“I want to leave my Russian church and go to an American church, is that right?”
Over the years there has been a steady exodus of Russian immigrants leaving into American churches (or more progressive Russian churches). Every Russian church has been hit by this issue, and there are many fierce battles on this topic. Some pastors are up in arms, as is understandable, when they see their “sheep” leave the flock. In some cases pastors are loving and bless those leaving, in other cases they curse or vilify them and the churches they go to. If the Russian community follows the pattern of every other ethnic community of immigrants, this will only speed up. America was once a nation of immigrants, all of whom are now “American.” The future of Slavic Immigrants in America is marked by a lot of change. In this turmoil some are wanting to leave the Russian church and are wondering and are wondering about the morality of this choice. It is this question I hope to tackle. As far as I know, my attempt to address this specific issue is the only one in existence.
This article is not intended to promote church-hopping, or walking out on many churches because they don’t suit your selfish needs. But there are some circumstances where you will feel compelled to leave and join a different congregation. If you leave, find another Gospel centered church where you can grow and serve
First off, I cannot make the decision for you, and you should think about it with a sober heart and mind. There are good reasons to leave, but there are also bad ones. This is a huge decision that you ought not rush because of the harm it can bring. If you know the nature of our Russian community, you know there will be a great deal of tension with between you and your current church for even considering this. Understand this will affect your family and friends; you will face repercussions. Some of these are natural and normal, others are may even cause people you love to reject you, shun you, and consider you lost. If that is the case, and you receive virulent anger and hate for simply discussing leaving, it is a sign of an abusive church and you should run without even reading this article. At the same time what you might see as tension, may be a form of sadness as people genuinely care for you, want your best and don’t want you to leave their lives. Navigating this is not easy, and I don’t recommend people to do this lightly or for the wrong reasons. Also, this is written as if the only trajectory is from a Russian church to an American. I want to note that not every Russian church is bad, and not every American church is good. In addition, there is the option of trying to reform your church, plant another Russian church, or even switching from one Russian church to another. Yet, I am not here to answer those questions, just the question of “under what circumstances should I leave the Russian church?” Whatever your choice, do so with prayer and careful consideration.
DO YOU HAVE BAD OR GOOD MOTIVES?
Below I want to discuss some good reasons to leave, and bad reasons to leave your Russian church, provided you have legitimate reasons. This is not a scandalous list that says “all Russian churches are bad,” by no means! This is not a list that says “One of my old churches was this bad,” by no means. But these are issues that I have had people write or talk to me about, so they exist. I also don’t mean to pick on the Russian church, as these reasons will also apply to any church nationality. Yet I am of a Slavic background, and to quote my dad “you can never take that away.” So thus, this is written with/from a Slavic background.
As you go through these evaluate yourself, your motives, your church, and think about what God wants for your life. I would encourage you to pray through these, and avoid rushing into anything (unless said church is abusive). If you find out that your motive was listed in the “bad reasons” you may really have to rethink this. If you find that you have many serious reasons to leave, and feel compelled that this is the right thing, there is still the manner of leaving in a way that is gentle and filled with love. Below are ten reasons people leave, and bad and good variations of those reasons. I have attempted to write these out in order of importance, with the least important first, and the most important last.
Bad Reason: I don’t like the style of music
If you feel that the music is not up to date, not done very professionally, or not your style, this is a bad reason to leave a church. The church is an assembly (ekklesia) of many different people, with many different tastes or styles. All of whom are equally important to God. Why the heck should you get the right to pick what style is best and force it on everyone? It’s not about you finding musical satisfaction in a style or genre. To think that is purely selfish, and completely against the Christian idea of selflessness. If you are thinking of leaving only because you personally don’t like the music style, please, go to a concert, buy some CD’s, and stay in your church.
Good Reason: The lyrics are theologically wrong
While the melodies and methods of singing may change over time, God’s Word remains the same. Often artists and poets write lyrics based on popular ideas or sentiment that is wrong. Whether country, opera, rock, & rap, if the lyrics glorify Jesus it is a good song. However, if your church often sings songs that dilute the Gospel, salvation by works, or teach other bad theological ideas, then no style can redeem that song. One particular problem I often see is songs that don’t focus on singing how good Jesus is, but how good we are and how well we will obey him. One Russian song (I refuse to sing) goes on about how the apostles didn’t recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus, but then loudly proclaims, “But I would have known it was you.” I don’t think so, I’m not better than the apostles, I’m pretty sure I’d be blind too unless He opened my eyes. Now it’s not wise to storm out after one or two songs, I’d recommend talking to the leaders and explaining your concern. Though if bad songs run rampant, it kinds goes to show the importance of doctrine.
