A certain woman who jumped from church to church decided that she was not at the right place. She informed her pastor, “Well, I believe it’s time for me to move again.” Mustering a rare forthrightness, he replied, “That’s okay. It does not matter that much when you change labels on an empty bottle.”
Of course, there are legitimate times and reasons to move your membership from one church to another. Conscience and conviction may require you to leave a church. In most instances, relocation results in the need to find a new church home. And there is a list of other situations in which it is appropriate and acceptable to transfer your membership. Let’s face it. We live in a mobile society. It is normal for people to change residences, jobs, cities, and churches. It is what it is. But it is wrong and irresponsible to accept this reality without scrutinizing it in light of the Lordship of Jesus Christ over the church.
Our failure to diligently pursue New Testament Christianity in congregational life has resulted in a phenomenon that would have been totally foreign to the early church – church hopping. You know what church hopping is, don’t you? It is when a person habitually jumps from one church to another.
Some do it in search of that elusive perfect church. Some do it to avoid accountability and responsibility. Some do it because they are bandwagon Christians, following whatever is considered new, exciting, or successful. Some do it because they view church to be like a buffet restaurant. In their selfishness, they design their own multi-site membership to satisfy their tastes. “I like the preaching here,” they say. “And I like the music over there. But I think that the other has a better youth program than all of them.” Still others do it because… Well, I think some people do it without really knowing why they do it. It is like a disease. Let’s call it CHS – Church Hopping Syndrome.
For the record, I am not talking about people who attend events or participate in worship services at different churches. I actually think it is beneficial to be exposed to what God is doing in other Christ-exalting, Bible believing churches. As long as it does not interfere with your commitment to your church, there is nothing wrong with visiting other churches. But it is wrong to be a resident visitor at several churches. For that matter, it is wrong to be a member of more than one congregation at a time. That is congregational polygamy. And it is wrong to jump from one church to another, just because you don’t like some things about our present church or you have found some things you like better at another church. This is serial monogamy. And it cheapens the bride of Christ.
How should we respond to the pervasive and spiritually counterproductive reality of church hopping?
The primacy of the pulpit. The number one reason people give for leaving a church is (insert drum roll): “I am just not being fed.” I could say the same thing about my wife’s cooking. But if I said that to Crystal, she would tell me, “I cooked a healthy meal. If you do not want what I cooked, you are on your own.” This should be how we respond to those who give this spiritual sounding excuse for church hopping. I accept the fact that there will be people who leave my congregation. But with God’s help, I am determined that they will not be able to legitimately say they left because they were not being fed. They will have to come up with some other excuse… uh… I mean reason. A strong pulpit has a way of anchoring a church and holding a congregation together. So by all means, preach!
There is another side of this coin. While biblical preaching will draw and keep people, it also has a way of driving people away. In 2 Timothy 4:3, Paul warns, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (ESV). If you are committed to sound doctrine and biblical exposition, be prepared for some people to avoid or leave your church. They will find themselves a place where the preacher is saying what they want to hear, rather than what the word of God teaches. But play the man and stay the course. 2 Timothy 4:5 says, “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” In short, be faithful. And the Lord will reward your faithfulness.
Pastoral ethics. There was a time when it was harder for a person to jump church from church to church, because there was a certain code of conduct among local pastors. If you left my church and went to a church across town, the pastor over there would call to inform me and ask some questions about you. You could not cause trouble in one church and then pop up somewhere else without the pastor asking why you left your previous church. In fact, when I was boy, it was customary to hear pastors say during the invitational period, “You can come as a candidate for baptism, by your Christian experience, or by letter.”
That’s right. If you were joining from another church, many churches would require that you have a letter of recommendation from the church you left. That may sound like some crazy tradition. But it was the practice of the New Testament church. But now pastors are so busy competing with one another that we do not care where people come from or why. We only care about whether people are coming down the aisles and the membership roster is increasing. But if we as pastors would be more intentional about how we receive new members and more careful about how our policies demonstrate respect for other churches, it would disassemble the launching pad for many church hoppers.
