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The Saga of the Church Hopper

A U.S. Congregational Life Survey uncovered interesting statistics about new attendees and church-switchers when it looked at U.S. religious practices... 1) One in four church attendees has switched churches in the past five years. 2) On average, just 7 percent of new attendees are formally unchurched. So...I'm wondering what you think...why is this the case?

I’ll start:

Some people are fickle. Some leave over the silliest things. Some like to stir up controversy. Some people can’t get along. And some can’t get past their own preferences—they leave on a dime when something doesn’t go their way.

I think an interesting study would be to see how many repeat offenders there are in this group. How many church-hoppers change every five years? I’ve known a slew of them in my past. And how does this same group of people keep getting ticked off every five years or so?

I almost think that the church is divided into two groups...the “hoppers” and the “lifers.” (The lifers would never leave a church, even if there were a good reason.)

What do you think?  I’d love to hear your comments from your experience… Please leave them below.

Have a great week!

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This post has been viewed 1490 times and was added on June 25, 2007 by Todd Rhoades.
Filed under: Leadership Issues  Leadership Development  
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  There are 73 Comments:
  • Posted by

    For some, when it starts to get to “close”, when the only way to grow further is to do LIFE with other people, they fly.

    For others, it’s ironic that they dislike change, but then when something “small” changes, they fly, necessitating, for themselves, even MORE change. I contend that this group, and most of us, actually like change.

    But most I’ve seen “move on” have been uninvolved in small groups or serving in ministry, either because of their unwillingness or the staff’s unwillingness to equip. Rarely have I seen someone really locked into what the church is about leave.

  • Posted by

    I had never really experienced much of this until my last church.  There were a whole bunch of people who seemed to regularly move from church to church.  I was told by one fellow pastor that many of the “group” had been through his church 3 or 4 times in the past.  While I was there, none of them came to my church, but a bunch left, some cycling through 3 or 4 churches within the year.  The the cases that I personally knew about, the people always left because they weren’t able to get control of the church’s decision making arena.  As long as they “got their way” about issues, they seemed to be content, but as soon as they didn’t, well, I was a so and so and off they went.  And none of them ever seemed to be quiet about leaving either.  This became a real issue among the churches and so 6 of us pastors got together and decided that if anyone came to our respective church from another church, we would tell them that before they could get invovled in our church, they had to go back where they came from and be reconciled to the pastor and the church.  Needless-to-say, as word about that got around, fewer and fewer of the church hoppers came our way.  However, the two pastors who refused to meet with the others “collected” most of the folks.  I’m sure in short order, they will move on again. I still don’t understand this, but it surely got me to thinking about the shallowness of the Christianity of these folks.  Maybe they’re different from what you’re talking about and maybe not.

  • Posted by Bret Johnson

    I just read a stat that says the average evangelical stays in their church 4.9 years!  That is a LOT of moving around and a LOT of resources being used up incorporating people and emotional energy over losing people. 

    I realize that people move geographically more these days too.

    I think many believers try to change externals (another church) because they have not been able to change the internals that might bring them to a better place in their walk with Christ.

  • Posted by

    After being members and extremely involved in the ministry of our church for over 17 years, we moved on. In those 17 years we survived two major schisms and felt that we were called to remain. This last time, after the Senior Pastor left, we trurly felt released to go. While we miss many people in the congregation, we sense that that season in our walk had come to a close and that it was time to move on. A year later, we are currently in a “wilderness” time as we search for a new church home where we can continue our ministry. Change does not come easy, but when it is sanctioned by God, you can find a great deael of peace in it.

  • Posted by

    I think there are a few factors. First, in my experience, if they’re getting teaching that doesn’t challenge them, they’ll leave. Ultimately, the desire to grow is what keeps people coming back, and if they’re not growing, it is usually because they’re not getting it from the front on Sunday.

    Secondly, when there’s no unifying sense of vision and momentum, people leave. If I don’t know what something is about, I will eventually cease to be a part of it.

    Third is the law of the herd. Like it or not, big growing churches draw the hoppers. Everyone wants to be on the winning team, and when a church is growing like gangbusters, building new buildings, etc., hoppers look at it and jump on the bandwagon. Americans are just like High Schoolers. That is why the newer trend of career youth pastors planting successful churches as first-time pastors is happening. Where things aren’t happening, people aren’t going. People follow the herd.

