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The Fine Art of Church Hopping

church hopping

Recently, my friend Zoe used the phrase “church hopping” in a comment. People raised in Evangelical churches know all about church hopping, but non-Evangelicals might not understand the phrase, so I thought I would explain the fine art of church hopping.

A church hopper is a person who “hops” (moves) from one Evangelical church to another. Sometimes, groups of people hop from one church to another. In the mid-1980s, more than 25 people from an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in New Lexington, Ohio hopped to the church I was pastoring at the time, Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry. Around this same time, 15 or so people left their IFB church in Fultonham and joined Somerset Baptist. Forty new members, most of them “mature” tithing Christians eager to take over — I mean get involved  with — my church. Within two years, all these hoppers hopped right back to the churches they left or joined up with new IFB churches.

Why do people hop from one church to another?

Some people hop because they have run afoul of their pastor and/or the church’s power brokers. Every church has a clique that controls the church. This clique often consists of the pastor’s enforcers, people who make sure others are playing by the rules, believing the right things. 

Evangelical churches thrive on conformity. Independent or contrary thinkers are often marginalized, if not run out of the church. Sometimes, people hop before they are shot and left for dead.

Some people hop because they can’t get their way. Pastoring a church is a difficult proposition. No two people think alike. While everyone is allegedly indwelt by the Holy Spirit who supposedly teaches them the truth, churches are rife with differences of opinion. Sometimes, those differences turn into internecine wars, leading those defeated in battle to leave. I lost countless congregants over theological and practical differences. Oh, the stories I could tell . . .

Some people hop from one church to another because they don’t like their church’s new pastor. Bruce, I thought church was all about JESUS? Silly boy, church is all about the pastor, his beliefs, his practices, and his personality, not Jesus. Churches revolve around their pastors. Bringing in a new pastor invariably brings change, especially if a man is replacing a pastor who has been there for years. Attendance decline is common when churches change pastors. Megachurches can lose thousands of members when changing brands — yes, at this level, pastors are brands. (Please see The Evangelical Cult of Personality.) 

Some church members hop to new congregations because they perceive their churches to be “dead.” In the 1970s, new charismatic churches pillaged countless Baptist churches of members who were looking for churches that were alive, filled with the Holy Ghost. Here in rural northwest Ohio, numerous charismatic churches sprung to life, filled with hundreds and hundreds of members who had hopped their way from “dead” churches. Today, every one of these churches is in numerical decline, each a shell of what it once was in the 1970s and 1980s. Their members have been poached by new, exciting churches. The churches once deemed “alive” are now considered “dead.” 

What drives this thinking? Simple, Evangelicals are always on the lookout for a good show, for the new and exciting. People are attracted to new churches by the preacher’s personality and preaching style, whether prospective churches have certain programs — say a youth program, or the quality of the church’s band. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence is certainly a false notion embraced by many Evangelical Christians,

Some people don’t like change, so they will hop to churches that practice the “old ways.” Most Evangelical churches have bands or use praise and worship music. Some congregants don’t like any kind of music except hymns. The same goes for tinkering with service times, changing dress standards, using non-KJV translations, etc. There’s no end to the reasons people use to justify hopping.

My all-time favorite reason for church-hopping is this: “I am not being ‘fed’ anymore.” What, did the church cancel the monthly church dinner or stop having potlucks? No, “not being fed” means that the pastor’s preaching no longer meets their intellectual or felt needs. Truth be told, listening to the same man year in, year out can be boring. Instead of admitting this, many congregants blame their pastors for not meeting their needs. 

Honesty, in general, is lacking in many Evangelical churches. Instead of being honest about their reasons for hopping away, disgruntled church members blame their pastor. Much like marriages, not every pastor/church/congregant relationship is meant to last for life. Sometimes, it’s time for a change of scenery — new church/pastor.

It is not uncommon to hear Evangelical preachers rail against church hopping. Much like President Trump’s relationship with people who leave his cabinet, to pastors, church hoppers look great coming in the front door, but when they leave out the back door, all of a sudden they are terrible people. I know of pastors who eviscerate anyone who dares to leave their cult – uh, I mean church. Such pastors believe their church/preaching/ministry is far superior to that of any other pastor/church in town. In their minds, it makes no sense to go anywhere except their church. 

