can know that everything we do will ultimately be seen and judged and be accounted for on that day when God assesses all our works. It is like the picture in 1 Corinthians 3-4: Be gracious. Make your contributions. Send nice emails. If there is something you’re concerned about, go have a conversation with them in person. But remember that the leaders of our churches are the ones responsible to make those decisions in the end, and will bear the consequences as it were.
PJ: Yes, and having been involved in leadership in umpteen situations, you mustn't think that no one criticizes the leader. Leadership is coping with the consistent criticisms that are coming all the time. And so try and find ways that are positive to help the person rather than saying the negative. For example you really are finding the preaching is not quite up to scratch. Well say to the preacher, “What are you preaching on next week, because I want to be praying for you about that passage and reading through it too.” And try to engage in positive things next week to say such as, “I'm glad you told me about verse seven, because I struggled with that during the week.” The more you positively engage, the more that preacher will find preparing for you is better and easier.
#9 - Have a bias towards staying.
TP: Even if you're feeling unhappy or deeply dissatisfied with certain things, and you're struggling and working through a bunch of different things, still have a bias towards staying. The church and the relationships there are very important, and other people rely on you more than you think as part of the body of Christ. The relationships and mutual encouragement of the body are almost always more significant and lasting and powerful than whatever short term change in style or model or particular issue that you're particularly upset about. So have a bias towards staying and continuing to serve the relationships and the ministries with people in the congregation you're in. But then there's also such a thing as taking loyalty too far.
PJ: Yes, that's right. And there are two problems related to that. The first is the church hoppers who just keep changing church over every little thing, and following the latest fad and fashion as to where the churches are growing now. And the other is people who stay out of a foolish sense of loyalty, for example “My grandfather was an Anglican and my great grandfather was an Anglican, therefore I’ll always be Anglican.” Well, that's daft. Our commitment is to the Lord Jesus Christ and the proclamation of the gospel.
TP: Yes, and when the gospel has really gone from an individual congregation, it is usually time just to go. That brings us to our final point.
#10 - When do we know it is time to leave?
Some indicators that it might be time to leave are the points that we’ve been discussing here: where there's false teaching, or if it gets to a point where in good conscience, you couldn't ask a friend to come with you to church and join this church. Or if you feel you're looking at the people you love and the damage that has been done to them by wrong teaching and wrong practice, and you really feel like saying to them, “You'd be better off elsewhere.” Then you've probably reached the time for you to go as well.
PJ: Yes. I remember speaking to some people who wanted to stay in the church because they were teaching Sunday school and because it was a great opportunity for them. And I said, “What's the youth fellowship like?” They said, “Terrible. They don't believe the gospel. They speak against Jesus as well.” Well, what's the point of getting children through Sunday school to hand them on to youth group leaders who are going to mislead them? I said, “Wouldn't it be better to try and persuade either the church to change youth group leaders, and if that can't be done, then persuade families not to send their children to this church?”
TP: Yes, and sometimes even when it is not a matter of false teaching or the gospel being lost, there might come a time when it’s wisest to move on—when it gets to a point where the issues are affecting you quite deeply, where it is difficult emotionally and relationally to be there week by week, where you’ve done all you reasonably can to resolve the issues, but where your ability to joyfully encourage and be encouraged has drained away, and there’s no imminent prospect of things improving. In these circumstances, it's not a sin to go and be involved in a different congregation. It's not a sin to say that I'm just finding it too difficult here and I’m also being a thorn in everyone's flesh here. And we pray that God would open up another congregation for us to join, where we can contribute more positively.
PJ: Yes, and there might be other reasons too as to why people leave. When I was at the Cathedral, it wasn’t a local church in the sense that most people didn't live in the city. Now some people did not like bringing their children into the city, and they couldn’t invite the parents from their children's school to travel halfway across Sydney to come to church with them at the Cathedral. And so they decided to leave. Or people get married and they move to a different church together. So there are all kinds of reasons why personally, people might choose to change church, but I would encourage you to speak to the pastor when you do it. And I would encourage you to know, no matter how good the reason is, do understand that the pastor will be a little hurt by the process. Because if they've got any love in their heart for congregation members, to hear congregation members say they're leaving is painful.
TP: Because relationships are what churches are built on. It’s always painful, on both sides, when it’s time to leave.
Well, there are our ten diagnostic thoughts. And I think it has highlighted just how situational and personal this can be. There are all sorts of reasons why you might find yourself feeling dissatisfied, or disengaged or unhappy in the church you're in. And working through the nature of the issue, thinking about yourself and doing some self-examination, and then behaving in a wise and gracious and godly way and working through it is all very important.
PJ: I think our bias will always have us being the problem as the lowest possibility. And so therefore, we need to work against that bias and have that as our first expectation.
TP: So maybe we should reorder these in some future edition, so that ‘Am I the problem?’ is the first or most important point.
I hope, dear listeners, that you found this helpful as well, both for yourself if you're currently in a situation where you’re struggling in church and not feeling happy, or if you're trying to encourage and help others who are in this circumstance as well.
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