    It may not be right, and it may speak to a serious problem, but it’s true. Finally, and possibly most important, hoppers move when they feel forced to be in relationship with people they don’t have a compatibility with. Let’s face it, everyone doesn’t get along. I don’t think connecting with people in itself is enough. I think people need to connect with a culture they can relate to. Car guys need to connect with car guys. Single moms need to connect with single moms. Video game lovers need to connect with video game lovers. Ted Haggard wrote the greatest book on this - “Dog Training, Fly Fishing, and Sharing Christ in the 21st century”. Despite his moral failure, I still highly recommend this book.

  • Posted by

    I am shudderingly well acquainted with those hoppers who try new churches as a route to personal power. They come in and quickly volunteer for everything in sight. If you do not have a good screening program or a mandatory wait policy you can end up with them in a leadership post too quickly. Once they arrive at major leadership, they show themselves as quickly adept at maintaining personal power even by using techniques such as “divide and conquer.”

    I have had more than one of them in my life. One I inherited from the previous pastor and one I inadvertently allowed because I was in a start-up setting and needed volunteer bodies. In both cases, when I (too late) did some back checking, I found out that previous pastors had had serious problems with them as well, more than one pastor in each case. Thus church hopping can be a case of staying one step ahead of the law.

    Most hoppers are not this way, but the few who are can make life miserable for the poor pastors who inherit them and then must deal with them.

  • Posted by

    Along with the book that came out in the 80’s, “Marketing the Church”, the Church in the USA has bought into the idea that the church is about making them happy. Erwin McManus has said “We somehow think that the church is here for us; we forget that we are the church and we are here for the world.” There are many examples of people church hopping and many reasons why. But at the root of the issue is a lack of understanding or a misunderstanding of covenant between God and people, people and God, people and people.  Many “Believers” today would probably be like the “disciples” in John 6:60-71 who left Jesus because HIs teachings were too difficult. When people are in true covenant with God, the teachings that are tough are not so difficult that people walk away. They walk away from one church to go to another because they do not understand their call from God to a covenant relationship with His Church.

  • Posted by Frank Comeau

    As to why people hop from Church to Church, I think we have to look at why they go in the first place.
    That question can be addressed in a multitude of ways.
    In this comment, I will address three:
    Spritual, Serving and Social

    (Spiritual) If a person chooses to go for Spiritual reasons: to grow in The Lord, to grow in the Word, to worship God, To spend time in prayer and reflection and thankfulness of God’s blessing in their lives; then I think their desire to serve will develop. As a person serves others in the Church, in any number of ways, then they will find that their Social needs will take care of themselves. In fact, they will probably not be able to find time to get it all done, just not enough hours in the day.
    (Serving) If a person is just going to Church with a desire to serve - in other words, they want to be somebody - could be any number of things in a Church - then, before too long, they are going to find themselves getting frustrated when things don’t go their way and getting burned out, especially, when they find out that the needs of a Church are never ending.
    (Social) If a person is just going to Church for Social reasons - to meet someone, find comfort in the acceptance of others, etc., etc. Then, before long, that person is going to get disappointed, frustrated, disallusioned and hurt. Because, one way or another, people will always disappoint you, eventually, even if it is inadvertant.
    ***the bottom line is, if you want to have a fulfulling, long-lasting relatioship with a Church, let your priorities be in the correct order - Make sure the first priority is the Spiritual, followed by the Serving and let the Social take care of itself.

  • Posted by

    Much of the moving around in my opinion has to do with the lack of discipling ministries in most of our church.  We have recently began a ministry called “Operation Multiplication” We believe this will both close the back door and make our front door more open.  see operationmultiplication.com
    for more information.

    Bill Hanks Jr. was at one time the follow up person for Billy Graham.  This is great stuff.

  • Posted by Remy Diederich

    I think a lot of good things have been shared.  But to offer a different perspective (unless I missed it above) I think some people leave because they don’t find what they long for.  God has put this desire for community and connection in our heart...both for Him and others.  People come to church with the best intentions but are soon disappointed.  Church never fulfills their longings and they mistakenly think that it’s the church’s fault.  Maybe, but I think our culture just doesn’t support a true community of believers and even if it did, there would still be a longing for something more.