Early in the ministry, I could be quite harsh towards people who left my church. Sometimes, my criticisms were justified, but all too often I was just being an asshole towards people who disagreed with me. I later learned to be more magnanimous towards people who left. On more than a few occasions, people who hopped away from my church returned months or years later. 

Many Evangelical pastors think people should attend their churches until death. They expect lifelong commitments from their congregants. However, pastors hop from one church to another all the time. Pastors change churches on an average of every 4 to 10 years. (Please see How Long Do Pastors Stay in One Church?) Why is it that Evangelical pastors preach against congregants who church hop, yet when they do it, it’s God “leading” them? Anytime you have a group of people with varied personalities and backgrounds, conflict and change are inevitable. Leave it to Evangelicals to find all sorts of justifications for hopping instead of telling the truth. Why did you leave your church or pastorate? Drum-roll, please. Because I wanted to.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    ... Zoe ~

    Church hopping . . . and the “Holy Spirit” shall lead them.

    I use to wonder why the “Holy Spirit” appeared unstable in all His ways.

    My previous circles of IFB conservative evangelical churches trafficked in church hopping. With glee the church hopper was welcomed. When they left (as they often do) the sheep sat for lectures about church hopping being a sin. We were warned and threatened. Don’t church hop. When the church hopper returned (as they often do) suddenly they were welcomed back to the offering plate with open pockets.

    In conversations with church hoppers I would learn that they arrived on scene because the Holy Spirit informed them to come. Later I would learn that the church hopper left because the Holy Spirit told them to leave. On down the road when they returned, again? Holy Spirit.

    And then of course, there was Bible hopping and the all time favourite reason for church hopping. OMG, this church isn’t using the KJV Bible anymore. Eegaads . . . off to the races to hop over to the KJV Bible church.

    Hop, hop, hop.

  2. Avatar
    Southern Lady

    This is making me think of rabbits. Just saw one yesterday. Anyway, I love the cartoon! So funny!

    All this description of evangelical behaviors just seems like human behaviors that happen to be in a religious organization. ” You know people are people wherever you go. ” The sad part is that so many don’t appear to be new creatures after all. That’s what leads to a lot of confusion for children and teenagers growing up in church.

    But even with all this common humanity on display and fully acknowledging some harm can be done, I think churches overall are a good thing. Did growing up in IFB harm me to some extent? Definitely. Did it also give me a pretty good childhood? Yes.

    Maybe the key is to forgive each other for the sin of being human.

  3. Avatar

    I don’t have a lot of experience with church hopping. I was in the same church from age 3 or 4 until I moved away at age 24, except for the church I attended for a couple of years in college that provided shuttle service and free lunch to college students. My mom and stepdad church shopped/hopped for a couple of years after they moved to a new community. They ended up in a yucky small IFB church where my mom was one of the most educated people in the congregation.

  4. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    My dad planted the Fellowship Baptist Church in Cobourg, Ontario. Tha’s about sixty years ago now and the building he helped frame roof is now an apartment, I believe. We stayed there for many years, amost until I had finished public school. Dad built a church family and never realized preachers should move on, regularly move on. I am sure that unless there is a cult of personality attached to a preacher, that preacher really should move along after three or four years because the story doesn’t really change and individual only has a certain number of sermons to share without beginning to reprise a previous performance. Dad didn’t get that and so it took a few people ganging up against him to finally split the church, angry little bunnies hopping away under the Pied Piper’s Holy Spirit flute.
    Dad had a sort of breakdown then, a broken spirit and we moved away from Cobourg to a factory job over an hour distant and fill-in gigs until he finally found another small church to take the pulpit. It was never the same again but he continued preaching.
    The church is not a family as my father believed. It is a business to win souls and grow. Just as in any social bubble, human personality rules the day and certain ‘leaders’ bully the tides to flow this way and that… A preacher who is not socially clever will soon lose the helm of the ship even if he built the damned boat himself. Unfortunately, even after the shenanigans that fractured the church and saw us move on, my parents stayed in the Fellowship bubble and retained the faith of their youth. Now my older brother’s children and my sister’s too are believers and a new generation of woo has already developed among their kids.
    The old old story still works as a dandy business model, is still tax-free and is still harming us with sober threats and golden promises. The patriarchal bullshit is fast crumbling though and the fundamentalist mind is getting cornered. It’s not okay to hit your kids anymore and you better be careful with that wife of yours: Those feminists have lawyers, ARE lawyers!
    The old ways don’t cut it anymore and it brings me peace to see churches empty out. Wouldn’t it be fine to see them all turned into affordable housing…

  5. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    …Maybe the key is to forgive each other for the sin of being human… -Southern Lady.

