Eight months ago, my wife and I sold our house and moved 650 miles to a new town. I hope to never see the inside of a moving truck again. After finding a new bank, new doctors, and a new (old) house, we faced one last, dreaded task: church shopping. In four months we made eight visits to six different churches representing four different denominations.
It felt awkward selecting a church as if it were a package of bacon. Is it a trustworthy brand? Should I buy lower sodium, or reduced nitrates? Thick or thin sliced? Center cut or regular size? Small, medium, or large congregation? Traditional music or contemporary worship band? Teaching preacher or inspirational speaker? Are the people friendly without being pushy? Do the programs and ministries meet the needs of my family? How close to home is it?
I’d prefer to approach church shopping less like buying bacon and more like dating someone in a serious relationship. We could ask about shared values, commitment to the relationship, joint participation in a mission, and—for Christian relationships, at least—a focus on God as the center of everything we do.
Church Shopper or Church Hopper?
As we visited different churches, I began wondering, when does church shopping turn into church hopping? If we left after three visits, does that make us church hoppers? Probably not. What about after six months? What about every two years? Or five?
Church hoppers attend one church after another within the same community, without committing to any one church for any significant period of time. Why do they do that? It might be because a favorite pastor leaves or a new pastor rubs them the wrong way. It might be changes in worship style or leadership style or personal conflicts with other church members. Maybe changes in their families’ needs compel them to find churches that provide appropriate ministries.
In the eyes of pastors and church leaders, though, church hoppers might be seen as free riders who consume church resources but contribute little. Church hopping could be a sign of spiritual immaturity or unwillingness to commit to a community of believers. It might not be good for children and teens either, for they thrive best in stable environments where they can form relationships with teachers and friends.
Is church hopping a dysfunctional result of a consumer society over-saturated with churches? Would it be better to follow the parish concept, where you attend the church in your neighborhood and stick with it through thick and thin? Is there an alternative?
Church Droppers: Beyond Shopping and Hopping
One alternative has been investigated by sociologist Josh Packard, who identified another group of people with a unique relationship to the church: those who have dropped out. These church droppers don’t go from church to church. In fact, they tend to be longtime, faithful members of their churches. And when they leave, it’s usually not for reasons of theology, worship style, or pastoral leadership. Instead, church droppers say they encountered too much judgment, bureaucracy, dogmatism, and moral policing to stay.
Nor are they interested in shopping for a new church, at least not in the foreseeable future. They are done with church, period. (For a full portrait of these “Dones,” see Packard’s new book, Church Refugees. Also available on Amazon.)
I’ll confess, it was tempting to join their ranks. Moving to a new community where we had no Christian connections would have made it easy to drop out of church altogether. And goodness knows, we’ve seen enough judgment and dogmatism to last us the rest of our lives. Although others have found ways to connect with God and God’s people without the church, we weren’t able to, so we found a church where we could worship and serve.
Still the questions linger: What is the appropriate relationship between Christians and church? Can one exist without the other? How do you find the right “fit”? When, if ever, is it best to break the bonds that tie one to the other?