I one time heard a joke about a man who attended four different churches on Sunday morning. He drove to the first because it always had excellent worship that gave him a feeling of spiritual ecstasy, after the set ended and the pastor asked attenders to turn and greet one another, he made his excuses and headed for the door. He got to the second church just in time for the popular pastor to take the stage and give a rousing and moving oration on the days text. As the pastor bowed to pray he made his second exit of the morning and was able to make it to the third church just in time for the pastor to invite hearers to come to the front if they needed prayer for anything. This church and their deeply spiritual prayer team always knew the right words. He made his way up front received prayer and tearfully made his way nodding and reciting his amens back to his car off to the final church which was known around the county for their fantastic coffee and selection of donuts. The twin punchline is that throughout this circuit he managed to visit every church at the high point of the morning and miraculously never saw an offering basket passed around.
While an obvious and maybe a kitchy joke, it hyperbolizes a real struggle of pastors and churches known as church hopping. While not usually done in one morning, it is not uncommon congregants to pinball back and forth to different churches based on the programs, preaching, worship team, or (to be frank) attractiveness of the unattached attenders. In the area in which I live and hope to pastor, it is not uncommon for attenders to visit a local mega-church on Saturday night for the charismatic pastor and another church on Sunday morning for a smaller gathering and communal feel. In mentioning this recently, I received the response a long the lines that a little extra Bible and teaching never hurt. I have spent some time mulling over this comment and I have decided that I disagree and the rest of this post will explain why.
A Little Extra?
The first issue I take with this approach to church is that the idea of a little extra I think is faulty because it assumes that the person seeking the “little extra” is getting something beyond the full church experience. The full church experience, by the way, is not a fantastic Sunday morning gathering complete with all that the man in the previously mentioned joke is getting. The full church experience is being a part of a family and being a part of a body. These are two of the most common analogies for the church in the Bible, and both carry the implication of necessity of the parts. A body needs all its parts to function properly. A family meal feels odd when someone is noticeably absent.
Similarly I think of an analogy to a meal. Going to another church for a ‘little extra’ when you are not fully invested in your present church is like having two stakes and referring to the second as a little extra dinner. The truth is you lacked a balanced and healthy meal to begin with, and a little extra stake (while probably delicious and filling, is not a viable substitute for a vegetables.
Before pursuing a little extra church there should be a conscious mulling over of some helpful questions:
- Am I in submission to the preached word at my current church? Do I seek, honestly, to apply and obey the preached word of God as I receive it from my pastors and elders?
- Am I a full participant in the worship gatherings at my church? Do I show up on time to church having asked the Spirit to minister to me? Do I intentionally and thoughtfully sing the songs of praise and adoration that our worship leader has picked? Do I pray with the pastor and congregants at moments of invitation to do so? Do I hear and listen and meditate on the preaching? Do I have my Bible open during the sermon to track with the message? Do I take notes when necessary? Do I give tithes and offerings generously and thoughtfully?
- Am I in active fellowship? Do I spend time with believers from my church in a fellowship gathering (small group, Bible study, book study, life group, etc.)? Do I confess sin to appropriate members of the church body and my fellowship community? Do I serve and bear with the burdens of others in the church? Do we have meals together? Do we share our possessions and funds as is needed? Do we invite others into our fellowship communities? Do we have deep and edifying spiritual conversations in our fellowship gatherings? Is my fellowship community seeking to make disciples in our neighborhoods and amongst our families and each other?
- Am I serving the greater body of the church? Do I volunteer in ways that may be costly or inconvenient to me? Do I use my gifts and talents in service of the greater church body? Do I serve the church body out of my weakness? Have I responded to calls or requests to serve the church body?
There is so much that goes into engaging meaningfully in a local body that I wonder how someone who is authentically invested in the life of a local church would have time—given all the previous responsibilities of family, work, necessary self-care—to seek out a little extra.
Treat All Churches As Families
Another issue I have with a casual church attendance, even, maybe especially, when invested in another local body is that it would seem disrespectful to the second church to a certain extent. Every church, even mega-churches, are trying to get their attenders to move out of passive consuming and into active church life (as sketched by the questions above). I use the phrase active church life to mirror active family life. Going to a worship service to consume is comparable to going to a family dinner merely to consume. Family dinners are not first and foremost about the food, but about the fellowship and the inculcation of traditions. Imagine how disrespectful it would be to go to a cousins house for a family dinner and completely disregard the aspects of family life and start serving yourself mid-prayer.
Within this issue I think is another which I fear as well. In psychology and counseling books, women are often discourage from dating a guy who treats other women poorly even if he treats her well. The concept that lies behind such a warning is the idea that people will often create habits and knee-jerk reactions around how we treat groups of people. After awhile, the counsellor usually explains, he will begin to treat you as he would any other woman—in the best case scenarios just when he is caught off guard or reacting to something, in the worse case when the passion dies or he has achieved what ever goal was established for your relationship (sex, marriage, etc.). I am not saying that this is what will happen, but I wonder if the same thing could happen in churches, where treating one church with a purely consumerist mentality will lead to treating your home church in the same manner.
Shepherds and Your Shepherd
As an aspiring pastor I have a difficult time not considering this issue: are you going to the other church because its pastor is a better speaker than yours? Being a pastor is hard, especially in the age of podcasts and youtube, when the worlds best preachers are recorded and posted on the inter-webs for any body to download and listen to, and unless they are careful, subsequently compare their pastor to. Each pastor is called to shepherd his flock the best he can from the strengths and weaknesses God has given him. Drawing unfair comparisons between pastors whom God has called to oversee thousands and the pastor God has called to oversee hundreds or even tens.
Within this category I should also point out that it would be possible to be at a church with an unqualified pastor or a pastor who is not preaching the gospel. In this case you should withdraw from that church and find a new church with a faithful team of pastors shepherding and leading the people.
One more thing to add here, latest polling data from the evangelical statistician organization The Barna Group has revealed that pastors are afraid to do their jobs when it comes to administering church discipline for those claiming the name of Christ but living in unrepentant sin, and when it comes to preaching on difficult topics like homosexuality and abortion. The major reason is the consumeristic and transient church culture. When you church hop, even if you don’t intent to, you contribute to this fear and make it harder for pastors to keep to their convictions.
As I reflect on this issue I find more reasons that I would seek to dissuade someone from this mentality and manner. But I want to wrap up here because I want to end by stating positively a few beliefs about the church rather than rail against actions I disagree with. A few positive things in conclusion:
- There is no perfect church, but there is a perfect savior who is glorified in our weakness and honored by our joining in of the life of the church.
- Your local church should, to a certain extent, look different from you. You are looking for a church full of people who worship Jesus and desire to deepen their discipleship. You are not looking for people who wear the same shoes and have all the same album on their playlist.
- The church is a body that functions together and requires all its parts, even the ones that seem insignificant.
- The church is a family that fellowship together and care for one another. Families are active in the spiritual life of each other.
Thanks for reading,