    So you are being facetious or do you actually believe in sin? If you do, then I would hazard that your statement of churches being a good thing is not accurate. We are not born sinners. We are not fallen.
    When someone is sorely harmed by another or by a system that is brutal, there is an irony inherent in the idea of forgiveness needed. Forgiveness is a crock. Forgive yourself for being duped, for thinking it was your fault Jesus was murdered.

      • Avatar
        Brian Vanderlip

        I see thanks for the clarification. I often feel that Christianity harms and one of the ways it appears to me to harm is by bending language to comfortable shapes and meanings. If one’s parent, for instance, harms their child by threatening them as children with hellfire and brimstone and persists so that the child carries undue fears, then I don’t think that child would benefit first by being more generous toward the faults of others. First and foremost, that child would benefit by realizing the harm done to them was not their fault but the fault of their caregivers. (Children as you know I’m sure, tend to blame themselves for trouble in families.) Perhaps later on, with mature understanding a certain generosity might be indicated but I am not entirely convinced of that… I wonder if Bruce Almighty might speak to this phenomenon one day?
        Christians love everyone so so much it’s like a knee on the neck of a trapped man. I can’t breathe, Man of Peace!
        Doctor Bonnie Henry, a doc from B.C., says just about every Covid day, “Be patient, Be Kind, Be Safe.
        Pretty good advice, I think. Perhaps I would suggest her as an example of generosity in presentation, in sharing.

        • Avatar
          Brian Vanderlip

          This is essential in my view and I thank you, Zoe, for simply stating that if they are abusers we don’t need to forgive them in order to heal.
          I would add that if a faith belief suggests otherwise and says we should forgive those who do us harm, then that faith belief is based on harming self and others.

  6. Avatar

    One of my mom’s postal patrons was a church hopper. I think this woman had started out Catholic, maybe joined an Evangelical church, then became a Mormon and then finally a Jehovah’s Witness. The order might be wrong and she might have joined a Seventh Day Adventist church somewhere in there. :Luckily, there aren’t too many Scienos in our area although there are a number of Bahai adherents in the Clemson area. The church hopping drove my mom a bit nuts. She and my dad had gone to First Baptist (SBC) for 40 years until it went fundie and they happily joined a small UMC chapel near their house.

    I think you’d describe my husband as a church hooper, as well. He was born and raised Catholic, unfortunately got involved with Campus Crusade, Intervarstiy and the charismatic crap in college, No regular church has ever quite met his expectations. The Catholic parishes were not “alive” enough, the charismatic churches were just too f*cked up (neither of those congregations exist anymore) and now he’s become an “Anglican” although the Anglican body he is associated with is NOT recognized by the Church of England and is, in fact, considered schismatic. He got himself “ordained” (I was the last person on the planet to know this) and then the “Anglican” church he was first a member of did not chose him to be their pastor after they ran their former priest off for officiating at a same-sex wedding. He started his own church. It is not thriving, but then it’s a vanity project. Btw, he doesn’t know that I’m an atheist, only that I’ve not darkened a church door for more than 20 years except for funerals.

  7. Avatar

    My family followed the Jesus Lemmings everywhere in the small town we lived in. Different churches for different things. A regular savior smorgasbord. You went to the Nazarene church for the music, the Baptist church for the preaching, the Assembly of God to get the holy ghost. First Christian was good for potlucks. Episcopal for the Sunday evening services, lots of ‘good fellowship’ there.

    The church buildings might be different, but mostly you knew who you’d see when you got there. No matter how many times you changed your church.

  8. Avatar

    My family hopped from one evangelical church to anywhere I was growing up, usually because my father’s feathers got ruffled by something. As an Adult I hopped a few times but only because we had moved. My last hop happened when our pastor, who was a decent and genuine person, got booted out by the church rulers for no good reason. Disgusted by that I went to a new church that I later found out had just had a major upheaval over the role that women would be allowed to play. My final hop was out of church forever when I finally realized it was all nonsense.