Bad Reason: The language used is hard to understand
The language consideration is usually the most common complaint as to why people leave ethnic Slavic churches for American speaking churches. There is a great deal of variety when it comes to language problems. Some people genuinely do not understand the Russian language, while others simply don’t understand some of the slang and Christian terminology in Russian. If your or a family member (spouse or children) genuinely do not understand, seek accommodation. One thing that can be done is having the pastor or preachers use simplified terminology and explain the meaning of words. Another things that you can look into is having services be translated, preferably from the stage (those earphones isolate people). Many Russian churches are starting to make a transition, or inclusion, of English. Perhaps your situation can be the catalyst that helps your church adopt the English language. If you have some trouble, and love the church, have no other issues, I suggest seeking accommodation first.
Good Reason: I/we don’t understand the language and there is no accommodation or future
In some cases there are people in your family that completely don’t understand. For example, if your spouse is a native of some other country. If that is the case, you are justified in leaving. You can also stay and try to move the church to adopt English, if you want, but leaving is perfectly acceptable. In some cases it is important to leave in order to care for your family. For example if you have children that don’t understand the Russian language and the Sunday school fails to accommodate your situation. A couple of my friends left their Russian church because it would not introduce the English language. They left to another church that focuses heavily on engaging both Russians and Americans. The interesting thing was that these friends were not particularly good English speakers, yet they understood the importance of the English language if the church is to have a future.
3. STANDARDS OF APPEARANCE
Bad Reason: There is a “Russian” dress code
Let’s face it, most ethnic Slavic churches do have a specific dress code. Very obviously this dress code is based upon the Soviet culture of the early Slavic church. I do see that it is hard to have new believers join a church where the dress code is so different from today’s American culture. Yet this is hardly a reasons to leave. Every nation or group have a common dress code. If you go to a church with “no dress code” and wear a glittery yellow spandex bodysuit, you will get stares because it is foreign to them. There is nothing bad or sinful about dressing in that “Russian” style as opposed to any other style in the world. To leave because you don’t like the way people other people dress, is a bad reason.
Good Reason: Rejection or Holiness is based on appearance
One tragic thing that happens in some Slavic churches an “external-appearance based righteousness.“ Those who dress within the culture, are viewed as being more godly and spiritually mature. And those who dress differently, are judged to be disobedient, worldly, lackluster “Christians.” The last time I went to a Russian church there was a mention of the idea that God brought the Slavic’s to America, in part, to show them our external appearance. Often when touching this topic, Slavic conservatives will argue that this is about avoiding sexuality and lust issues. I disagree, tights skirts and high heels are far sexier than a set of thick sweatpants. Yet the first is a standard youth outfit, the second will bring shame and humiliation to the girl who wears it. Overall, if the “Russian” style is said to be the only Biblical and righteous way, that is a bad twisting of Scripture. If people are rejected, shamed, and looked down upon for wearing something different it teaches a very dangerous idea, that our “badness” or “goodness” comes not from Jesus, not even from our heart or motives, but from the mask we wear to church.
4. CULTURE OF HONESTY AND CONFESSION
Bad Reason: Someone said something bad about you
If you have a situation where there is sin or gossip involved, and you want to throw up your hands and leave, I strongly recommend you wait. Everyone is sinful and prone to say bad things about other people. The church you will leave to, will have the same types of sinful people who make mistakes. It’s never a good idea to leave a church because you have been wronged once or twice. You have probably wronged people as well, and not even realized it. If that is the case, try your best to deal with the people involved, if that doesn’t work, bring a few friends or a youth leader to try to resolve the issue. If that doesn’t work, try a pastor. In any event, when you feel judged or shamed by some gossip, it may be that many people are against his and love you. Bad news always stings so hard that we fail to hear the good news.
Good Reason: You see a lifelong pattern of saying bad about others, never about self
A church needs to create a culture of honesty. James 5:16 tells us that we ought to “confess to one another.” One thing some Slavic churches do is teach a formal confession to the elders (this is seen as a very scary, serious, shameful thing) but don’t encourage openness to everyone. This can lead to a very broken culture, a culture of dishonesty and pretended holiness. If people never talk about their failures, but always gossip about someone who sins openly, this perverts the church. Instead of seeing everyone as sinful and needing Jesus, it creates a vision that some are more holy, others are more sinful. It can create perceived ranks of holiness, which leads to pride for those on top and depression for those on the bottom. If this culture of dishonesty exists at your church, it will strongly discourage people to be honest and deal with their sin, instead they will learn to hide it. This can be a very serious restriction to everyone’s spiritual growth and crushes evangelism. This is a dangerous road.
