By Haydn Shaw
The traditionalists (those born before 1945) were loyal to the churches they grew up in—or at least, if relocating, they were loyal to their denomination. Certainly some traditionalists left one church for another when they became upset, but they were the last generation to largely stay put within the same church. The boomers (born 1946–64) introduced church hopping and it has stunted spiritual growth as much as anything the past 50 years.
I realize this is a bold claim, so let me back up and explain two things that have changed and how they led to church shopping and hopping.
From Loyalty to Quality
Boomers began to evaluate their churches from a more self-focused perspective: Am I growing spiritually? Am I happy? Are the minister’s sermons relevant to my life? Their hyperindividualism shaped their ideas and images of church. They believed they could pick and choose what they liked about their church. So they left the church they grew up in for whichever church best suited their needs.
Because of a greater awareness of other intellectual options and as a reaction against denominational infighting, boomers were far more likely to switch denominations or marry outside their denomination (according to Lyle E. Schaller in It’s a Different World and George Gallup Jr. and Timothy Jones, The Next American Spirituality).
Over the last 20 years, as boomers chose nondenominational churches based on the quality of their programs, music, and preaching, denominational labels began to appear in tiny letters underneath the church name or disappeared completely from church signs. This greater focus on quality over denominational affiliation also gave rise to nondenominational parachurch organizations such as Promise Keepers and Women of Faith. Why go to your denominational conference, which offers only a small slice of what Christianity has to offer, when you can join 50,000 other people and hear the best communicators of your generation?
I’m a fan of the greater focus on quality because it reaches more people. A technology upgrade when I was growing up was a new flannelgraph in the fourth-grade boys’ Sunday school class. Attention to quality has transformed the religious landscape (Schaller, It’s a Different World).
It’s a sweeping generalization, but I know of few churches that have grown beyond 200 over the last 30 years if they continued to emphasize allowing everyone to lead or participate regardless of their talent. The boomers left the small churches of their childhoods for ones that have better programs and more polished worship. (While they knew Miss Stella was the only one willing to do it, they just couldn’t take another Sunday of hearing her play the piano like she was wearing mittens.)
Appreciating quality in our churches isn’t wrong, but I think church hopping is one of the worst things that ever happened to our spiritual lives. You can’t date and dump churches and grow deeper spiritually.
If your church is practicing spiritual abuse or heresy, or if it is filled with anger and bitterness and you aren’t spiritually strong enough to deal with it, by all means, get out of there. (I also recommend to parents that if one of your teenagers hates their youth group, find a good fit for them even if it means you drive an hour each way and sit in the car while they are there.) But most churches aren’t horrific; they’re full of humans, and that makes them imperfect, frustrating, and sometimes boring.
From Commitment to Infatuation
A church can be just like marriage. I didn’t grow much spiritually when my wife, Laurie, and I began dating, because everything was new, shiny, and exciting. She was amazing—what wasn’t to love? It was only after dating three years and getting married that I had to grow up in order to love the real Laurie, whose complaints about my not putting things away were getting old.
Thirty years later, I love my wife more than ever, even though she still complains I don’t put things away, and even though I don’t have the same feelings for her that I did at first. Those first feelings were infatuation, which was really about how she made me feel. Today, many years later, it is not the same feeling . . . it’s a much better one. I am crazy about, and committed to, this woman.
Church hoppers are hooked on a feeling more than on God. When they find a church they like, it’s all new, shiny, and exciting. The sermons are different and the people are wonderful—unlike those needy or irritating people from the last church. Then a year passes, and they discover that these people are needy or weird just like the people in the last four churches.
Three years later, the worship songs don’t move them anymore. They wonder why their minister can’t preach more like the guy they’ve been listening to online. And they begin to wonder if God perhaps wants them to go someplace where they can be fed spiritually, because they’re certainly not feeling it here.
Individualism brought God close; hyperindividualism applied a consumer’s attitude toward churches, and it has stunted the spiritual growth of boomers and the generations that have followed.
John of the Cross (who lived in the 1500s) compared Christians who need those warm and exciting feelings to infants who want to be held and regard their parents with self-centered love for what Mom and Dad can do for them. In response to this temptation, John talked about the “dark night of the soul,” when God withdraws his warm and supportive feelings from us so that we can begin to love him more than the feelings of being close to him. John of the Cross described how God takes us out of his arms, places us on our feet, and asks us to walk beside him.
When we take individualism too far and become hyperindividualistic, we can’t get beyond our attachment to an emotional experience of Christ. We leave a church in search of a new “Jesus buzz” before we grow up through the dark night of the soul, or learn to love ordinary people, or deal with our boredom.
I hope we learn to go to church not so much for what it gives us but because this is Christ’s body; this is where the Holy Spirit is at work. If we are constantly searching for a better place, we’ll miss what he put us on the earth for, we’ll live small and shallow lives, and we’ll get older and grouchier. We’ll be like those boomers who are now going on eco-vacations because they’re looking to do some “good” in the world, when we could have just shown up right where we live and made a difference for eternity.
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Haydn Shaw is a minister who speaks to and consults with churches and religious organizations to help them grow. He is founder of People Driven Results and is a leading expert on helping different generations work together. For more about this topic, see chapter 4 of his book Generational IQ: Christianity Isn’t Dying, Millennials Aren’t the Problem, and the Future Is Bright, from which this article is adapted. Learn more about generations in the church and find free resources at http://christianityisnotdying.com.