    I think at some point people have to face the reality that their longings won’t be met until heaven.  Sadly they give up on a church, or church all together, thinking that “it” is out there.  Maybe, but probably not!  We’d all be better off if we’d push through the disappointment and give it our best shot.  But to often people just turn and walk away.

  • Posted by

    We have left two churches over the years which were not the result of moving to a new city.  In both cases we had been at the churches over 5 years and in both cases we chose to leave over what we considered moral failure of the leadership.

    The failure was nothing so dramatic as adultery and in both cases was only partially known by the congregation.  I’m sure that the leaders would say we were disgruntled (though I would doubt they would say we tried to grab power, but who knows) and they would say they had done nothing wrong.

    In both cases those who knew what was happening came to one of two conclusions, either we should never question the leadership no matter what they do, or the leaders were wrong.  Some who felt the leaders were wrong decided to stay and “fight”, others to leave.  After talking with the leaders over a period of time (a few months to a few years) we chose to leave.  Knowing their behavior and their belief that what they were trying to accomplish was more important than how they did it, made it very difficult to follow them.  It was unhealthy for us and for the church.

    Many of the postings above fault the people leaving as power grabbers, stiring up trouble, etc.  Frankly I’ve seen just as many pastors “grabbing” power as “lay people”.  The leaders in churches we left would have their version of the issues, we have ours.  Too often leaders are unwilling to admit their own character flaws or to show grace to others who have flaws.  They want only those to take the “never question the leadership” view of the church.

  • Posted by

    Frankly, I’m not sure which is worse - hoppers or lifers.  I’ve seen hoppers come in, get involved, add a lot of new life and new blood to the church and programs, and then move on.  Some left for ‘better’ programs elsewhere (the consumer mentality).  Some left because of changes in pastor (personality attachment) or worship style (my way or the highway).  But the lifers - that term is a true misnomer for many of them.  There IS no life in them.  Some of them NEED to go on to another church.  They sit and mold and spoil those around them.  Or they resist change of any type and have been there for so long their voice carries more weight than it should.  I once served at a church that had been formed out of a split.  We had “charter members” still alive and that was even worse.  You’d have thought they were the Founding Fathers or the Patriarchs.  I soon learned they were just the malcontents who couldn’t get along at the first church so they formed their own.  They were still bitter angry people.  I’d have paid them to leave!

  • Posted by Vicki

    I have a few things to say from the perspective of “lifer”.
    I have attended (and am now a staff member of) the same church my entire life. (51 years) My parents were charter members - my 87 year old Dad still attends.  I have watched many, many people come and go through the years for a variety of “reasons”.  This church has weathered lots of storms in it’s 65 year history.  Our church has grown to a healthy 700+ in this small community - so I’ve seen LOTS of change through the years.  As a part of our local ministerial association, I have been able to track many of the “hoppers” through most of the evangelical churches in our county.  From my perspective, it would be easy to get really jaded and critical toward the “hoppers” - and I’ll admit, I have been at times.  But I think a better use of my comments in this forum would be to address why I stay.

    1.  My church is my family.  In many ways closer than my biological brothers and sisters - this family has stuck with me and I with them through all the seasons of my life.  I don’t believe that I chose this family any more than I chose my biological family.  For better or worse they are my spiritual family.

    2.  I’m no quitter.  Have there been times that I would have liked to “hop”?  Ha!  There have been so many that I have lost count.  There have been times that I’d like to trade in my husband for a different model as well - but I haven’t done it.  I understand the principle that whatever problems I have when I leave will follow me to the next church or relationship.  If I quit on my church - the problem is not really with my church - it’s with me.

    3.  Change is inevitable.  The truth is, we all like change - we just like to be in control of what changes.  The problem that people have with church change is that they are not in control.

    4.  Unity.  Jesus high priestly prayer for his followers was that they would be one as he and the Father are one and that the world would know that we are his by our love for one another.  I believe that staying committed to my church in word and action is a reflection of what Jesus prayed for his church.  In truth even when people say there is no reason, or that they were “released” from a local church body - there IS a reason.  It usually comes out in their conversation.  I have yet to see one person leave who didn’t have a gripe of some sort.  99% are not biblical concerns.  Even the 1% that are have not been dealt with biblically.

    I could go on all day on this subject, but I won’t.  Many, if not most of the people who have hopped from our church to another are life-long friends.  It’s been excruciatingly painful at times to watch them leave.  I have to choose each time to keep my heart open and not get hurt or bitter.  This minimizes the damage to our unity and leaves the door open for reconciliation and return. 