5. FAIRNESS OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
Bad Reason: I sinned and don’t like being punished
The Bible does teach the idea of church discipline. It only deals with one formal type, called excommunication, when someone is cut off from the church until they repent. Matthew 18:15-20 shows the procedure for this, which includes an attempt for private reconciliation first, then includes a small group, ultimately involving the whole church. In Slavic culture there is two types of discipline, zamechaniya (literally translated “notice”) and otluchenia (translatedas “being cut off” or “excommunication”). The first places people on a temporary probation, the second removes them from being members of the church. Both can be done with good intent, to bless a person. The same way a parent spanks a child, while crying on the inside. I know of people who were caught sinning, they only “repented” because they were caught, and ultimately left the church in rebellion. If the punishment is done with love and care, not to shame you, then leaving is selfish and wrong.
Good Reason: I wanted to repent, but instead was publicly humiliated for life
Paul excommunicates an unrepentant man who committed incest and adultery, sleeping with his mother (1 Cor 5:1-5). Paul does this with the hope that he would repent. In 2 Cor 2:5–8, Paul tells the church to receive, forgive, and affirm their love for a repentant sinner. Most scholars think this is the same man. Regardless church discipline is to be used on someone who refuses to repent. And then, Scripture commands the person is to be accepted and loved, not considered a leper for the rest of their life. I know of people who have been abused by some Slavic churches, they came to repent, they opened their hearts, and in return were publicly humiliated and never loved. It is my biblical conviction that excommunication is for those who refuse to repent, not for those who sinned. Everybody sinned. Duh. We should all be excommunicated if that’s the case. If your church is abusive, and scares everyone by excommunicating any sinner who tries to repent, the church is broken. It is pushing away people who come to repent and pretends it doesn’t need repentance. That church becomes like an army that shoots its own wounded. Now, if someone fights at every step of Mat 18:15-20, is rebellious, and the church refuses to excommunicate, that’s a bad example to others and not biblical. Yet if someone is repentant at every step and the leaders then parade those sins in front of everyone, and the church then labels that person by their sins for life, this is wicked and satanic. If you see people avoiding repentant sinners like lepers and hear references about “that girl who slept with that guy” or “that one man who was a drunk.” Leave Jesus is not with them, he is with the sinners who are trying to repent.
6. FOCUS ON CULTURE
Bad Reason: They are too Russian, I’m way more American
If you have a bitter taste in your mouth for anything Russian or Ukrainian, you have to search your heart for sin. I am being very serious here. Some people who have grown up in the fundamentalist fringe are so traumatized by the culture, they turn around and hate it. I completely understand the feeling. Its normal to feel apprehensive if you have been forced to live or think in a Russian way, and none of it feels like the “real you.” However, to respond with bitterness at the Russian culture is a sin. It is wrong for Slavic’s to enthusiastically state their culture is “better” than another. It is equally wrong to state that it is worse. It’s wiser to love and try influence those members of your church who are very culturally biased, rather than to leave because you don’t like their culture.
Good Reason: They have replaced Jesus Issues with Cultural issues.
The church transcends culture. Cultures have come and gone, but the pillars of Christianity have been immovable throughout the ages. As I said above, culture need not divide people in a church, and it’s wise to try to influence each other towards love and cultural inclusiveness. Yet, this can only work if the church has a healthy view of culture. If people are arrogant and will defend their culture to the death, you can do nothing. In some cases our Slavic people gain so much identity from their ethnic background, that their priorities get all messed up. The most important values become “keeping our language” or “keeping our culture.” (Jesus isn’t even on the top ten list). Other nationalities are viewed as lower and less worthy. Holiness is seen as something only the Russian churches have. When a church begins to mix culture with Christianity they destroy Christianity. People mix Biblical doctrines with human culture (Russian, in this case), and call both doctrine. This type of situation in a church can lead to a generation of young adults who don’t follow the Bible. They become hyper-liberals and hyper-conservatives. The first are disappointed with Christianity because they have seen the Bible take a second place to culture. They don’t trust anyone or anything. The second group obeys cultural ideas they hear, and even when shown Scriptures that challenge their ideas, they ignore it. They think they are perfect in their understanding and all other Christians are wrong. Thus allowing culture to be as important as Scripture, is one of the most dangerous things a church can do. It’s very dangerous to be in a church that teaches culture on the same level as Christianity.
