Smith is church hopping.
And according to church-growth gurus, Dale Smithis more normal than you might think.
Numbers from the Barna Research Group support that theory: Each year, one outof every seven adults changes churches. And one out of every six adultsattends a carefully chosen handful of churches on a rotating basis.
Americans are a religious people, and church remains an important aspect oflife for tens of millions of Americans. However, there is less concern about"brand loyalty" to churches than there used to be, says Barna. "AlthoughAmericans do not change churches as regularly as they change the brand ofgasoline they use, church loyalty is a modern casualty," says the researchcompany.
Why don't church-minded adults settle down somewhere? Why not just choose agood church and stick with it?
It's not a simple answer. Even validating the church-hopping trend isdifficult because few churches and denominations keep track of how longmembers stay or why they leave. Little research has been done into whatmotivates church loyalty.
"Religion and spirituality have become just another product in thebroader marketplace of goods and services," said American Demographicsmagazine in its April 1999 issue.
Which church has the best child care? Which church hasmy favorite style of music? Which church has the strongest recreationprogram? Which church is the friendliest?
Perhaps that explains the "Church Shopping Guide" offered online byAtonement Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wisconsin. The "guide" suggests aseries of questions the church shopper should ask: Is this church a theateror a temple? A gymnasium or a hospital?
Translation: Don't you want a church where worship is about God and notentertainment? Do you want a place where wounded people come for divinehealing, or where healthy people come for exercise?
"Sometimes people are just looking for a good fit, and they can'tfind it," says San Francisco area resident Brad Sargent. "You find that thischurch helps you grow spiritually but doesn't have an outlet for you toserve in. So you keep looking."
"Personally, I'm 'bi-churchal,'" proclaims Sargent. "I go to onechurch where I can grow spiritually, participate in a Gen-Xer worshipservice, and serve to make a global impact. I go to another, new church onSunday evening to contribute to my local community through service there.Why should my attendance be an either/or? Why can't it be both/and? Thisfulfills me. I don't think church hopping has to be a negative."
Most churches are unprepared for the new ground rules. They watch inbewilderment as their membership rolls undergo constant turnover--if not asteady drain.
Co-pastor Grant Teagarden and the other folks just starting Living HopeChurch in Santa Clara, Calif., hope they have the solution--a littlesomething for everyone.
Lifestyle changes also complicate the picture. The average working couplelogs 717 more office hours a year than they did in 1969.
James Atherton, pastor of the seeker-oriented church The Bridge, indowntown San Francisco, deals with the expanding influence of work withSilicon Valley's "dot-com-ers."
"Their take is, 'I'm going to work 24/7 for the next 10 years,totally give up my life, and retire a millionaire at 35 or 40,'" saysAtherton. "And they take a mattress to the office. It leaves little time toattend a church, much less stick with one."
Some church hoppers say their membership shifts with their spiritualdevelopment.
"Your needs change," says Reggie McNeal, a leadership-development specialistfrom South Carolina. "You attend this church partly because the children'sministry is very good. But children grow up into teenagers, and maybe thischurch doesn't have a strong youth ministry, and so you look for a churchthat does."
After several years at adowntown Presbyterian church with a "warm and wonderful pastor" and a"fantastic children's ministry," Jo from Columbia, S.C., took her two children across town to adifferent Presbyterian church. They were teenagers now, and there was littlefor them at the downtown church. About four years later, they transferred again, this time to theBaptist church across the street from the Presbyterian one. Her children hadgraduated high school, and there was a new pastor at the Baptist church. Herneeds had changed.