The Sin of Parish Hopping

What if we taught our people, the people of God, that parish hopping is a sin. I know we preach against it, at least to other pastors and to the board of elders. But what if we said it was sinful from the pulpit? Of course, not every type of parish hopping is sinful. A military family that hops from one city to another, and so from one parish to another, is not sinning. But this isn’t really parish hopping. This is moving. Parish hopping is when a family or individual hops from parish to parish in the same general geographic location trying to find the one that best suits him or her or their family. What if we preached that this is sinful? After all, isn’t it?

Why do people parish hop? To go where their itching ears lead them. Their “ears” may be a desire for a better single’s group or a better youth group or a better choir or a more energetic preacher/service. How many Christians parish hop because they don’t think Christ is present among His people in their initial parish? How many leave for doctrinal reasons? Not many. People leave to suit their fancy. This is paramount to divorce. Let not man put asunder what God hath joined together. But our people have been led to believe that while parish hopping is not good, it certainly isn’t sinful. It’s in bad taste, but not sinful. But I argue that it is.

When a person leaves a parish for reasons other than moving or some other reason of necessity, then whatever the reason they leave is that which defines their relationship to the parish. If this reason is not Christ, then it is sinful. So if a person leaves because the baptismal font is moved, then his relationship to the parish, to the people of God gathered there, is either the position of the baptismal font or that nothing should change. If a family leaves the parish because the parish down the street has a better youth group, then it is the youth group that defines their relationship to the parish. This is sinful because it is not Christ. They are in essence confessing that it is not Christ that keeps them there, but other things.

Now the defense is that they’re not leaving Christ because they go elsewhere. They still believe, they still want the Sacrament, etc. But in fact, they are sinning against Christ. To say otherwise is like saying that the man who divorces his wife for another is not really sinning because he only divorced his wife because she was ugly or boring. But he still wants to be married, he still enjoys the benefits of marriage, he just wants to enjoy them with someone else. Is that so wrong? To want to be happy?

Is not the Body of Christ gathered to Christ at the parish where there is a small, inactive youth group or Sunday school? Or do these things make the Body of Christ more the Body of Christ? Are these the things of which our Lord says, “One thing is needful.” When a person leaves (again, not because they’ve moved or something akin to that, but because of personal preference) they have abandoned the place where God has placed them for selfish reasons. This is sinful.

But it is not only the parish hoppers who sin. It is also the pastor who lets them go and the one who receives them. Both should rebuke them. The one who lost them shouldn’t have transferred them out. He should have said “no”. He should ask them why they’re there and what their relationship is to the parish. He should point out their sin that they may be saved. If they do not listen and leave anyway, they will die for their sin (so to speak), but he will not be condemned. After all, we don’t need professional choirs or singles groups or whatever to be the Body of Christ. So the preaching has fallen far short in this regard. Moreover, the receiving pastor shouldn’t receive them. He should ask them, “Was Christ not proclaimed there? Was the preacher a heretic? Was the Sacrament neglected?” If not, then go back to where you came from; you have not the things of God in mind but the things of men.

Consider the family who left despite the pastor’s admonition not to, and then wouldn’t be received by the pastor they sought. Notwithstanding their traveling to yet a third parish, where would they go? From whom would they receive Christ? All things being equal, they would return to their original pastor and seek reconciliation. And he in turn would receive them back, reconciling them to Christ. What a picture of the Law and Gospel! What a picture of what it means to belong to Christ; to abide in Him! This is incarnational living.

And, no, just because they would go to a third, maybe a Methodist parish, does not free us from preaching the whole council of God. We’re not instructed to preach because they will hear, but because the word must be preached.

I know, this is drastic, even borderline psychotic, but I actually think it’s the truth. Parish hopping is sinful, and we pastors need to actively condemn it, not incidentally or occasionally call it a bad idea. I know, when you get a family of 5 from the parish down the road because you’re Bible Class is so good, it’s easy to receive them. But should you? Should you be one that causes division in the Body of Christ? After all, what is Paul, Apollos, or Cephas. Is not Christ everything?

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3 Responses

  1. Great job, Pastor Lovett! Keep fighting the good fight!

    • Sorry, but I think this is overstated, especially the analogy to marriage.

      • Why is it overstated? I’m not talking about the woman whose husband cheated on her in the parish and so can’t stay for severe emotional reasons and so seeks solace in another parish. I’m talking about the family that up and moves every time a parish down the road does something better or cooler, or when the pastor does something to irk them. There is no suffering with one another if we can simply leave when the fancy strikes us.
        Besides, given that St. Paul says marriage is the analogy of Christ and His Bride, I think the marriage analogy fits quite well.

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