Recently I conversed with a Christian about how to break a pattern of church hopping. You know the situation. A couple eagerly joins your church and throws themselves into a variety of ministries and conversations. Then, after a year or two, they show signs of losing interest and eventually no longer attend. What are some factors that contribute to this pattern of behavior? Here are three possibilities.
First, some Christians struggle with issues. The list is endless. The style of music, the form of sacraments, the polity of governance, and the strategy of leadership and ministries and sermons are among the weightier matters. Lesser matters, of course, exist. We all have them. According to Paul, the church needs to allow for a diversity of opinion in matters beyond the gospel and the moral law. A healthy church allows for liberty of conscience, as long as members behave towards God and others in faith and love (Romans 14). If members, however, hold too tightly to their “own faith” and demand that others comply, the church will soon be fractured. And if a member seeks a church that matches his growing list of issues, he will quickly move from one church to home church to no church. He will soon be homeless and helpless—unless, of course, he unfortunately has the charisma and audacity to start his own church with his own conscience guiding pastoral decisions.
In reality, the list of absolutes is quite concentrated around the gospel (Romans 1-11) and the moral law (Romans 12-13). This list is in keeping with Jesus’ own criteria of identifying true Christians, and by extension, a true church. First, we must ask: “Do they hold to the words of Jesus as the truth?” Jesus said, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). Those who leave His teachings do not have God (2 John 9). Second, we must ask: “Do they maintain the fellowship of believers in love?” Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). It is not enough to have the truth, but not love. The church in Ephesus had departed from its initial love and Jesus threatened to remove them as a church, even though they had rightly tested false apostles and shared in Jesus’ hatred for what the false teachers did (Revelation 2:2-7). Dead orthodoxy is still dead. But if truth and love are present, the local church is a viable candidate for our membership, regardless of the particular issues. We must beware of letting issues drive us from church to church.
Second, some Christians struggle with love. Due to indwelling sin and imperfect judgment, church members will inevitably hurt each other. We are like porcupines—as one church sociologist once said—the closer we get to one another, the more we poke each other! For this reason, the Christian virtues of humility, patience, forbearance, and forgiveness are absolutely necessary, if we are to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). True, there are times when an offence must lead to separation—as when a church member or leader interposes himself between us and God and unrepentantly demands that we listen to him (Luke 17:1-4; Matthew 18:15-17)—but such times are fewer than imagined by those who hop from church to church. If we are easily offended and cannot forget a comment, it will not be long before we find it hard to continue at a church—especially if was caused or said by the leadership.
Related to this problem is the self-serving church member, who chooses a church based on how it meets his needs or the needs of his family. Certainly, this can be a factor in decision-making—after all, we really do need each other (1 Corinthians 12:21)—but when it becomes The Factor, then the church becomes a means for our personal ends. Eventually, we find ourselves using others to meet our needs. Surely something is wrong here. “Love…does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). At the very least, we must remember that Christ alone meets our needs. If He is present, all things are possible.
Finally, some Christians struggle with authority. This struggle could be due to an abusive pastor in the past or to a legalistic church environment. As stated earlier, Christ intends for the church to afford liberty of conscience. Leaders are expressly told not to lord their authority over the faith of members (1 Peter 5:3; cf. 2 Corinthians 1:24). Each Christian should be fully convinced in his own mind and have his own faith before God (Romans 14:5, 22). And through their teachings, leaders should facilitate this growth in faith and love. Any leader, however, who longs to be first among the brothers and who isolates their loyalties to himself should be resisted with a firm conscience. It is not only acceptable, but advisable to leave a church under such unrepentant leadership (3 John). And it is certainly understandable why the victims of such a church would have difficulty joining another church.
Whatever the cause of the struggle, each Christian should recognize his personal need for church authority. We are sheep. And sheep should have shepherds—literally, pastors. While a church with truth and love is a true church, we thrive best in a true and ordered church, complete with a plurality of elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1ff; Titus 1:5ff; e.g., Acts 14:21-23). While it is tempting to think that God’s word alone will keep our souls safe, as if merely preaching the gospel will keep everyone well, we know from the New Testament and from the analogy of God as our Father that the internal word works well with external discipline (Hebrews 12:5-11). Truly, “the rod and reproof give wisdom” (Proverbs 29:15). Therefore, we should welcome such authority into our lives. Symbolically, this welcoming occurs through church membership, which allows for our leaders to know, in particular, for whom they must give an account (Hebrews 13:17). To be clear, it is not solely the pastors who disciple and discipline the flock. The ultimate authority under Christ rests in the church as a whole, especially in cases of excommunication, but the elders of a church have genuine authority. They should be obeyed with appropriate submission (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:5).
Issues, love, and authority—three factors that contribute to church hopping. As a pastor, it breaks my heart to see members leave our church for little reason. It hurts. Yes, I recognize that the Church is bigger than a local church, so that in one sense it is healthy for there to be a fluidity between churches, both in members and in leadership. After all, in the New Testament, we see Priscilla and Aquila in Rome, then in Corinth, then in Ephesus. We also see Paul sending Titus and Timothy from church to church. We are not to understand a church covenant to be a marriage covenant, nor are we to expect our pastor to stay for life, long past his effectiveness, as many pastors did in eighteenth-century England to the detriment of their churches. The later awakenings in America showed the value of mobility. That said, there should be a good reason for leaving a church. In keeping with a church covenant, other members are entitled to hear of our reasons for leaving. Hopefully they will see the validity of the choice; but even if not, the respect given should help to offset any hurt or offence. They will simply be sad to see us go. At the very least, we owe this respect to each other in Christ. Such loyal-love and being-true-to-each-other finds favor both with God and with men (Proverbs 3:3-4).