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Religious ‘Churn’ and the American Church

26 February, 2008

b and lilyA major new survey presents perhaps the most detailed picture we’ve yet had of which religious groups Americans belong to. And its big message is: blink and they’ll change. For the first time, a large-scale study has quantified what many experts suspect: there is a constant membership turnover among most American faiths. America’s religious culture, which is best known for its high participation rates, may now be equally famous (or infamous) for what the new report dubs “churn.”

So says “America’s Unfaithful Faithful”, a report in TIME on the extensive recently completed U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, by the Pew Forum (you can find the whole survey and a lot of related information here). This ‘churn’ had been expected for a long time, of course, but now the data are in: 28% of Americans have left the faith they were brought up in, and if you count interdenominational Protestant church-swapping, the number is 44%.

Amazingly, this is not a phenomenon only of nondenominational Protestantism; Catholicism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (for example) show a whole lot of the same turnover, even though the percentage of the American people who belong to one of these groups at any one time has been relatively static in recent years–what the report calls ‘masked churn’.

Probably the most interesting thing is the unofficial ‘recommendation’ of the report, the ‘What should we learn from this?’ suggested by Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum (as well as those things hinted at by the reporter):

The report does not speculate on the implications of its data. But Lugo suggests, “What it says is that this marketplace is highly competitive and that no one can sit on their laurels, because another group out there will make [its tenets] available” for potential converts to try out. While this dynamic “may be partly responsible for the religious vitality of the American people,” he says, “it also suggests that there is an institutional loosening of ties,” with less individual commitment to a given faith or denomination.

Lugo would not speculate on whether such a buyer’s market might cause some groups to dilute their particular beliefs in order to compete. There are signs of that in such surveys as one done by the Willow Creek megachurch outside Chicago, which has been extremely successful in attracting tens of thousands of religious “seekers.” An internal survey recently indicated much of its membership was “stalled” in their spiritual growth, Lugo allowed that “it does raise the question of, once you attract these folks, how do you root them within your own particular tradition when people are changing so quickly.”

The irony in all this is that treating the church like just another commodity in the marketplace of religious ideas is so much a part of the problem of ‘churn’; parishoners aren’t consumers and Christianity isn’t a product–it’s entrance into the life of the Spirit of the age to come through believing an announcement of the marvelous things that God has done in Christ for us. This report is black and white testimony to the tragic loss of that very announcement in so much of the church.

To add insult to injury, the findings of the report implicate the church in several other sins of ommission and commission, which all flow from a famine of the word of the gospel: people who leave the faith of their youth aren’t being catechized in that faith and don’t feel like an integral part of that community of faith; people raised Christians who keep trying out different ‘faiths’ — not just different denominations — show that they’ve not at least been taught what ‘faith’ means. The report also shows that Christians are more willing than Mormons and Hindus (for example) to marry people outside their own faith.

There’s a lot more in it, and I suspect not much good in it — except for the fact that it seems the one thing that most of these churners have never heard or experienced is the gospel, proclaimed in all its beauty and boldness and at the same time displayed in the hearts and lives of a loving community brought together around this message and the Christ it announces. Shouldn’t this simultaneously give us trust in God’s good purposes, his amazing ability time and time again to bring redemption in the midst of — and through — judgment, hope in such a seemingly hopeless situation, and spur us on by the Spirit to greater diligence and faithfulness in the good work of taking this life and light into such death and darkness?

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