Dealing with church hoppers

Go_to_church...This week I’ve been reflecting on a quote from Stanley Hauerwas and combining his thoughts with some things that have been on my mind lately. First off, let’s hear Hauerwas again, in a quote from a recent interview:

But one of the great problems of Evangelical life in America is evangelicals think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed but church is a secondary phenomenon to their personal relationship and I think that’s to get it exactly backwards: that the Christian faith is meditated faith. It only comes through the witness of others as embodied in the church. So I should never trust my presumption that I know what my relationship with God is separate from how that is expressed through words and sacrament in the church. So evangelicals, I’m afraid, often times, with what appears to be very conservative religious convictions, make the church a secondary phenomenon to their assumed faith and I think that’s making it very hard to maintain disciplined congregations.

This lower-than-my-personal-experience view of the church leads us to a consumer attitude toward the church. We “church shop.” We test drive a church. Over time we continue to evaluate that church, comparing it to our own view of how church should be. Inevitably, most of us become dissatisfied. And a good percentage leave.

I live in Abilene, Texas. Though the city is only about 120,000 in population, we have dozens of Churches of Christ, as well as many, many other churches. In my opinion, this increases the pressure to church shop and church hop. Don’t like what’s going on? Have a problem with someone? Did something that you’re ashamed of? Just go somewhere else.

The churches on the receiving end of this situation often swell with pride. “Look, we’re growing! People want to come here. People want to be a part of what we’re doing.” And we gladly except the church consumer. “Well, it’s better than letting them go to the world. Or worse… to the Baptists!”

In some religious groups, when a person goes to a new church, they need to present a letter from their old church in order to be received as a member in good standing. We’re far too autonomous to have any sort of practice. We’re also very informal about church membership, so much so that in many cases, people never formally place membership.

It’s said that David Lipscomb taught that it was wrong not to attend the congregation nearest to your home. I’m beginning to agree with him.

If I had my druthers, here’s what we’d do when people come to us from another congregation:

  • Ask them pointed questions about why they’re wanting to transfer. I don’t mean that we should be hostile, but we should let them know that this is something we take seriously.
  • Contact leaders at the previous church. Find out if they know their members are wanting to leave. Find out if they know why and if they’ve made an effort to resolve the issue.
  • Tell the prospective member that any unresolved issues with the old church need to be resolved before they can be considered for membership. You don’t want people who are running away from a problem. It’s not good for them and it’s not good for either congregation involved.
  • Encourage people to remain where they are in the majority of cases. There are legitimate reasons why people need a change. They are the exception, not the rule. We need to discourage church hopping except for serious circumstances.

What do you think? Should we make it easy for people to go from place to place within the same city? Do churches have a right to refuse membership or to restrict the movement of believers? How can we better deal with the dissatisfied and disgruntled? Or is the status quo the way things should be?

One thought on “Dealing with church hoppers

  1. Keith Roberts

    Very good post, Tim. As a boy I seem to remember churches doing what you’ve suggested. There was definitely a more disciplined approach to it back then.

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