Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Should Sheep Shop?

I was recently asked by another pastor how he should feel about all of the sheep swapping going around in his city.

In the Bible, those in Christ are often referred to as “sheep,” and pastors as “shepherds.” From this, there have come all kinds of catchphrases in regard to church life, most notably “sheep swapping,” which is when people move from one local church to another. 

Or probably more to the point, “sheep shopping.”

So, is that ever a good thing?  

Always a bad thing? 

Something in between?


Five good reasons to shop around:

1.   Teaching veers away from historic orthodoxy.
2.   Leadership consistently lacks integrity.
3.   Community is infected with habitual disunity.
4.   Mission has no focus or clarity.
5.   Finances lack necessary accountability.  

These are good for one reason: they are substantive issues.

Five bad reasons to shop around:

1.   You don’t like long check-in lines and parking/exit hassles.
2.   You don’t like capital campaigns for buildings.
3.   You don’t like the influx of new faces and new staff.
4.   You don’t like finding your favorite seat taken.
5.   You don’t like having limited personal access to the pastor.

These are bad for one reason: they are all about not liking growth.

Five really bad reasons to shop around:

1.   You want to gravitate to the “next, next” thing out of spiritual insecurity.
      And then the “next, next” thing after that…and after that….
2.   You are fleeing the community after being exposed and admonished for serious, unrepentant sin.
3.   You voted on a non-doctrinal, non-substantive matter and it didn’t go your way.         
4.   Your toes were stepped on in regard to a lifestyle or obedience matter that, in truth, the Bible is clear on.
5.   You got “offended” by someone, but never practiced Matthew 18:15 to try and resolve the offense.

These are “really bad” for one reason: they are rooted in sin, or at least immaturity.

Five “gray” reasons to shop around:

1.   Your new address makes it too far to drive.
2.   Your teenager wants to go somewhere else.
3.   Your age group or “stage of life” group is under-represented.
4.   Your philosophy of ministry is different, or has changed.
5.   Your passion in ministry isn’t offered or enabled.

These are gray for one reason: sometimes they are legit, sometimes they are not. Sometimes they should be “catered” to, sometimes they should not. In truth, most of the time “not.” 

Five reasons used most often for shopping around:

1.   I’m not being “fed.”
2.   I’m not being “fed.”
3.   I’m not being “fed.”
4.   I’m not being “fed.”
5.   I’m not being “fed.”

So is being “fed” good, bad or gray?


In most cases, it’s bad. The apostle Paul talks about those who still want to be “fed” as akin to a middle-age man sucking on a baby bottle. Most of us already know more at this moment than we will ever act on. We don’t need to be fed more – we need to live more. And if anything, feed others. 

Being “fed” is often a euphemism for any and all disagreements that desire a spiritual smokescreen for departure. The irony is that I have dialogued with many of the leading teachers of our day – those who write books, have radio programs, have hundreds of thousands of podcasts downloaded (the teachers of the teachers) – and even with their qualifications the #1 reason people give for leaving their church is “I’m not being fed.”

Go figure.

The bottom line is that continually shopping around as a sheep, as a rule, is not best. What is best is to find a church home, be loyal and committed to it, and to work to make it all that it isn’t with a servant’s heart.

There will always be more

…convenient churches
…hotter churches
…newer churches
…better stage-of-life churches
…hipper churches
…larger churches
…smaller churches

But there will only be one that is your church.

Like a marriage that goes the marathon, there is a depth and sweetness to staying in a community year after year, decade after decade. 

Knowing the stories, the people, the milestones.

There are people at Meck who have been with us since the earliest of days. Some since the very first year. Some since the very first service.

To a person, they would tell you that it is among their most precious investments and realities.

Why? It’s their church.

The one that God called them to.

That’s not something you shop for and buy.

It’s something you make.

James Emery White


Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. You can also find out more information about the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.


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