Reprinted with permission from Faithworks Last Sunday, Dale Smith visited a Baptist church in Hendersonville, N.C. This Sunday, he will "probably" attend a church a few miles away in his hometown of Greer, S.C. Next Sunday? Well, that depends on what church he wants to visit that day.

Smith is church hopping.

And according to church-growth gurus, Dale Smith is more normal than you might think.

Numbers from the Barna Research Group support that theory: Each year, one out of every seven adults changes churches. And one out of every six adults attends a carefully chosen handful of churches on a rotating basis.

Americans are a religious people, and church remains an important aspect of life for tens of millions of Americans. However, there is less concern about "brand loyalty" to churches than there used to be, says Barna. "Although Americans do not change churches as regularly as they change the brand of gasoline they use, church loyalty is a modern casualty," says the research company.

Why don't church-minded adults settle down somewhere? Why not just choose a good church and stick with it?

It's not a simple answer. Even validating the church-hopping trend is difficult because few churches and denominations keep track of how long members stay or why they leave. Little research has been done into what motivates church loyalty.

"Religion and spirituality have become just another product in the broader marketplace of goods and services," said American Demographics magazine in its April 1999 issue.

Which church has the best child care? Which church has my favorite style of music? Which church has the strongest recreation program? Which church is the friendliest?

Perhaps that explains the "Church Shopping Guide" offered online by Atonement Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wisconsin. The "guide" suggests a series of questions the church shopper should ask: Is this church a theater or a temple? A gymnasium or a hospital?

Translation: Don't you want a church where worship is about God and not entertainment? Do you want a place where wounded people come for divine healing, or where healthy people come for exercise?

"Sometimes people are just looking for a good fit, and they can't find it," says San Francisco area resident Brad Sargent. "You find that this church helps you grow spiritually but doesn't have an outlet for you to serve in. So you keep looking."

"Personally, I'm 'bi-churchal,'" proclaims Sargent. "I go to one church where I can grow spiritually, participate in a Gen-Xer worship service, and serve to make a global impact. I go to another, new church on Sunday 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? This fulfills me. I don't think church hopping has to be a negative."

Most churches are unprepared for the new ground rules. They watch in bewilderment as their membership rolls undergo constant turnover--if not a steady drain.

Co-pastor Grant Teagarden and the other folks just starting Living Hope Church in Santa Clara, Calif., hope they have the solution--a little something for everyone.

"For those from a liturgical background, we'd like to set up a room where you can come before the service and have communion and liturgy. For those who just need quiet and prayer, we'd have a room where the prayer team can pray for you and you can meditate. We'd like to have a service where all the members of the family can worship together, without having to be separated."

Lifestyle changes also complicate the picture. The average working couple logs 717 more office hours a year than they did in 1969.

James Atherton, pastor of the seeker-oriented church The Bridge, in downtown San Francisco, deals with the expanding influence of work with Silicon 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,'" says Atherton. "And they take a mattress to the office. It leaves little time to attend a church, much less stick with one."

Some church hoppers say their membership shifts with their spiritual development.

"Your needs change," says Reggie McNeal, a leadership-development specialist from South Carolina. "You attend this church partly because the children's ministry is very good. But children grow up into teenagers, and maybe this church doesn't have a strong youth ministry, and so you look for a church that does."

After several years at a downtown 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 a different Presbyterian church. They were teenagers now, and there was little for them at the downtown church. About four years later, they transferred again, this time to the Baptist church across the street from the Presbyterian one. Her children had graduated high school, and there was a new pastor at the Baptist church. Her needs had changed.

Church-growth guru Lyle Schaller writes: "The loyal member born before 1940 is upset and baffled when a longtime member becomes dissatisfied and quietly departs to worship with a different congregation in that same community. The younger member, who was reared in a culture overflowing with choices, shrugs off that departure as normal and completely acceptable."

But church hopping is about more than generational differences.

"It's a values issue more than a generational one," says Brad Sargent, a Baptist who studies ministry in the postmodern era. Futurist Cassidy Dale agrees. "I think often when people church hop, they're looking for spiritual hooks. They want to be drawn in deeper. They're looking for spiritual depth."

He pauses, then drops the bomb. "Many churches don't offer this."

Here's how churches respond to hopping, according to congregational leaders and consultants:

  • Deny it. "Churches for the most part are in denial that people church hop, especially if they can't tell by looking at the numbers," says Jim Simpson, discipleship director at the South Carolina Baptist Convention. In fact, experts say, few churches and denominations keep track of how long members stay or why they leave.
  • Do nothing. "The majority of churches respond with hand-wringing and think it must be the preacher's fault," says Roy Oswald, senior consultant with the Alban Institute research organization. "[They] know they need to do something different, but don't know what. And so [they] don't do anything."
  • Don't worry about it. "Most of the thriving churches I know focus on empowering those who find what they need at their church," says author and consultant Bill Easum. "They don't feel it makes much difference what church people go to as long as they are growing in Christ."
  • Hook the committed ones. Some churches are bucking the church-hopping trend by requiring members to sign covenants or agreements that detail the conditions of membership. "Membership here means 'I'm joining this family and committing myself in the responsibilities of this church,'" says James Atherton, pastor of The Bridge church in San Francisco.
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