I realize this practice is not unique to my community, but I think it happens in the Greenville, South Carolina area at an unusual level. Too much, in fact.
According to City-Data, there are 473 Evangelical Protestant churches in Greenville County. This does not include mainline denominational churches. Recently a visitor to our church told me she was looking for a church and had attended over 50 so far! (She was not church-hopping, she was church-shopping. There’s a difference.) There are many, many church options with varying degrees and shades of distinction. If a church member becomes disenchanted with his current church, he can most likely find another one that promises to match his preferences in a particular element of church life.
This isn’t the only locale where people frequently change churches. In searching for relevant information, I found an article on Church Hopping in Kenya! So the phenomenon is universal. But during the nearly 12 years I have pastored in the Greenville area, I have observed this taking place more than anywhere else I have ministered.
There are legitimate reasons for people to change churches within their current community. But there are also reasons that are not so good, and there are also ways of doing it that are potentially harmful to the individual and to the churches involved.
I want to understand this phenomenon better. I want to make some observations about it and state concerns. And I want to suggest, for myself and others, some positive steps to consider.
I’m probably opening myself up to hearing some difficult things. I probably need to hear them. I’ll try to have thick skin. One of the points I will make later is that as pastors we should be providing venues and building relationships with our people so that when they have concerns they feel comfortable expressing them rather than just disappearing. So I’m ready to listen as well as talk.
Maybe some local pastors will find this and want to make some observations and suggestions. Please do.
It’s probably obvious that, as a pastor, I really struggle with this, especially when it’s such a common occurrence. Maybe I should try to put myself in the place of people who change churches. What would I do if I weren’t a pastor, and if I or some of my family were struggling with the church we attended? It’s hard to say. But I want to learn as a pastor, and I want to encourage and challenge people regarding the issue.
What Are People Thinking When They Decide to Change Churches?
Some tell you what they’re thinking, but many don’t. Some tell their friends. Some drift away silently. In my experience very, very few will initiate contact with a member of our pastoral staff and explain their reasons for leaving. Some will play “hide and seek” with the pastors—they withdraw from ministry involvement, gradually stop attending various functions and services, then don’t return phone calls or emails when we try to find out what’s going on.
So it’s not always easy to determine what people are thinking. But here’s what I have learned.
There are people who think their current church is not meeting their needs. The youth ministry, singles ministry, family ministry, benevolence care, etc., isn’t fulfilling their expectations. They leave to look for a church that will meet these perceived needs.
Some are looking for a different kind of preaching—more practical, more confrontational, more dynamic, more evangelistic, more relevant, more helpful for new believers, more nourishing to mature believers.
Some have a hard time being “connected.” They are not making friends, not growing in relationships, can’t find where they fit. So they float elsewhere, looking for that connectivity.
Sometimes people leave because they disagree with changes happening in the church. This is usually not over doctrine. It’s almost always about personal preferences. Often there is not just one issue but an accumulation of issues that leads to someone leaving. When the church, or the leadership of the church, refines their philosophy, develops new elements of church life or ministry, updates the look or makes adjustments to the culture of the church, some people will adapt and others will depart.
Or, on the other hand, there are people who don’t think enough changes are being made, or the changes are not happening rapidly enough for them.
A few times families have left over what I’ll call a counseling issue. In these cases, we’ve provided counsel through a difficult situation, often involving a problem between family members. The family has strong negative opinions about the counsel we’ve provided, and leaves the church over it.
Many instances of church-hopping happen because of conflict. One member has an interpersonal conflict with another member. There is disagreement, hurt, cold-shoulder treatment, and hard feelings. There may be a perceived offense and no effort to talk with the offender about the issue in order to resolve it—the solution is to leave. Or a person has a conflict with ministry workers, over how their child was treated by a teacher or nursery worker, for example. There are people who have a very shallow commitment level to the church, and one offense, disagreement, or instance of perceived neglect is enough reason for them to leave and look elsewhere.
Interpersonal conflicts are frequently business-related. Christians like to do business with other Christians. It feels safe and it’s nice to support other believers. But if there’s a disagreement, it can get extremely messy. Construction projects and investment schemes turn into major sources of conflict between church members. I have seen this happen in the Greenville area more than anywhere else I have lived and ministered. When this kind of conflict happens, it’s rare that both parties will be satisfied with the outcome. If both parties are members of the same church, one often leaves.
And finally, some are recruited, or at least invited, by their friends who have migrated to another church.
Concerns Our Pastors Have with the Church-Hopping Phenomenon
I’ll state them in the form of questions to be considered. I hope they will challenge people who might be part of this phenomenon to evaluate what they’re really doing.
- Are you avoiding needed personal growth in your own life by leaving your church and going someplace that you think will better fit your preferences and perceived needs?
- Are you more committed to your own preferences on non-essential issues than you are to the body of Christ, the absolutes of Scripture, and your relationships with the members and leadership of your church family?
- Is it right for you to run from conflict and disagreement with others (whether they are other church members or leaders) rather than do the hard but God-honoring work of walking through problems with them, having some uncomfortable conversations that result in growth for yourself and others?
- Have you considered that other members or leaders in your current church may need to hear your input so they can process your concerns and possibly make changes in their own lives or in the life of the church?
- Should you learn to live with people who are different, who apply truth to life in ways that don’t align with your own lifestyle applications, but who love and serve Jesus Christ with dedication and passion?
- Have you considered how your decision to change churches will impact others? Will your leaving potentially influence others to respond to problems by leaving also? Will your friends make your problems their problems and follow your example?
- If you have a family, what will your actions teach your children about how to respond to conflict, disagreement, or differences among Christians?
- Do you realize that you may find a church that seems to fit your list of criteria for a desirable place to attend, but that will one day disappoint you, just like we have? What will you do then?
- What is your decision really about? God? Others? Or you?
In the next article I’ll make some constructive suggestions for addressing the issue of the church-hopping phenomenon in our community.
Dean Taylor is Senior Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Simpsonville, South Carolina. He has served in pastoral ministry for twenty-five years. Dean is a graduate of Bob Jones University and Seminary (BA Bible, MA Theology, MDiv) and Northland International University (DSM). His delights include his family, reading, and the great outdoors.