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The Distinctively Modern Phenomenon of Church (S)Hopping*

02.09.2011

I was baptized as an infant† in the Lutheran church in Oregon because that was my grandparents’ home church.  I spent the first half-dozen years of my life attending a Church of Christ until, for reasons I can’t quite remember, we moved to the local United Methodist Church. 

In college, I bounced around between roughly four non-denominational, evangelical churches, depending on where my friends were going and what the sermon series were. 

When I moved to the East Coast, I joined a Baptist church because of its proximity, minimal likelihood of ‘wishy-washy-ness,’ and casual dress culture.  After I got married, my wife and I moved to the local North American Church of God, where we’ve been for almost five years and see ourselves staying as long as we’re in the area. 

That’s five institutional denominations (six total if you count non-denom as one) and nine churches in 30 years for me.  While initially surprising (even to me upon review), this story is probably more common than not among active Christians of my generation. 

One of the things I’m hoping to do in this four-part series‡ is explore how we choose a church and how we weigh various things like worship style and liturgy.  However, before we can do that, it’s important that we don’t take for granted the very notion of choosing a church.  I think it’s one that previous generations would have found odd or perhaps even troubling, that your church was one that you chose from among multiple options, like you would a car or charity.

Once Upon a Time

Let me first acknowledge that I’m probably idealizing the past.  Most Western communities have not spent the previous 2000 years as Lake Wobegone clones only to be shaken up by post-WWII economic and social trends.  That said, I think that the following picture serves to capture the essence of ‘the way things used to be.’§

One hundred years ago, the typical American Christian would have likely attended the same church his whole life.  It was the church his parents raised him in.  It was the church his kids would be raised in.  The denomination was likely determined by the dominant socio-economic and/or immigrant group in town (or in the neighborhood, if he lived in a more urban setting).  The church would have been a community institution, the locus of social life, support functions, and political organization.  It would be a badge of identity, an in-group marker to distinguish him from outsiders in the same way that ‘Brooklyn hipster’ or ‘Berkeley hippie’ serves to do today.

This idealized situation carried with it some distinct advantages to the current one.  For one, there was a greater degree of unity within the body at the local level, giving Christians a common identity and coordinated mechanism for engaging the community.**  Like a family, relationships within the congregation were based on mutual obligation and unconditional service.  Additionally, the church would have been integrated with the community in a way that our compartmentalized church culture currently is not.

However, that’s not to say that there aren’t significant drawbacks to this model.  Without the mechanism of choice, there are significant questions about how wholly a given believer would accept the denominational doctrines.  Similarly, as our hypothetical Christian was raised in the local church in a community where that experience was universal, how can we say that his faith was an active choice, accepting the Gospel and rejecting the alternatives?  Lastly, by allowing the church to become a social, cultural organization, it made it more prone (I’d argue) to behaviors like judgment and exclusiveness; there would have been no practice of welcoming visitors or new believers.

In the Here and Now

The current situation is what we largely know:  people bounce around between churches as their social groups, beliefs, jobs, hometowns, and spiritual needs change.  The church ends up relatively marginalized both in the life of the average believer who has competing commitments and in the life of the community, where secular organizations compete for resources and visibility.

I won’t give the same attentions to the current situation’s pros and cons, since they’re largely the converse to the past’s, but I’ll breifly summarize.  In those that do profess, faith is an intentional and actualized element of life, and church organizations are much more geared to welcoming seekers and transplants.  Conversely, there’s a lack of unity within the church and integration with the community, and congregants are ‘reduced’ to consumers, choosing among churches based on ever-changing spiritual needs.

What Gives?

What I’m more interested in is where this shift comes from.  Why have the last 50-ish years seen this radical shift in the relationship between church and believer? 

I think the biggest driver is geographic mobility.  Notice way back up in my opening biographical outline, there are four major metropolitan areas represented (if not explicitly mentioned): Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Washington, DC.  My parents followed their jobs 1,000 miles from their families and worked to find the best church community available in which to raise their family.  I, in turn, moved 120 miles from home to go to college and then 3,000 miles away to follow my job. 

My experience is far from  uncommon.  I’ve heard it said,†† that most all figures of church growth cited by growing evangelical megachurches represent transplanted believers rather than new converts.  This, as a side note, should really prompt us to reexamine church growth as a success metric.  But that’s neither here nor there for our purposes.

This unprecedented mobility, along with the post-’60s uptick in disaffection with the traditions and loyalties of our parents, underlies much of the ego-centrism, for better or worse, of the modern church model.  I say ‘for better’ because that focus on the self has led to a more rigorous engagement with faith and the personal relationship with Christ than would have otherwise been the case.  I say ‘for worse’ because ego-centrism is focused on consumption rather than service and further enables transience.

I hear and read much about the woes of the current church model (at sites like Internet Monk and Front Porch Republic, for instance), embodied by (and both a cause and effect of) the church (s)hopping phenomenon.  I agree largely with these critiques.  However, I think we have to acknowledge that this model is not the brainchild of a pastor or scholar who thought things could be done better.  It’s the organic outgrowth of larger changes in Western, post-WWII culture.  Rather than continue to decry this trend, it would be more constructive to understand, contextualize, and manage it for the health of the body as a collective and for the believers as individuals.

————

* When I went to college and then moved cross-country, I called this process ‘church hopping,’ but I much more often hear/see it as ‘church shopping,’ hence the parenthetical ‘s.’  It’s likely that I misheard the phrase originally and have been using a malapropism ever since as the latter more fully captures the essence of and complaint about the process. 

† A topic for a later time.

‡ This piece from last Wednesday was Part 1.  Parts 3 and 4 will follow over the next two weeks.

§ Based unabashedly on absolutely zero research.  I’m just riffing on the general sense of things that I get.

** Of course, engaging the community would mean something different since the church and the community, if venn diagrammed, would overlap almost completely.

†† Again, no sources or research!

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2 Comments
  1. dsmith236 permalink

    Are there any examples of the current model prior to WWII?

    I understand the root processes of A) a more rigorous engagement w/ faith and B) a consumer-driven transience. But can both of these be happening at the same time? They seem to be somewhat at odds. Would you say that these are different stages that the average churchgoer experiences or do some churchgoers experience A while others experience B?

    • To your first question, I don’t know. It would require more research and a more rigorous approach to the actual historical element of the idea than I have yet given it. My guess would be yes, just because saying no is a hard statement to defend, but I would imagine the incidence was much less than after.

      I think that both of your propositions (different stages and different people) are possible, but I would add a third that it could exist within a given person. I can imagine a person who is rigorously engaged with his own faith precisely because it’s been self-tailored to his interests and strengths via a consumer process. Additionally, I would draw a distinction between rigorous intellectual engagement with theology and full membership and fellowship in the body. I think you can have the first without the second, though not for long…heh.

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