Americans’ Church Affiliations Are Adrift

“The U.S. is a nation of religious drifters,” is how an Associated Press article characterized the findings of a report issued April 27 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The Pew study found that between 47 percent and 59 percent of American adults have changed their religious affiliation at least once.

“In some ways, it’s an indictment of organized religion,” Rice University sociologist of religion D. Michael Lindsay told the AP. “It suggests there’s a big open door for newcomers, but a wide back door where people are leaving.”

Roman Catholics, the Pew report said, tend to leave Catholicism because they no longer believe the church’s doctrines on issues such as abortion, birth control or homosexuality. Protestants are more likely to leave their particular denomination because they’ve moved geographically or married someone from another church group.

Age also plays a role. Most people who left the church of their childhood did so before they’re 24. Most joined their current church before they were 36.

Like any pastor today, I’m way too familiar with what ministers sometimes refer to as a large-scale “church-hopping” mentality.

Besides the factors listed above, here are three other reasons I think we’re seeing this trend:

  • Loyalty in general doesn’t seem as important as it once did. There are exceptions, but by and large, employees aren’t as committed to their companies as they used to be and employers aren’t as committed to their workers. Many people bail out more quickly on troubled marriages than their parents or grandparents did. We’re not faithful to consumer brands or local businesses; we go where the lowest prices are. People bring this same mentality to church. When they find a place that looks better–jazzier children’s programs, a nicer campus–they trade up (so to speak).
  • We’re still living out the consequences, good and bad, of the 1960s and ‘70s. Americans seem less inclined to submit to stringent moral rules or denominational doctrines. They’re less inclined to stick with one congregation or one denomination just because its leaders have warned them they’ll go to hell if they depart. In one sense, that’s good. I remember when churches were way too legalistic and quarrelsome. But the downside is, as individual congregations and whole denominations–particularly Protestant groups–have changed their approaches in an attempt to keep from offending these freedom-minded churchgoers, they’ve also watered down their teachings to the point that they’re often indistinguishable from each other, or even from secularists. People are less devoted to Methodism or Presbyterianism or the Baptist faith in part because they really can’t tell much difference. A lot of groups have lost their unique identity. They’re trying to be all things to all people. That doesn’t inspire loyalty.
  • People are focusing on church leaders, not on God. The Pew study found that the numbers of people totally unaffiliated with any religion are growing, too. About one in 11 Americans has left religion altogether. This doesn’t include those who were raised with no affiliation; these are people who used to go to church. Half of those say they quit because religious people are “hypocritical, judgmental or insincere,” as AP writer Eric Gorski phrased it.

Religious leaders ought to do a better job of pointing out that the reason we go to church is to worship God and rub elbows with other imperfect pilgrims, some of whom we’re automatically not going to like or admire. We’re not there to worship those believers. We’re there to worship God. To grow in our faith, to develop the virtue of self-discipline, we have to keep attending. We have to endure the annoyances, even when we disagree with the pastor’s sermon, loathe the bishop’s stance on a social issue or become offended by a deacon’s drunkenness or marital infidelity. No pain, no gain.


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