Is it possible to spiritually “outgrow” a local congregation?

It is not only possible, it happens more often than you’d think. One trend I saw in my poll of those over 40 was that a notable percentage of those who’d changed churches or decreased their level of “official” involvement at their present congregation did so because they’d grown past what the church offered….

Those over 40 grew up in what was dubbed as the Me Generation. The questions of selfishness are legit and need to be answered. But as I’ve already pointed out here, many who leave churches have valid and important reasons for doing so. What I’m hearing from those who’ve responded to my survey is that growth has often taken them out of churches where they’ve grown weary of passivity (all meaningful ministry is reserved for paid staff, or limited by gender/racial beliefs held by the leadership team) or the constant requests for time and money to support the ego-driven “vision” of a leader. I believe both of those reasons are markers of growth in a leaver, not a sign of selfishness.

Others who’ve changed congregations or stopped attending entirely noted that they’d found other non-Sunday-morning-in-a-church-building-centric forms of community, worship and service. And if you think a church leader might struggle to release Ken and Julie to move from independent Baptist to mainline Lutheran, imagine how difficult (and at first – and maybe second blush, irresponsible and uncaring) it would seem for a leader to release someone to…a small group, a parachurch ministry or community service with a side of podcast or online sermon watching.

With or without a pastor’s “permission”, people do move on because they’ve outgrown a congregation. And I find myself wondering today if it is harder to outgrow a church that understands itself to be a resource and a launch pad than it is to leave a church that functions as a spiritual destination. Few churches use this language of themselves, but that doesn’t change the reality that some congregations are precisely that – organizational terminal points for learning, worship and service.

By Scot McKnight