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The Fine Art of Church Hopping

church hopping

Several years ago, 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, and 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 newer, more 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 and 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 pastors. 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 former President Trump’s relationship with people who left 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? Drumroll, 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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    My mom and dad left the Southern Baptist church they had gone to for years when it began to turn fundie and joined a nearby Methodist church. My mom loved that little church which started a mission from the bigger UMC church in town.

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    My parents changed churches only once, when they moved to another town. They stayed in that church until they died. I had an aunt and uncle who constantly church hopped, but I don’t know why.
    In my opinion, it seems that what many people need is a break from services. Sometimes, the things I love become tiresome, so I stop and do something else for a change. My parents did this occasionally, especially in summer. They wanted to vacation or just sleep in. My dad did it more as he got older, because his illness made it a pain to get dressed up and socialize.
    I’m assuming IFB churches wouldn’t except “I need a break/vacation” as an excuse for skipping a few services. People look for an exciting new church, when in reality, they may need to look to their own lives to see why they feel something is lacking.
    Or, they want an organization that is perfectly meshed with what they want to believe. Not going to happen, because no two people 100% agree on everything, not even spouses.
    You have more experience than me, Bruce, so I’m certain you are correct. This is just my take on the subject. 🙂

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      ... Zoe ~

      missimontana: “I’m assuming IFB churches wouldn’t except “I need a break/vacation” as an excuse for skipping a few services.”

      Zoe: Not likely. Unless it was a vacation/break at a church camp or the like. And we all know that’s not much of a vacation. Ugh.

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        At the church I used to attend, a friend’s father was physically unable to attend services for several months. The pastor told her he was a backslider.

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          ... Zoe ~

          I was away from church due to pneumonia. When I returned I learned that I was away from church because I was pregnant and or was pregnant (lost the baby).

          A woman approached me letting me know that she knew why I was away. She told me she knew about the pregnancy. Honestly, what a treat standing there knowing this poor woman was going to be so embarrassed.

          No, not pregnant. She laughed and said I was kidding. Ha ha. No, I’m not pregnant. Seriously, I know you are. Nope. Well then you lost the baby. I know you’ve had problems with pregnancy. What a riot as she tried desperately to make it all so. Finally, after I let her know my last pregnancy was my last pregnancy and that I had not been pregnant since giving birth, she about died of embarrassment. Then she said: Oh my god I told everyone you were pregnant! I looked at her and said, well it started with a ‘p’ but it was pneumonia.

          I wasn’t even close to this woman relationship wise.

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    I used to attend a non denominational church with a decent non judgmental pastor who was ultimately railroaded by the church elders and sent on his way. That was it for me and I hopped to a Lutheran church nearby that unbeknownst to me had recently lost dozens of members over the church’s refusal to allow women to hold positions of leadership. I somehow avoided hopping into these people as they were hopping out the door. My last hop was out the door of this church when I finally realized it was all bullshit.

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    My family definitely did not church hop. Sometimes I wish they had so that I coukd have experienced different perspectives. But no, they stayed in the same church from the time they moved into their house before I was born until they sold that house and moved away. In the new town, they attended a large SBC church for a few months but felt like poor outsiders. They ended up in a small country IFB church with mostly uneducated farmers. My mom was an educated, well-read person, and I never understood the appeal of that church, though I expect that she enjoyed knowing she was the smartest person in the room. Anyway, she grew increasingly right-wing staying there. I am glad she passed away before the Trump era as I would not have been able to take seeing her becoming a MAGA, which I suspect she would have given the influences of IFB church in rural Tennessee.

    I church-hopped when I moved to NJ , seeking an acceptable church to attend. I tried a few Catholic churches but couldn’t get into any. We tried a couple of Dutch Reformed churches, but we couldn’t get into any of those either. We ended up at a UCC that ran a preschool play group – the people running the group were so nice, and we stayed at that church for a few years until my husband and I stopped going because I finally realized I was atheist (he already was but didn’t mind the church as it was about social justice and being a better person rather than about doctrines, dogmas, and deities).

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    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, and believing the right things.

    This is what finally caused me to wake up and smell the coffee. The pastor had muscular enforcers (we called them goons) stationed all around the room during worship services. He would point at anyone who persisted in asking difficult questions, and his goons would drag them out and dump them on the concrete sidewalk while yelling, “In the name of Jesus, I command you to be silent.”

    The rest of the congregation learned to keep their mouths shut and stay in line. (Well, most of them did.)

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    Yulya Sevelova

    Wow ! It’s true, there are some churches that do have these tall, muscular guys in suits that look more at home guarding the White House, lol ! Decades ago, I saw this in Burbank,CA. myself in one of those ” Word of Faith” churches ,which are cults, actually. As far as I know, the early churches didn’t have enforcer- goons. There was a real emphasis on bling, authoritarian thinking, dog- and – pony events. No love, except among the wealthy( for each other only) and they actively oppressed any poor people wandering into a service. That was one of the reasons we gave up on church, because the American church system itself is toxic. Ever since those first Pilgrims and Puritans landed in 1619, they brought the biases of Europe with them. Finally a lot of people wised up, and dropped church. There’s always this claim that if you leave, you will be ” picked off by the demons,”etc. But it’s the churches where you’re more likely to be picked on/ picked off ! Once this was clear, we ended church. Not faith, but American church culture. Lots of crackpots, like Steve Furtick,of Elevation church, who won’t use terms like ” Resurrection” or Jesus’ sacrifice experience on the cross, so as not to scare visitors. My first time in a church as a young adult, I was intrigued, not offended, by these terms. But then, this guy built a huge mansion for himself, and one can research this guy if they want. All this nuttiness, few miss it.

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    ... Zoe ~

    Yes, the stories I could tell. I tend to think “church hopping” was a hobby back in the day. Then it became a competition.

    Thinking the grass is greener on the other side just to find out it’s still grass and it still needs to be mowed.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Is it possible that Roman Catholics don’t “church hop” as much as members of other denominations? I don’t recall seeing it while growing up, and family members and other people I know who have remained loyal to the RC church change parishes, it seems, only when they move.

    On the other hand, when I became an Evangelical Christian, I saw a lot of “church hopping,” ostensibly over which churches and pastors had “Jesus in them.”

    If my observations reflect Christianity at large, I have a theory as to why they do: Catholics, because they are discouraged from reading the Bible, don’t get into as many arguments over its interpretation–and therefore over who is “really” Catholic. That might also be a reason why individual priests don’t have the same kind of power in their parishes that Evangelical pastors wield over their congregations. So, while there are cliques in Catholic parishes (and dioceses), there is little advantage in church members aligning themselves with a particular priest’s ideas.

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