A man was stranded on a deserted Pacific island for years. Finally one day a boat comes sailing into view, and the man frantically waves and draws the skipper’s attention. The boat comes near the island, and the sailor gets out and greets the stranded man. After a while the sailor asks, “What are those three huts you have here?”
“Well, that’s my house there.”
“What’s that next hut?” asks the sailor.
“I built that hut to be my church.”
“What about the other hut?”
“Oh, that’s where I used to go to church.”

We smile because we know the scenario. Many people move on from church and for apparently little reason. The term ‘church hopping’ was coined especially  to describe the condition of spending some time (longer than a few weeks) in one church, before moving on to another, and another, and another. For some, it is a very pejorative term, not as bad of course as ‘serial adultery’, but evoking similar disgust at people who move shamelessly from one church to the next.

But dig beneath the surface and you find that the issue is far more complex. The church hopper may have ‘a problem’ but often their leaving says as much about the quality of the local churches they fail to stick with as it does about the individual. They are hoping, not hopping.

The emotions are very real – that sense of longing to find a church is not dissimilar to someone who longs to be married. In Ephesians 5 the apostle Paul writes of Christ and the church as symbolic of a husband and wife. Someone without a church, is in a sense missing out on the spiritual connection they long for which parallels the natural human desire for love – that sense that you are not complete until you find a church you can stay with. But finding ‘the right one’ can be hard.

So using this dating imagery, what are some of the characteristics of church hoppers? What are some of the problems in churches they attend and fail to stay with and most important, what can be done to improve the situation?

Looking for a church

Once bitten twice shy

You may be bored by the statistic charting the decline of church attendance – one million left the church between 1989 and 1998 and half a million from 98 to 2005. There have been some encouraging signs recently, notably a survey by Tearfund, but however we spin it, the trend is downward.

Some of these people aren’t going back, and some are going to struggle to settle when they visit your church. It has nothing to do with you and everything to do with harsh words, careless advice and manipulation at the hands of a previous church. The topic of spiritual abuse is never pleasant, and the bruising can of course be down to the imagination of the church member, but anecdotal evidence suggests this is more common that we like to admit – chances are you know someone who has had a bad time somewhere?

And though you might think that a bruising experience elsewhere might make it easier for someone to find another church on the grounds that anywhere is going to be better, in practise the wounds are like a cut on the hand – any handshake with anyone causes pain. A wounded person finds that as they get close, after a suitable amount of time, they cannot quite bear it and move on.

Speed dating

But other hoppers don’t have the chance to even know what closeness feels like – they move on too soon without giving the church a chance.

Reflecting on her church hopping experience in London, Grace Benson, who lives in the Covent Garden area of London explains: “I think it’s important that individuals realise that it takes time to build up connections. I work for a Christian charity and inevitably, in a week I will connect with my colleagues in a way that would literally take a month of Sundays at church (assuming no other contact). You need to stick around a while before you understand why things are the way they are and appreciate the good.”

Spoilt for choice

Many church seekers find that their towns and cities have a lot of churches to choose from. Gone are the days when, for example, Baptists would simply flock to the town’s local offering when entering a new town. Today most go where they can find the preaching and worship they like irrespective of the denominational name on the sign outside. So if after attending a few months, you find that you can’t find what you are looking for (and for singles this may be the certain someone they are looking for), well the carpet may seem greener in the church, across town (or even the street).

On the shelf

Some people church hop because they really don’t connect with others well.

“Some newcomers are clearly looking for the perfect church,” explains John Aytron, pastor of Portswood Evangelical Church, Southampton. “In one town where we lived there were a few people who were known to the pastors in the town. They would pitch up apparently happy and then you would discover they wanted to ‘start a ministry’ or exercise an ‘unusual gifting’ and quite frankly, church leaders were quite relieved when they left!”

Former flames

But for many the biggest problem is finding a church that can match the one that they used to know.

William Scott in Middlesex explains: “I am American and my wife is English. But we both met with God quite dramatically through Charismatic house groups in the US, though at different times and in different places. We moved to a church situation in Minnesota that was remarkable – healing was common, the prophetic very abundant, we saw evangelism on the streets, remarkable provision in finance and one guy saw his broken down car, working after prayer.

“But it seemingly died out. And when we moved to the UK we have also found the Charismatic church, whatever the flavour, lacked in any real sense of the supernatural. Worship times are typically pre-planned, staged events. They are managed from the front. There is no sense of God leading his people, it is more of a performance. The leaders seem to have a turf protecting mentality. We have attended many and are somewhat bemused both by the service themselves and their failure to interact meaningfully with us. We were at one church quite a while, but no one ever spoke to us. No one said, we are here to equip you, how can we help?”

Scott’s description reminds us that for some there is a longing to capture in fellowship what they used to know. Their experience of God has spoilt them for anything else. And they show up at your church thinking, ‘maybe I will find God here?’

Churches looking for people

But as the song goes, ‘it takes two to tango’. How do churches fail to play their part in this potential ‘matchmaking’?

Too serious too soon

John Drane believes that some of the problems of church hopping come from churches failing to understand the culture. In his books, The McDonaldization of the Church and After McDonaldization (both, Dartman, Longman and Todd) Drane has argued that the church as a whole has tended to be monochrome in its approach, serving a very small segment of society. He tells Christianity:  “To some extent church hoppers are driven by looking for what they need, but this is often because  their lives are so busy, with long working hours, that they just cannot find the time and energy to connect with the local church.”