  9. Avatar

    THE FINE ART OF CHURCH HOPPING. I find comments by readers interesting & helpful.
    “IFB conservative evangelical churches TRAFFICKED in church hopping.” Zoe
    ” The sad part is that so many don’t appear to be NEW CREATURES after all. ” Southern Lady
    “The Church is not a FAMILY as my father believed. It was a BUSINESS to win souls and grow.” Brian Vanerlip
    I confess that I was a Church Hopper. A faithful (until I left) member of 3 different IFB Churches in rural Southeast Ohio/WV. I don’t feel at liberty to name the Churches or Pastors. Left 2 of those IFB Churches due to ACE Christian School related issues. ( TRAFFICKING & BUSINESS ) Both ACE schools are now closed and the 2 Churches are a shell of what they were in their hayday.
    I would cross paths with men & women in these churches doing the same thing. Church Hopping. Your welcomed when you first show up at a Church, but written off when you leave. It’s a nasty cycle. I believe it hurts most everyone involved in church hopping. I know it has hurt me.
    Bruce, I listened to you on the PREACHER BOY’S POD CAST. Very good. Sharing your story is helpful to me. Those interviews are enlightening about IFB.

    • Avatar
      Yulya Sevelova

      Church hopping. I haven’t heard that term in so long ! I can say that years ago, my mother and I hopped around looking for a church that didn’t judge us for being a single -parent family, not coming from/with money, and having no male heads-of-household. But, church culture being what it is, we could never find a place where we fit. It took decades to realize we weren’t the problem. American /Southern church culture was. Over time we never went back. The baggage from Pilgrim/Puritan love of money/things, and land,taints everything. They deny it to the skies of course. Most churches are that way. I accept that reality. It doesn’t hurt now, but it did at the time. And Happy Birthday and Father’s Day, Mr. Gerencser. May you and your family have a great week.

  10. Avatar
    Douglas Kolacki

    Maybe the key is to forgive each other for the sin of being human.<

    Spoken like a true Southern lady! This is the kind of thing I need to keep in mind, and I’ve saved it to my quote file.

  11. Avatar
    Douglas Kolacki

    I’ve always wondered at the idea of “being fed” in church. I’ve read Christian novels in which characters spoke of being “hungry for the word of God,” and how one character admonished a pastor that “we were starving in your church.”

    If I didn’t know better, I’d think people were over-depending on their pastors. I’m never hungry for my Creator’s word, because I always have it with me. And in this age of smartphones, it’s always at my fingertips. Whenever I need it, I can feed on it.

    Now I’m reminded of Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry. Paraphrasing from memory:

    “Now you believe the Bible contains absolutely everything needed for salvation, right?”

    “Of course.”

    “Then what’s the use of any church? Any preachers? Let people stay home and read their Bibles!”

  12. Avatar

    My husband and I were both raised Catholic – he in a progressive church in New York, me in a really traditional church in New England. We left religion as young adults, and then we had a child. We decided to give it a try again for her sake. The Catholic church in our town was like walking into the 50’s. We lasted for seven years mostly for our daughter’s sake, then we hopped to a much more progressive church in a neighboring city where the pastor was a highly educated Jesuit who cared a lot about social problems and encouraged social justice work. We really enjoyed his sermons. Then he was transferred, and a few other ugly things happened within the realm of Catholicism itself, and we were done. I’m one of those people who has never felt anything at all in terms of faith, belief, etc. I don’t get it when people talk about Jesus being there for them, talking to him, counting on him in times of adversity. None of it seems remotely possible or likely to me. We are also not people who need a social outlet which is often what church communities are for people (especially those church cliques you mentioned). We’re much happier without the baggage, and we’re glad that we didn’t raise our daughter in a belief system we couldn’t genuinely embrace. She’s intrigued by religion, has taken religion courses in college because they’re interesting and a part of the human experience, but has no interest in committing to a religion. I could handle pretty much anything from my daughter, but one thing that would throw me for a loop would be if she came home and told us she had joined some evangelical church where the gender roles are so black and white. That would really bother me.

  13. Avatar

    I’m frankly glad we have a choice (and the choice to NOT go). Having such a choice is a very modern occurrence. Overall I’d say hopping is good for those that hop and the churches as well. If you’re into church go where you’ll be happy. It also prevents the churches from become complacent. In my family at least two persons left because the minister wouldn’t perform the ceremony because of a divorce. Bizarre, but as was pointed out each church is a fiefdom with the pastor the lord.

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Bruce Gerencser