    Is there any reason that I would leave my church?  I can only think of three.

    1.  The departure from Biblical truth.  This has been a “reason” some people have given for leaving my church, but it’s really a matter of methodology and not theology that has caused their departure. (Church growth or the Purpose Driven movement, style of the music, etc.) I can think of some churches and denominations that I would leave - but we have not strayed from the Bible.

    2.  God moved my family to a new city.

    3.  God moved me to heaven.

    I’m thankful to be a lifer.

  • Posted by Derek

    I think Russell and others hit on one key reason why people become church hoppers. They have bought into a faulty view of the church. They really think the church is about meeting their needs. If their needs are not being met then many of them lead.

    We had people leave our church complaining of a “feeding problem” (their words). They were concerned that they, as sheep, were not being feed the Word-a-God properly and so they left.

    This is the downside to the market-driven, consumer Church. If we try to get them into the church by meeting their felt needs they tend to stay as long as their felt needs are being met. When they are no longer getting what they want, then the look for the next, newest, hottest church in town.

    Igniter Media group did a funny video that I have used in a sermon about the church. It is called “Me Church.” It pretty much makes my point. The video is here: http://www.ignitermedia.com/products/iv/singles/18/meCHURCH


  • Posted by

    I’m know that there are some “lifers” like you that add stability to a church, but most I found to be closed minded and controlling.  Especially those who were multi-generational familties.  They felt they “owned” the church.  I had one tell me “YOU people come in here and want to change things… we like things the way they are.” “YOU people” was anyone who had not been a member for 20 years...including the Pastor.  Guess how easy it was to LEAD this group??  Unlike your church, this one was dying from the stranglehold.  Also, your church is large enough to ‘dilute’ any kind of perceive ownership by lifers.  New comers probably outnumber them.  That was not our case.

  • Posted by

    I think that most people tend to go where they feel loved and valued.  Unfortunately, feeling loved and being loved isn’t always the same thing.

  • Posted by

    I see a lot of people changing churches “for my kids"...."for my youth"… wanting bigger and ‘better’ programs and more activities for them.  Church has become the activity center.  What those kids really need to see is autentic faith lived out at home and Christ at work in the lives of their parents. That’s far better than a mission trip to Mexico or skiing in Colorado.  Kids want parents and leaders that are transparent and can show that what they believe and teach is real, more than they want ‘activities’.

  • Posted by Paul Davis

    I am a hopper.
    First church to hop from was the Roman Catholic Church - the reason, the doctrine taught did not match the scriptures.  This was when I was 16yrs old. (much to the horror of my parents - they required I attend, so I did, but it wasn’t because I went willingly)
    The Second church was a local mega church - the pastor is accused with corruption and it is documented in the local newspaper and around the internet.  Laws were (and still are) being broken at that church.
    I’m at my third church now and plan on staying until we move next year sometime.  I’m still wounded by the prior church, I was very vested in the church, volunteered and worked and donated to make the church better and perform its mission - akin to the Roman Catholic Church, it has added another church failure to reasons I’m hesitant to get fully vested in my current church, so I’m not really attached to the current church, but they love me anyway smile gives me hope that I will find a church where the pastor is honest (in both behavior and admitting failure), accountable and teaches the Word straight.

  • Posted by

    Sometimes people leave because of poor leadership that is unresponsive to real needs.  The greatest need that we can fill for our people is to train them to take up their cross and die.  Just once, I would like to hear a sermon on Luke 17:7-10.  According to this passage when we have done all our work, we have the right to claim the title of “unworthy servant!” As Christians, most of us don’t seem to see ourselves in this light.  We think much “more highly of ourselves” than we should.  Are we in it for what we get out of it, or are we in it to serve the Lord who died to save us?  I often want to ask this question of the people in my church - even some of the staff!


  • Posted by Dan M

    An excellent, lively discussion.  But it was the second statistic that jumped out at me: “...On average, just 7 percent of new attendees are formally unchurched.” Church leaders today have an endless stream of books, seminars, consultants, and advice on how to attract the unchurched to our services.  Yet this statistic seemingly says that it is an empty pursuit.