7. SPIRITUAL GROWTH
Bad Reason: They are not serving me the way I want
I once heard a pastoral statistic that said something along the lines of “the people you spent the most time on serve the least, the ones you spent the least amount of time, serve the most.” It turns out that this is not a new phenomenon. Many really selfish people fill churches and expect everything to be about them. They expect the leaders to talk to them after every service, deal with their problems, give them a popular ministry, pray for them more than for others. The truth is they just want the attention. If this does not happen, they begin to complain about the church, the pastors, youth leaders and etc. Oftentimes there are “pet doctrines” these people have and refuse to leave if the church does not accommodate. For example they might leave if the church does not teach jewelry is a sin. On the other side of the spectrum, others will leave because the church allows jewelry. These issues have nothing to do with spiritual growth, these issues have to do with selfishness.
Good Reason: They are stalling my spiritual growth
Let us be very honest here: people fail. What is a church? A collection of people. We have already agreed that people fail, so now let’s agree that churches also fail. A fundamentalist with a booming voice would stop us here and say “The church never fails! The gates of hell will not prevail!!!” Not so fast. That same guy will turn to all the American churches and say they are all failed. Really, sir? Again, churches can fail. Not everyone is perfect, and many have flaws. That is not a reason to leave, but some deal with their flaws in such a way, that he growth of members is stunted and broken. If you have been going to the same church for a long time and see yourself not growing, reflect a bit. Sometimes we are bored in church because we need to repent. Other times we are bored in church because the preacher needs to repent. Its either one or the other. If you have done everything from your end, and grow at home, but stall in church, there may be a problem. If you repent, genuinely try to obey Gods word, authentically try to love others, truthfully give the church a chance and still consistently fail to grow in Christ, think about leaving for a place where you can. If you find yourself feeling angry and confused after sermons at your church, and blessed, hopeful, peaceful, at another, think about why that is. If you find that you can focus on Jesus and the Bible on one church, but at your church you can only think of the politics and hope people don’t look down at you, worry about your soul. If you learn much from podcasts and then go to your church where you are confused by three contradictory sermons that all botch the same passage, then it may be wise to leave. Remember, first repent and give the church a chance, it might be you that is the problem, but if every attempt to repent and learn from them fails to give you growth, politely leave. Quite frankly, your eternal soul is worth a great deal more than being respected or rejected by people.
8. DOCTRINES OF MEN
Bad Reason: The church is just way too strict
The most common assumption Russians make about those who leave their system, is that they leave for “easy Christianity.” I have heard this many times, even from a mother speaking about her daughter. It is a very common misconception among some that American churches allow one to sin and be a halfhearted Christian. (As a side note, American churches are very varied, from those that allow homosexuals to be pastors all the way to those who cast demons out of them –both of these cases being small wacky churches). The truth is Biblical churches, though they be American are not “easier” on sin. If you think your church is “too strict” and you are thinking you want to get drunk and have a wild frat party, you are first crazy, and second very wrong. Many of the things Russian churches are “strict” on happen to be Biblical principles. If you want to leave because you want to sin, your problem is not the church, it’s your heart.
Good Reason: The church teaches lots of rules that are not in the Bible
There is another type of “strictness” that Russian churches often have. This is a type legalism (though legalism is a bigger concept). When a church is strict about things that are not in the Bible, this is a very bad idea. Jesus actually yelled at people for doing this (Mark 7:7-8). Often these things are cultural, sometimes they are practical, other times they are simply preferential. In some cases what happens is certain behaviors, that are in the Bible as voluntary, become taught as very mandatory. There are some things that make sense based on cultural practices and etc. Yet the moment something is called a sin, when scripture doesn’t do so directly or by principle, is wicked. To add words to the Bible is unthinkable and carries punishment (Rev 22:19) and to enforce it on others is even worse (James 3:1). A healthy church will not add immovable rules to the Bible and state they are God’s rules. If they are doing this, it means that they don’t understand the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. By its very definition it takes a very domineering and abusive person or group to do this. If you are in this situation, run. If the church does not hold the Word of God in high regard, or has no idea about how to interpret the Bible, do not trust your soul to their abusive practices.