Membership matters. We can discourage unnecessary church hopping by striving to make membership more meaning in our local churches. It begins with the new members class. First of all, we should make sure that we have one. Then we should make sure it clearly presents the gospel, affirms a biblical statement of faith, explains the church’s mission, clarifies local church dynamics and distinctives, and clearly states what new members can expect from your church, as well as what your church expects of them.
We also need to make sure that our congregations are governed by a plurality of godly men. Call them what you will – elders, associate pastors, or whatever. But a healthy church needs a team of godly men who are keeping watch over the souls of the membership (Heb. 13:17). This is not the biblical responsibility of deacons. And with all due respect, trustees don’t actually have any biblical responsibilities. Churches have them to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Even when trustees are charged with the administration of church finances and facilities, they should not be considered the board that runs the church. The gospel mission, disciple making work, and spiritual health of the church must be the unmolested priorities – not church business. Without a doubt, people are more prone to stay at a church where there is not political infighting over who is in charge.
Since I am wading into controversial waters, let me dive in and add that meaningful church membership also requires that we practice church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20). I know that our natural inclination is to avoid joining a church that will try to hold us accountable for our actions. But you really shouldn’t be a part of a church that does not love you enough to kick you out if you are unrepentant and stubborn about your sinful lifestyle! This is not religious legalism. It is New Testament fellowship. And church hoppers would have few places to hop to if more churches would strive to nurture biblical community where mutual submission to one another is expected and practiced.
Our churches also need to develop vital ministry programs that draw people closer to Christ and to another. No, I do not think we should facilitate the consumer mindset many people have by treating them as if the church exists for them. But we should be about meeting needs, not just doing church. More specifically, we should help people for Jesus’ sake. This means that the church should not be a charity, social club, political action group. There are plenty of organizations that are not Christ-centered to do these things. Let the church be the church! We should be our exalting Christ, reaching the lost, and nurturing disciples. This is all the more true when it comes to our children, youth, and young adults. We are rapidly losing the next generation. So it is essential that we cultivate ministry in a way that is meaningful to young people and that assists families in bringing up their children in the training and admonition of the Lord.
Sheep Stealing. All statistics report that the Christian church is in decline in America. For the first time since the birth and early development of this nation, the trend is that more missionaries are being sent to American than from America. The condition of the contemporary church in the states can be best described as a falling away. But you would not get this indication by watching Christian TV or reading Christian magazines. Just look at all the popular Christian performing artists, large conferences being convened, and so-called megachurches sprouting up all over the place. You would think that a true revival is sweeping across America. But the reality is a lot of churches are growing through transfer growth, rather than conversion growth. Many have abandoned the disciple making process and think they are fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) through the circulation of the saints. Sheep stealing has become our church growth strategy.
I sometimes hear pastors say, “If you are not growing where you are going, you should not be going there.” I agree, in principle. But I do not think the question of whether you are growing where you are going should be emphasized in our appeals for membership. It sends the wrong message and assumes that if a person is not growing where they are going, it must be the fault of the pastor or the church. Could it be that you are not growing where you are going because of your own selfish and sinful behavior? 1 Peter 2:1-3 says: “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” Maybe you are not growing where you are going because there are some attitudes and habits you need to put away.
Get over it. People leave churches all the time. Some have legitimate understandable reasons for why the leave. Others leave for silly reasons. But don’t let it stress you out. You are not the only show in town. Praise God for that! We are not in this by ourselves. God has seven thousand knees that have not bowed to Baal and tongues that do not sing his praises. You are not in this thing alone. God raises up all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people.
The church I serve is surrounded by many other strong and stable churches in town that do ministry differently than my congregation. That’s a good thing. We have no reason to be jealous of any church. We should be very careful about criticizing other churches that the Lord is using to exalt Christ, teach scripture, and reach people. And we should learn to celebrate what God is doing in other congregations. After all, we are all on the same team. And the Lord Jesus Christ has already won the victory. Let us rejoice together whenever we are claiming territory for the kingdom, even if it is not my brigade that claims the hill.