Well-churched areas make fertile soil for the proverbial church-hopper. I know this because I’ve been a pastor in such an area for more than 26 years! Lancaster, Pennsylvania is an unusually churched community. This comes with blessings and challenges. The Churches exert great influence and perform countless acts of service to our larger community. But in well-churched areas, the ecclesiastical pattern is often the rotation of the saints. The Church furniture keeps moving. The fish swim from fish bowl to fish bowl. The sheep sample a variety of flocks. Perhaps it’s just human nature to take good things for granted when surrounded by so much blessing. But how should we think about this trend?
Most pastors would be willing to admit that too many people leave churches for superficial reasons. The span covers anything from music styles to carpet colors. Sometimes people leave because of disappointment with the pastoral staff not meeting their expectations. Some leave because they can’t (or won’t) get along with other church members. Community always tests the integrity of one’s walk with Christ. We are not called to walk alone. Yet walking together is a challenge. The little quip is well-heard:
“To dwell above with saints we love will certainly be glory; to live below with saints we know, that’s a different story!”
Before I am misunderstood, I believe there are some good reasons for leaving a Church. And to be completely fair, I acknowledge with sadness that the overall health of local churches is poor. Many Churches find themselves struggling through identity crises under weak leadership. This leaves people with feelings of instability and a desire for confident leadership. Pastors are often to blame for taking Churches through changes without teaching the people why it is necessary or helping them understand the biblical validity of the new direction. Change is never easy but it’s even harder without the instruction to prepare for it.
Over the years, we’ve had many people join us who have left other Churches. When this happens, we (leaders) try to make sure they’re leaving on good terms and for good reasons. We always appreciate it when they don’t treat their departure lightly. For some of these people, leaving their Church has been an agonizing and even heartbreaking trial. We have people come to us from Churches they attended their entire lives. Though strongly convinced they must leave, the process is painful. I see it on their faces when they begin to visit with us. I know that they need time to work things out and adjust. But I encourage them not to linger too long because we all need true biblical community in our walk with Christ (see: Hebrews 3:12-14).
Good reasons for leaving a Church
There are good reasons for leaving a church. False doctrine, unqualified leadership, misguided focus (lack of commitment to evangelism and discipleship), absence of accountability for righteous living,— these are issues to be taken seriously. But leaving a Church should not be taken lightly. Even if a believer has good reasons for leaving a Church, it should be done in a respectful manner. This should involve communication and appropriate expressions of appreciation. When speaking to others about the Church you are leaving, it should be done with honesty but as respectfully as possible. Good decisions are made in response to God not in reaction to man.
A closer look at Church hopping:
The problem of Church hopping is an example of the overall instability of our culture. It often reflects a deeply troubling trend of how easily people slide in and out of commitments. “Commitment” has become a revisable term in almost all spheres of life. With the prevailing discontentment in our culture, people are endlessly looking for something better. But better, often means more exciting, entertaining– more satisfying to the ruling self. I believe that Churches calling for higher levels of commitment should expect to be smaller. Although I pastor a relatively large Church, in 25 years of ministry as a senior pastor, I have often witnessed this disturbing trend. Please don’t take this as a slam against all mega-churches, but I truly believe that our Church would be much larger if we lowered the bar of commitment.
Confessions of a Church hopper:
In an article entitled “Confessions of a (Recovering) Church-hopper”, John Fischer acknowledged that, “In our free-market, commodity-rich society, it’s understandable that we would approach church as we would a shopping mall of spiritual products and services. This is the way our culture operates. In our hymnals we can still find those great hymns of the church like ‘A Mighty Fortress’ and ‘The Church’s One Foundation,’ but in our worship and practice we are probably more consistent with the Motown hit ‘You Better Shop Around.’”
Fischer describes the following scene from a church-hopping family: “‘Where shall we go this morning, dear?’ he says. ‘The music is great at Calvary but I like the teaching at Grace.’ ‘Don’t forget the kids,’ she says. ‘The youth program at Bethany is the best of all.’ ‘I’ve got it. We’ll drop the kids off at Bethany and go to Grace for teaching, and then we can start going to the Saturday night worship and praise services at Calvary.’”
What’s wrong with this picture? Fischer suggests at least three things:
First, we become critical consumers.
“As consumers we reserve the right to pass judgment on the products and services we use, and the companies that service us begin to cater to our demands. ‘The customer is always right’ may work well at McDonald’s, but in a church it undermines the authority of the Word of God and the leaders God has called to represent Him. We do not go to a particular church to decide whether that church is doing everything right, but to hear from God and humbly find out where we went wrong that week in our own lives and what we need to do to make it right.”
Second, we become invisible spectators.
“Church-hopping turns you into a nondescript pewsitter. A number. A statistic. When you’re shopping around, you never stay in one place long enough to know anybody or be known. We like this because we have gotten into a habit of being anonymous in our culture. Church-hopping helps protect anonymity we already possess, and it keeps us alone.”
Third, we become detached from what we are.
“When you were a child, did you ever make a church with your hands folded together, forefingers pointed up like a steeple and all your fingers interlocked inside? Remember opening your hands to see all the people? Well, that’s exactly it. We are the church. You and I are the fingers and toes and eyes and ears of the body of Christ. To be only a spectator in church is to detach yourself from who you are — like cutting off your fingers.”
A word of caution to pastors:
Be wise in how you receive those who “hop” your way. Don’t feel obligated to receive all of them and watch out for those who “secretly slip in among you” (Jude 4). Make sure that people leave a Church for good reasons and on as good terms as possible. I am convinced that the leadership and identity crises in Churches force many growing Christians to move on to places where they can flourish for God. But their attitude in leaving is crucial. Never allow someone under appropriate biblical discipline from one assembly to join your Church. Remember this well established rule: Church hoppers who hop your way and gush praise all over you (while criticizing their former church) will soon leave your Church with the same critical attitude. Finally, never advertise your ministry in a way that encourages people to leave their Churches because you have something better to offer them. Jesus said, “I will build my Church.” We dare not work at cross purposes with Him.