Sarah Koscielniak raises her hands in worship alongside members of an Ethiopian church congregation.

On another Sunday morning, you might find her at Alley Midway, a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation. Or maybe Central Mission church, affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination.

"I didn't want to necessarily tie myself to one specific denomination and church," said Koscielniak, 22, who lives in St. Paul, where she attends the three churches. "They're [denominations] important and distinctive, but in this time and age, it's less so, especially for young people who didn't grow up thinking their denomination was the absolutely correct one."

Koscielniak is part of a small but growing group of Christians nationwide known as "church hoppers." They don't attend the same church every week but worship at multiple Christian congregations, often of different denominations.

"Church hoppers" sample a variety of worship styles and programs -- going to one church because they might like the preaching or the style of music, then moving on to others for their Bible studies groups and youth programs.

Such dabbling is in stark contrast to how most Christians have traditionally worshiped, picking one church and sticking to it week to week. However, denomination loyalty is less important to churchgoers more concerned with meeting their spiritual needs.

"It's [church hopping] absolutely prevalent," said Scott Thumma, a researcher at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research in Connecticut who tracks church attendance. "It's absolutely clear that increasingly Americans commodify all their life."

While evangelical Christians tend to be particularly active church hoppers, Thumma said that mainline Protestants and Catholics do so as well.

A recent Concordia College graduate who was raised in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Koscielniak enjoys seeing how different churches worship, even if they are similar in theology and doctrine.

"Sunday mornings can be a place of exploration to see how other brothers and sisters worship, connecting with people I would have never known if I just stick to one church every Sunday," said Koscielniak, who teaches a Bible studies class to teenagers at Zion Ethiopian Evangelical.

"Centuries upon centuries, there's been arguments among people of what's the true doctrine and trying to figure it out. I think being connected to an institutional church ... that's very important and good. But ... sometimes we get so tied up to where we will completely cut ourselves off to our brothers and sisters, who essentially believe the same thing, except that there's some differences in either how we worship or how we interpret scripture."

A pastor's concern

For pastors, it can be challenging to build relationships with people like her. Religious scholars note, too, that church hoppers are less likely to volunteer or give time or money.

The Rev. Henry Williams, pastor at the nearly 1,000-member Five Oaks Community Church in Woodbury, said he doesn't think there are many church hoppers in his congregation, but he believes the practice can be "detrimental" to the hoppers themselves.

"It's not the way it's designed to work," Williams said. "If you read the New Testament, it's very clear that it's all embedded in community.

"There's nothing wrong with individualism, but when it becomes only about me, only about what I'm learning. I love the music here. I love the preaching here. I love this program. And so I'm hopping all around so I can get what I like ... Ultimately if you stay in that stage ... that's not good.

"At what point do you say, 'Where are you connecting and where are you serving and where are you giving and where are you connecting with people?'"

Nondenominational congregations have continued to grow in recent decades, with close to 12.2 million adherents in the United States, ranking as the third-largest religious body, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. In Minnesota, nondenominational congregations are the fourth-largest religious body with 130,263 adherents.

Thumma, the Hartford scholar, points to their growth as evidence of people's increased interest in not belonging to just one congregation.

Full time vs. fulfillment?

"I think that whole consumer and individualistic impulse in our society has also lapsed over into our religious life," he said. "Our spiritual needs getting met means that I treat every religious community not as my traditional family ascribed to a religious identity but something that, 'Does it meet my needs? Does it have services when I need them? Does it have the kinds of Sunday school life I need to have?'"

"Denominational identities still exist and people still think of the differences. But in fact ... that is breaking down, the power of that identity to shape the person."

For the past several years, Dan Frankot has attended three different metro churches. When he's looking for a "contemplative" and "Quakerish" type of worship experience, he attends Missio Dei in Minneapolis, which is linked to the Mennonite faith, Frankot said.

He also attends Woodland Hills church in St. Paul, because he enjoys the "charismatic" services led by Pastor Greg Boyd. Then there's Solomon's Porch, an emergent Christian church in Minneapolis that he describes as "laid back," where instead of pews, congregants sit on sofas around coffee tables.

Frankot would feel less fulfilled if he went to only one congregation every Sunday. "I've never been able to find one church that answers all my needs and spiritual broadness and experience," he said. "By being broad like this, it's a richness. It's like, would you rather be narrow and have two friends or have a lot of friends in your life? And that's kind of where I'm at. I can't be narrow anymore."

Rose French • 612-673-4352