9. PERSONAL CALLING
Bad Reason: I just feel like it
The reason to leave or stay based on personal call is near the top of the list for a reason. One of the most important reasons for leaving or staying at a church is the personal call of each person. However, in many cases it’s easy to confuse having a call with the silence that you feel. Sometimes the feeling of emptiness you have at your church, doesn’t mean you are called somewhere else. It may be that you need to plug yourself even deeper into the church. It may be your feelings are just plain wrong and you need stop doing things based off of “I just feel like it.” I often feel like doing things that turn out to be rubbish in the end. Don’t make a rash decision just because you feel like it. Think and pray about it, if God has a different plan for your life, He will make you be certain of it.
Good Reason: I feel called to be or serve elsewhere
Many of the reasons for leaving a church listed in this article have to do with problems in said church. The rationale is that when a church is Biblical there are less reasons to leave it. Yet there are times when one is in a great church and still needs to leave. Not because the church is broken and you fleeing, but because you have a different call in life. When such a thing happens, there is a calm peace inside your heart. I know personally that my realization was very calm. I simply knew that my place was no longer in Bethel as the youth pastor but elsewhere. It was hard to come to grips with this because some of my family and friends are there, and this is hard on them. Yet, I am so filled with peace and certainty about my decision I know I must leave. I personally understand the fear you might have regarding family and friends abandoning you. It’s not an easy thing to overcome. Unfortunately we get very carried away with tribalism. We often feel that our group is the best and when people leave our group, we feel they don’t love us. This might be some of the feelings you family or friends will come up with. Just do your best to explain you love them and have your heart set on another place.
10. DOCTRINE OF THE CROSS
Bad Reason: They are wrong on something so I hate them
If your church has corrupt doctrine, especially regarding the centrality and preeminence of Jesus and how he accomplished out salvation on the cross, there is absolutely no bad reason to leave. Except if you leave purely because you are angry or hate them. Never leave out of hate. If there are serious reasons to leave the church, even if its abusive, don’t make your main motive hate. If you have been wronged by someone, by ideas, by culture, forgive first because they “know not what they do.” Perhaps if you had been in their shoes and upbringing, you might just do the same things. Leave because it’s the right direction for you, but never because of bitterness.
Good Reason: They teach Christianity without the Cross
Christianity is all about the Cross of Christ. Before the cross it was Judaism. After the Cross it became Christianity. The death, burial, & resurrection of Jesus takes the central and paramount position in Christianity. If the church does not “preach Christ crucified” they’re very little chance it’s actually a church (1 Cor 2:2). There are two bad directions that people take churches. Both directions look nothing alike, yet they are equally unchristian and take away the Cross from Christianity. They are liberalism and legalism. The first abandons the Bible by saying that it’s an old book of stories, and “sins” are not really sins. The second abandons the Bible by saying that Jesus didn’t do what he came to do, and we have to add to him by our own means. Since the Russian church has no struggles with liberalism (yet) I will mainly deal with the other option. Legalism has to do with the way people treat sin and good works. Often a church will teach that salvation depends on not doing a certain sin, or perhaps not sinning at all. That is a quid pro quo (equal exchange) view. In other words, if you don’t do this, you will be blessed and saved; if you do this, you will be cursed and go to hell. Your eternal salvation depends on your actions. This makes sense, at first, but upon Biblical scrutiny, this is the same position that all religions teach. You be good, you get good.
Christianity states that Jesus died for our bad, and because if that we get the good. This is called the substitutionary atonement. That means Jesus was our substitute, he took our place of judgment. He was the atonement or payment for sin. He also freely gives us his righteous record. It’s as if both you and Jesus had white robes and were waiting to go into a large palace. Then you went and got your robe dirty. Jesus took your dirty peasants robe, and gave you his white Kings robe to wear. He was taken away to be cast out and punished for wearing your dirty robe. And you got invited into the palace because of the robe you have. Your righteousness is an “alien rigorousness” this means it was not yours. The punishment of Jesus was an your punishment. This is what happened on the cross. And we are saved and go to heaven ONLY because of what Jesus did. We only do good deeds because Jesus did this first and sent his Spirit to help us fight sin. We love him because he first loved us. We serve others because He first served us. We accomplish things for His kingdom, because he first accomplished our eternal salvation. We are saved though we don’t and never will deserve it. This is the idea called Grace. If your church does not teach this as the central tenet of Christianity, it is not a Christian church. If your church thinks the cross is a basic thing for new Christians, and not important, they are not a Christian church. If you are called to add something to the work of Jesus to earn salvation, it is not a Christian church. If you don’t go to a Christian church, where the cross is preached, where Christ is glorified, where Grace is given, evangelize them, and leave if they refuse to repent from this grave sin. (Mat 10:14).