The Great American Religious Switch

We are a nation that “switches” a lot of personal choices. A recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life says we change, or switch, our religious preferences often as well. Indeed, the AP says “we are a nation of drifters.” About half of Americans switch faith affiliation at least once during their lives.

05_25_3_thumb Nothing in this report surprises anyone who has been a Christian in America for long. Brand names—Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc.—mean less and less. But the reasons for swapping do vary according to the survey. If one grows up Roman Catholic they are more likely to leave their church because they stopped believing its teaching. Many Protestants change churches too, but less because of teaching and more because of changed circumstances in one’s life. I have long felt this was the case, based purely on anecdote, so this evidence served to confirm my sense of things.

What did surprise me was the reason those unaffiliated with any religion are growing. The survey says that this demographic is growing not so much because of a lack of religious belief but because of disenchantment with religious leaders and institutions. The survey says that between 47% and 59% of U.S. Adults have changed their religious affiliation at least once. (I am in this group having moved from being a Baptist to the Reformed Church in America.) D. Michael Lindsay, a respected Rice University sociologist of religion says, “This shows a sort of religious a la carte and how pervasive it is. In some ways it’s an indictment of organized Christianity. It suggests there’s a big open door for newcomers, but a wide back door where people are leaving.”

A 2007 Pew Survey found that 44% of U. S. adults left their childhood religious affiliation but re-interviews found the extent is likely much greater. The new survey revealed one in six Americans who belong to their childhood faith are “reverts.” Almost 2/3rds of those Catholics and Protestants who now claim no religious affiliation say they have changed faiths at least twice. 32% says they’ve changed affiliations three times or more. This figure is the dark underside of changing church affiliation. They more people do it the more likely they are to give up on religion altogether.

Age is also a factor in all this changing. Most people who left their childhood faith did so before age 24 while the majority joined their present religious affiliation before age 36. As the director of Pew Forum put it, “If people want to see a truly free market at work, they really should look at the U.S. religious marketplace.”

Images What do we make of all this change?

1. Mobility makes changing churches relatively easy. A Baptist in South Carolina is likely to become something else in Chicago. A Roman Catholic in Chicago is likely to find Willow Creek, or some similar mega-church, appealing when they marry a non-Catholic and begin to raise children.

2. Switching faiths is good and bad. Some of this demonstrates that people think for themselves and change their minds and this can be a sign of personal spiritual development and growth.

3. Many lapsed Catholics “revert” when they age and have a family. Some come to faith in evangelical churches only to return to Catholicism once they discover the depth of their tradition and value it in a new way. The Pew Forum does not track this but I experience quite a bit of it and generally find it a positive trend when people go back with a living and vibrant faith in Christ as Lord.

4. Switching faith, or church, is not nearly the concern that some make it out to be. The real question is where people end up? The evidence that an increasing number switch several times and then quit altogether is growing. This is the trend that ought to deeply concern us. And the survey underscored the primary reason might be “disenchantment with religious leaders and institutions.”

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