Hoppers, Shoppers, and Disciples
By the Rev. Zachary Bartels
I learned a lot of new terms in college and seminary. Stuff like “kenosis,” “Keswick,” “infralapsarian,” and “redaction criticism.” But my very first new term at Cornerstone University, I learned before I attended a single class. The term was “church-hopping.” I arrived at Cornerstone on a Friday, fell in with a couple of sophomores on Saturday, and on Sunday morning, asked one of my new friends what church he attended, figuring I’d hitch a ride and check it out.
“Lately I’ve been church-hopping,” was his response.
Now, to fully grasp my confusion, you’ve got to understand my background. I was born on a Thursday, and that Sunday I attended Essexville Baptist Community Church (ABC). Then, the next Sunday, I attended Essexville Baptist Community Church again. Same thing the next nine-hundred and thirty Sundays (with the exception of maybe twenty when we were on vacation or I was sick). So when I arrived in Grand Rapids, I was looking for a new church to call home. My new friend didn’t have one. Instead, he practiced the art of “church-hopping.” So did most students there.
Church-hopping is just what it sounds like. In a large city that boasts at least one church on every corner, one can literally attend a different church every week for years and years without ever repeating. In fact, I’d guess that given the rate at which new churches are planted in G.R., one could probably go his or her whole life without ever attending the same church twice. This was a new and intriguing idea to me, and I started church-hopping myself, post-haste. My whole freshman year, we checked out different churches every Sunday, mostly of the super-“hip,” cutting-edge variety.
I’m not completely sure why so many of us did that. Maybe we didn’t want to get tied down because my generation fears commitment. Maybe we were afraid we’d have another thing piled on top of work and studies. (I mean how long can you attend a church without having to at least teach Sunday school once they find out you’re from the Christian college?) Maybe it was our way of “sticking it to The Man” (after all, church attendance was required Sunday morning and Sunday evening for all students, but there were no rules about repeat attencance or joining a church). Whatever the case, the churches were sure on to us. People were polite enough, but you could tell what they were thinking. “It’s nice to have you with us,” they’d say. Then their forced smiles would silently add, “and I’m sure I’ll never see you again this side of the Second Coming.”
It was a few years later that I heard someone nonchalantly use a similar term: church-shopping. “We’re church-shopping right now.” Ugh. I knew what they meant, but that term just made me taste bile. I started hearing the phrase more and more in the early 00’s. (In case you’re wondering, that’s pronounced, “the early aughts” as in “back in aught-three. . . ”) No matter how much I heard it, though, I couldn’t get used to it—how comfortably we mixed consumerism with spirituality. People who are church-shopping are kind of like those who are church-hopping, except that the former are actually looking to settle down when they find “the right church”—the perfect congregation that has everything they’re looking for. (Although, in most cases, said church does not really exist.)
I’m not exactly sure who’s to blame for this consumerist mentality, but I know that the churches bear a lot more of the burden than the church-shoppers themselves. It’s become the norm to try and “sell” your church, your programs, your pastor, and the many benefits of membership to all visitors (read: potential customers) who come in the door. Once they visit a couple churches trying to sell them something, of course they’re going to start thinking of themselves as buyers.
It’s a pretty American way to go about choosing a church, if you think about it. Who has the shiniest pamphlets, the handsomest singles pastor, the most complex network of small groups, and the best cappuccino bar? If we can narrow it down to two or three churches, we can sort of let them compete with each other for our church membership. Feels good to have a big fuss made over me, because hey—I’m worth it. I’m me!
Let me make an observation. This is based on zero hours of clinical research, but on quite a few years of personal experience which began when I was introduced to “church hopping.” That day I began the journey from faithful church member to church-hopper to church-shopper back to faithful church member and now to pastor. And here’s what I’ve learned: people who are playing one church against the other for the slickest programs, flashiest presentation, and most bang for their buck are never going to be vital members of a church community. Not unless they change the way they view church, anyway.
With the onset of all this consumerism in our churches, we’ve seen that the number of people transferring membership from church to church to church has skyrocketed, while the number of people joining churches by a profession of faith and/or baptism has plummeted. The problem is that church-shoppers have always got their feelers out for a sleeker church with more to offer them. . . and maybe they’re really church-hoppers at heart. It didn’t take much time as a pastor before I learned to spot them with surprising accuracy. Naturally, I’m happy to have any unfamiliar face arrive at Judson, but I usually can tell when someone’s just ‘shopping’ and when they’re really looking for a church home. . . not based on marketing or a paper-thin shiny finish, but based on Bible-centered teaching, sincere worship, a loving congregation, and a nurturing environment.
Those are the people that I really focus on reaching. Church-shoppers are welcome to “shop with us,” but I fear that they’ll inevitably find a newer model within a couple months and we won’t see them anymore. (It’s a weird phenomenon how churches work so hard to “make a sale” only to continually trade the same people amongst themselves.)
Sadly, our Western culture encourages us to enter into any union—be it marriage or church membership—rather lightly, with the understanding that, should something better come along, I’m out of here. There may be no quicker or more direct path to a state of constant immaturity. Christ gave us the church (at least in part) so that we could learn to love one another and remain committed to each other, even when others are difficult. Even when the list of things you’d like to change about them is longer than the list of things you’d like to keep the same. Even when someone in leadership pulls a bonehead move. Even when you have a tiff with someone sitting in the next pew so that cutting your losses seems so much more appealing than making peace and seeking reconciliation. Loving and living in a committed family relationship with a congregation of believers makes us more like Christ.
After all, what if Jesus had just been “disciple shopping?” What if he had decided after the first “who’s the greatest in the Kingdom?” argument that these weren’t quite the right guys, and called twelve more? Guarantee they would have been just as short-sighted and immature to begin with (all humans are). If Our Lord had just wandered from group to group, waiting for just the right twelve before he shared his life and gave his life, we wouldn’t be free of our sins. Thank God that Christ suffered long with the twelve and bore with them while they slowly they slowly learned to live in the Kingdom, and that he ultimately laid down his life. May we follow his example.
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