Dissatisfaction and Church Switching

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism

A new study, conducted by Lifeway Research (SBC) looked at how and why people change churches in America. My own informal and anecdotal observations tell me that lots and lots of people are "switching churches" more and more often so this survey deeply interested me.

I left the pastorate in 1992 and have been in three churches in fifteen years without leaving my community. (We all have reasons and I am certainly not condemning church switching here at all. "Let the writer without the sin cast the first stone," or something like that.) My interest is not in condemning persons, for reasons vary and are sometimes complicated, but in observing the trend.

Most of those who switched said their old church failed to engage their faith (58%). But 42% said their old church failed to offer them more appealing doctrines and the preacher or church members expression of faith did not seem "authentic." Scot McConnell, associate director of LifeWay, believes the rise of "consumerism and narcissism" is evident in the survey and seen throughout people’s reasons. I have to agree, at least based upon what I see firsthand.

More than half of those who switched churches also changed denominations, providing further evidence that denominationalism, as we’ve historically known it, is dead or dying. Of those who switched churches 76% called themselves devout Christians. (In 2006 LifeWay did another study of why people leave church altogether and that revealed some even more interesting data, much of it related to the unreality of what we really do in church.) I actually think most switchers are "devout," at least compared to other church goers. This is what may be both impressive and disturbing about this trend. It is impressive in  that switchers are often people who have strong convictions or they are seeking something more than a bland church. It is disturbing in that it disrupts lives, families and social networks in ways that harm children (long term), giving them the kinds of church values that are important to cultivating long term faithfulness to a faith community. (How many young people grow up today with a "home church" in their experience?) It seems to me that once you begin to switch it becomes easier and easier to switch again and again and again. And this does not bode well for people who work for reformation. If people will not stick with their church when things are not all they had hoped then how can churches be truly changed? It also puts undue pressure upon the pastor and leaders to "perform" or else. This is an immense problem from what I’ve seen in the American scene. It drives churches and leaders to take steps that will not restore spiritual health to the church but rather it forces them to provide the goods and services shoppers desire.

The LifeWay research further shows that most people switch to larger churches. This is not surprising to me at all. But only 5% of all worship attenders go to a megachurch and megachurches are only 1% of all churches in the U.S. And Catholics are even harder to measure since they retain the label Catholic long after they have quit or even switched churches. Brad Waggoner, LifeWay’s vice president of research and development, adds: "There’s no simple answer why people are so restless." This much we do know. In the past people supported their churches out of respect, obligation or family ties. This has clearly changed!

Again, this is a good news and bad news situation if you analyze it with any degree of thoughtfulness. Waggoner sees other factors at work here such as increased skepticism and cynicism in the wake of clergy sexual abuse and financial scandals. And, in what I think is  an under-estimated factor, he adds that "divisiveness over doctrine and practice" also contributes in some way. My own impression is that this factor is not as easy to measure but it is hugely important, especially to younger people.

The SBC itself is still feeling the impact of the conservative denominational shift in the 1980s. What should have restored growth and vitality, one would think, appears to have actually brought growing evidence of how the influence of power turns more and more people off. (I tend to share this perspective I must admit. I cheered for the conservatives but now find their more recent political positions, and actions taken because of those positions, troubling to the extreme.)

Waggoner concludes that the individual pastor cannot stop this restless tide of switchers but they can make a difference. I agree with his conclusion. He says, "We have a biblical responsibility to care for every person in our flock." In essence, he is saying that we need pastors to pastor again, not simply be CEOs and mega-church wannabees. I see a small cloud forming, a very small one right now, that portends a recovery of serious pastoral care and ministry. I hope it grows in light of this switching phenomenon. Though switching is sometimes necessary, and even right, the long term trend is not one that I think strengthens church life in America. It is, if we are truly honest, very often a form of schism and division, both of which can be serious sins.

One suggestion for those who must switch, as I have admitted that I have done myself. Try to switch for very good reasons, reasons rooted in theological shifts that are carefully thought out or because the church you are presently a part of has moved significantly away from its stated purpose and mission. But if you do switch, make sure you leave with tears and with love. If a point must be made make it the right way and then quietly leave. Do not sow seeds of discord and do not attack motives. You may be wrong and God is the only just and right judge of the matter.