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Tag: Cult of Personality

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.

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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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The Evangelical Cult of Personality

church size matters
Cartoon by David Hayward, The Naked Pastor

Originally written November 2015. Updated, corrected, and expanded.

For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:11,12)

According to the Bible, the church at Corinth had become factional, with various groups saying that they were a follower of Apollos, Cephas, Paul, or Christ. In First Corinthians 1:13, Paul asked:

Is Christ divided?

Two thousand years later, we can answer Paul’s question with an emphatic YES! The followers of Jesus Christ have spent the past 2,000 years fighting amongst themselves. Their internecine warfare has caused schism, splits, and divisions, leading to the establishment of thousands of Christian denominations throughout the world (Wikipedia list of major Christian denominations).

Every Christian Bible has the following verses:

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. (John 13:35)

For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:13)

There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

These four verses alone stand as an indictment of modern Christianity. The various Christian sects can’t even agree on basic beliefs such as salvation, baptism, and communion. Jesus said, I am the way, truth, and life, and almost every Christian sect thinks it has the way, truth, and life market cornered. Pick the wrong sect and, according to many sects, you will miss Heaven and spend eternity in Hell being tortured by God.

Evangelicalism, an inherently fundamentalist religious belief, (please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) has a unique problem in that its churches are generally a blend of sectarian divisiveness, Madison Avenue advertising techniques, and movie-star devotion to pastors, evangelists, and other “successful” Evangelical leaders. This has led to a cult of personality, similar to that which Paul was addressing in the church at Corinth 2,000 years ago.

Drive by many Evangelical churches these days and what do you see on the church sign? Sign after sign will have the pastor’s name prominently displayed. Why is this important? Why is it necessary to advertise the name of the pastor? If the church is one body worshiping the one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, why call attention to the identity of the pastor? Why don’t churches put the names of the poorest church members on their signs as James suggests in James 2:1-4:

My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?

Isn’t giving the pastor top billing on the church sign showing the pastor undue respect? After all, the Apostle Peter said in Acts 10:34 that God is no respecter of persons. God may not be a respecter of persons, but his Evangelical followers sure are. Ask Evangelicals where they go to church, and they are just as likely to say, I go to Pastor So-and-So’s church as they are, I go to First Baptist Church.

In the average Evangelical church, the center of attention is not Jesus, the Word, or the sacraments. The focus is on the man standing behind the pulpit. He is the man of God, God’s messenger, the pastor. In some Evangelical churches, he is also the bishop, prophet, or apostle.  He is the main cog in the machine, without which the machine won’t run. If you doubt this, watch what happens when one of these superstar Evangelicals leaves his church. The membership inevitably declines, often because church members don’t like the new guy. Evangelicals then feel “led” to join a different church so they can be “fed.” Rarely will they admit that the reason they changed churches was that they were spiritually and emotionally infatuated with the previous pastor.

Megachurch pastors, in particular, are getting rich off the ministry. It is scandalous how these “profits” of God rake in millions of dollars from the churches they pastor, the books they sell, and outside speaking engagements. Even an atheist can see that these kinds of pastors are not following in the steps of Jesus. Instead of following the WWJD mantra, they are following what would a Wall Street profiteer do?

Any time I write about one of the Evangelical superstar pastors, people are sure to come along and defend him. I have attacked their god, and it doesn’t matter what the Bible or common decency says, they are not going to stand for it. Little do they realize that their defense simply illustrates my contention that Evangelicalism is a cult of personality.

I would love to be able to say to readers of this blog that I was different when I was a pastor, but I wasn’t. My name was prominently displayed on the church sign. I was the center of attention, the hub around which everything turned. People came to the churches I pastored because they loved my preaching and liked me as a person. When I pastored a fast-growing church in southeast Ohio, people would drive 30-45 minutes to hear me preach. Our church was exciting and growing, and I — uh, I mean God — was the reason.

What drives the cult of personality? Here in the United States, we are enamored with success. We tend to give respect to people who appear to be winners. One need only look to Donald Trump as an example of someone who gives the appearance of being a winner. Even in the blogosphere, we often judge the value of writers by the number of people who read their blogs and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. We forget that these numbers say NOTHING about the person. I have to constantly guard against this. I know my blog readership numbers, page views, and mailing list subscriber numbers are growing. Does this mean that I am “more” successful than I was years ago when a hundred people a day read my blog? Should people respect me more now that thousands of people read my writing? Of course not. Numerical success proves nothing.

size matters
For Evangelical pastors, size matters.

Within Evangelicalism, numerical success is everything. Success for a pastor is measured by the size of his penis — uh, I mean size of his church. The criteria for calling a pastor/church a success is not much different from the criteria used to judge a successful CEO in the corporate world: growing the business and maximizing profits.

The sure sign that a pastor has arrived is when he writes a book telling everyone how he achieved his success. When I was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastor, almost every big-name pastor wrote a book detailing how he achieved numerical success. The subtle message was this: God is blessing me and this is why. Do you want God’s blessing? Do what I am doing!  Why is it that these successful pastors never write a book years later detailing the fact that “God’s blessing” didn’t last and their penis size shrank dramatically?

American Evangelicals love their conferences. Hundreds of Evangelical conferences are held each year. Who are the speakers? Those who have achieved “success.” These conferences always feature big-name pastors who pastor large, successful churches. When’s the last time Evangelical conference promoters had a Bro. Joe, who pastors 20 people on the backside of some hill in West Virginia, come and speak at their conference? It never happens.

One of the reasons people leave Evangelicalism is that they become tired of everything being about the pastor or of the focus being on the methods of the latest hotshot, knows-everything, successful pastor. They sincerely thought that Christianity was all about Jesus. They found out that Jesus was just the window dressing for their pastor’s ambition. Most Evangelical churches, thanks to their leaders, have lost all sight of what it means to be Christian. They proclaim that the Bible is their standard of faith and practice and then ignore its teachings and examples. Christianity should be about Jesus and his kingdom. From my seat in the atheist pew, it seems to me that Evangelicalism is all about the pastor’s kingdom and not the kingdom of Jesus they say they follow.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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Bruce Gerencser