    I think the great lie in evangelicalism if the last 30 years is that there are hordes of seekers out there just waiting to beat our doors in if we’d only present something interesting to them.  Recently I ran across the following quote:

    “We confuse two similar yet different human actions. We see people searching desparately for peace of mind, relief from guilt, meaning and purpose in their lives, and loving acceptance.  We know that ultimately these things can only be found in God.  Therefore, we conclude that since people are seeking these things, they must be seeking God.

    People do not seek God.  They seek after the benefits that only God can give them.  The sin of fallen man is this: Man seeks the benefits of God while at the same time fleeing from God himself.  We are, by nature, fugitives.” A contemporary criticism of the seeker movement?  Hardly.  Thomas Aquinas wrote this some 750 years ago.  Seems some things never change.

  • Posted by

    Dan M writes [An excellent, lively discussion.  But it was the second statistic that jumped out at me: “...On average, just 7 percent of new attendees are formally unchurched.” Church leaders today have an endless stream of books, seminars, consultants, and advice on how to attract the unchurched to our services.  Yet this statistic seemingly says that it is an empty pursuit.]

    Either that or it shows that it is something we still have to improve on!

  • Posted by

    Is your church swimming upstream? 

    Last Sunday I visited a church where the Senior Pastor said he wanted the job descriptions of the staff re-written to include a requirement to spend 10% of their time with the unchurched!

    Moving on for the right reasons may happen more often than we care to admit.

  • Posted by Vicki

    Larry, I understand your point.  We have some of the kind of “lifers” you described here, too.  I have friends who are pastors of smaller churches who have experienced the pain of a controlling group or family. (One pastor friend of mine pastored a church and dealt with a controlling family with the last name Love - how ironic...) These are the ones you wish would leave and take their critical, controlling spirit with them! 

    In the last two years, we have experienced a schism (that’s a nice way of saying we had a church split) in our church where some long time families left ("hopped") over control issues.  We’ve weathered that storm and are probably healthier now because of it.  However, let me tell you from experience - it doesn’t matter what size your church is - when this happens, it hurts.  It hurts personally.  It hurts corporately.  And, it hurts the community.  Our church wasn’t always as big as it is now.  When I was a kid we ran around 150 people.  People hopped then too.  Doesn’t matter what size the church is, the reasons behind it or how many “hop” - hopping hurts.  (Sounds like a bumper sticker, doesn’t it?)

    I have served under 3 senior pastors and have personally known and loved all 6 of the men and their families who have led our body.  Each one has had a different personality and leadership style.  It’s not always easy for us “lifers” to adjust.  The newcomers DO outnumber us - by a significant amount.  I just think would be childish (and believe me, I’ve been tempted) to get my feelings hurt, or feel displaced by the newcomers.  The newcomers that I get really excited about are the ones who are new - not just to church - but to faith in Jesus. 

    Because we are a larger church in this community, people hop in and out with regularity.  Hopping happens (I’m on a roll...) for all of the reasons that have been named. It’s an unfortunate part of life in the modern church world. 

    God’s church is HUGE.  We get into trouble (pastors and parishioners alike) when we start thinking we belong to church, or go to church, or “own” a church and forget that we ARE the church.

  • Posted by

    I myself am a HOPPER and the reason my Wife and I hopp is to find our place.  We have never belonged to a Church where we felt we were a part of the “FOLD” and as of yet we’re still jot satisified.  While we understand that it’s ( Not all about us) we should at least feel as if we’re not a Chu8rch that somebody there would care.  Just to set things straight we are not “Pew Warmers” I have been envolved with Youth groups, Music ministry, and so on as has my wife been involved even recectly with the “Parking Lot “ committe.  So when we burn out from trying to be part of the group that seems nobody wants us to be a part of we move on.  Even now we ar ethinking of leaving our current Church.

  • Posted by

    Years ago (at least 25 now), Moody Monthly Magazine did a column on “Portraits of a Church-Wrecker”.  It made a lasting impression on me at that time a young pastor.

    Now, 22 years later, it’s amazing how accurate that “portrait” was.  The names change, the faces, are different, but the characteristics of those who live with their “noses out of joint” remain the same.

    Whenever I have a visitor from another church in town who shows up two Sundays in a row, I call the pastor of his church, and advise him that he may want to make a visit on this person.  It helps the pastor “deal” with his own sheep...and also prevents our church from receiving those sheep who may have lost their way.

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