No church should apologise for taking the faith seriously, but there’s a way of allowing people to edge themselves in gently, rather than pre-empting the move. A healthy fringe allows people to peer in to see what is happening without feeling they need to jump in with both feet to justify being there.

Like it or lump it?

But let’s face it, some churches are to outsiders, the dating equivalent of the partner that makes no effort at all –  the woman who goes on a date with no makeup and hairy legs, the guy with the body odour and dirty clothes. Newcomers are left feeling that the archangel Gabriel would struggle to feel welcomed.

The sad thing is that many churches are utterly oblivious to how deeply unfriendly they are to outsiders, because they are such good friends with each other – like the guy who is so used to his own body odour he no longer smells it. It was Saddleback Community Church pastor, Rick Warren who wisely noted: “people don’t want a friendly church – they want friends!”

“I attended one very well known Anglican church in London for a number of weeks on and off but in all my time, no one ever engaged in conversation,” says Grace Benson. “I am sure if someone of my age had come up and said, ‘Would you like to get more involved?’I would have. But no one ever did.”

One church consultant shocked a church leadership when they discovered he had turned up incognito to a service the week before he was due to advise them. He outlined how he had been ignored – this in a church that had prided itself on its friendliness.

Too desperate

But if some pay little attention to newcomers, others pay that little bit too much.

John Drane recounts a visit he will never forget: “I recall one church where I received a hug when I arrived – which was all very well, but I was a complete stranger and not there as a speaker!. Had I been a newcomer to church, and not comfortable with hugs, I wouldn’t have returned. “

And just as a guy or girl who tries too hard can be hard to form a natural relationship with, so church’s that pounce on newcomers, and involve them too soon, also drive people away.

They’re just not that into you

Of course, sad to say, some churches are actually quite glad that you hop off elsewhere because they realise that you and they are never going to see eye to eye. In theory they are open to all comers and if it was clear that you were not yet a Christian they would be all over you like a rash. But if you are a believer and don’t toe the line, they don’t know how to cope. You have the wrong view of the role of women, or spiritual gifts, or baptism, or what’s appropriate in worship. They will let you stay, providing you are prepared to mend your ways, or give them time to do so.

Secrets of a happy marriage?

What are some of things that need to happen for people to find it easier to stick at a church?

Love at first sight

It is hard to overemphasise the importance of having people who are good welcomers: who get that balance between being interested without being nosey – available without being pushy, and can help put strangers in touch with church members with whom they can easily relate.

“It is useful if churches are aware of different personality types when welcoming people,” suggests Drane. “I realise this requires a high level of emotional discernment – some need  a conversation, others prefer to be anonymous at least initially and that should be respected.”

“Some people find that being a newcomer is OK – people are friendly, but this wears off a month or two into being at the church. So people become ‘church hoppers’ because the reality of how lonely they are starts to hit them,” explains Ayrton.

Barnabas played a key role in the redemptive drama of the New Testament, as he brings Paul, the former persecutor to believers in Jerusalem. Maybe welcomers in your church could have a significant impact?

Be realistic

No church is perfect. So if people are expecting something akin to paradise they have neither understood that the Gospel is for sinners, nor have they studied the New Testament. It includes churches with disunity, a poor grasp of the Gospel, super spirituality, a temptation to drift, and full of godless behaviour. So as much as you might want people to stay at your church, creating an appropriate atmosphere of reality will be important.

This may also mean being blunt with some people who claim to believers but treat church like a cafeteria. Just as some Christian men are serial daters and never commit, there are church hoppers who do need to be told straight that commitment to Christ means commitment to kingdom purposes, which typically means a local church.

Be prepared to work at it

If church really believes that it wants to be welcoming, then it is wise to be as prepared as possible for diversity: people who need help with understanding the faith, those needing one on one friendship, those needing one on one counselling, those who needed to be involved pretty soon. You may not be able to welcome everyone, but at least you can do the very best with the personnel you have

Know the wider family

If it is clear that someone is drifting from one church to another, without resolving issues in a given locality, then it is wise if the leaders within the town/city talk to one another and if necessary encourage resolution. Remember that as far as Jesus is concerned there is one church in any locality  (but meeting under different banners) so you need to respect how the member of the body who is meeting with you, may have behaved elsewhere.

Look to God

Just as God is the vital factor in any good marriage, so He is the one we look to – as church leaders to provide the nurturing environment and as individuals to sense His direction for where we should rest.

Whether you are someone looking for a church, or in a church doing the welcoming – be reassured that God is as concerned as you are that you get it right. It may be stretching it to say that it would be ‘a marriage made in heaven’ but for someone desperate for a spiritual home  –  it’s the next best thing.

A couple’s church search

We attended a small independent church for over 20 years, my husband was a lay leader.  We enjoyed, and still maintain, some deep friendships. We moved church when a full time minister came, to give him the freedom he needed. We spent four years in large Anglican church a half hours drive away- we loved the ethos of the church but couldn’t seem to ‘break in’ and we never felt ‘at home’ despite volunteering.

We then attended a more local Anglican church but with the same result, we never felt we ‘belonged’. There are other local churches we could try and while we long to be part of a worshipping community our recent experience means our motivation and expectation is rather low and the reality is that our search is continuing.