BETSY HART: The gospel according to church 'hoppers'

Scripps Howard News ServiceJuly 5, 2007 

Church "hopping" is the ultimate "all about me" experience.

I'm not talking about church "shopping" -- say, moving into a new community, or deciding to start attending church altogether, and then visiting churches until becoming a member of one as soon as reasonably possible. And I'm not talking about leaving one's church after finding unaddressed scandal in a church's leadership, for instance, or when a person's conscience becomes persuaded that something foundational to the belief system of that church is very wrong.

I'm talking about the growing tendency in America's evangelical churches for folks who decide, after they have officially joined a particular church, that "Oh, that pastor down the street is a little more high-energy than mine," or "Gee, the music here isn't really meeting my needs right now," or "I really am not crazy about that new children's church director."

They just up and leave, and go to a new church in their community.

Until they hop from that one.

Respected Christian pollster George Barna, The Christian Science Monitor and other publications, and any Protestant pastor will tell you that church hopping is an increasing and, it appears, insidious trend. Here's where I really agree with my Roman Catholic friends when they say: "You Protestants are so focused on your 'personal relationship with Christ' that you forget it's not all about you."

Exactly. I see people come and go from my own (growing and vibrant) congregation. Sometimes I know the reason, and sometimes I don't. But I do know that every time a person who has made a public vow of membership to the church body leaves for superficial reasons, he leaves a unique hole. The departure dispirits the pastor and often the children of the congregation and other members of the body. ("Mom, how come the Joneses aren't members here anymore? I saw Mrs. Jones at the store yesterday.")

Moreover, hopping from a church when a desire, or even a real need, isn't being met in the moment means that person can't ultimately be held accountable in his religious life. He just hops if he doesn't want anyone reaching out to him.

(One of the best ways to discourage hopping, by the way, is for the receiving church to discern a hopper and encourage him to return to his home church, but there are a lot of unfortunate disincentives to doing that.)

Anyway, unlike a job, or a neighborhood, or a school -- for which there might, I suppose, still be prudent reasons not to easily hop -- the sentiment of Christian Scripture is that, barring something extraordinary, church members really don't have a right to hop. We evangelicals in particular may like to think otherwise, but news flash: The Christian life isn't really "all about me."

We have little sense anymore that we are to join a church body and, generally speaking, submit -- doesn't that word just make us cringe? -- to its authority. Even when there are things that don't suit our fancy in the church. Sure, we often can and should try to change those things for what we consider the better.

Submission may even entail suffering, like dealing with conflict with other church members instead of just walking away. (But don't Christians preach that Christ's willing submission to his heavenly Father involved real suffering?)

Actually, we treat our church membership a lot like we treat our marriages. Hey, if I'm not "happy" in the moment, just move on, right? The impact on others or a pledge to something bigger than ourselves doesn't matter because "it's all about me."

The American Protestant church has, generally speaking, tragically normalized divorce and, essentially, spouse hopping. I don't know if there's cause and effect, or if church and spouse hopping are just symptoms of the same problem -- our increasingly "all about me" culture.

But I do know hoppers are typically unsatisfied no matter where they hop -- because perfection doesn't exist in this world.

Many churches say they are seeking to be relevant. But the way to do that isn't to accommodate or enable insidious cultural trends. It is to do what churches are called to do, and stand as a bulwark against such trends.

Betsy Hart hosts the "It Takes a Parent" radio show on WYLL-AM 1160 in Chicago. She can be reached at www.BetsyHart.net.

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