The faithful are restless, a new study of Protestant churchgoers suggests.
They’re switching from church to church, powered by a mix of dissatisfaction and yearning, according to the study by LifeWay Research. The organization is part of the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
Most of the switchers who changed their house of worship without making a residential move (58%) say their old church failed to engage their faith, or put their talents to work, or it seemed hypocritical or judgmental.
But 42% of the people say they switched because another church offered more appealing doctrines and preaching or the preacher and church members’ faith seemed more “authentic.”
“We may believe in the same doctrine, the same God and study the same Bible, but we are also imperfect human beings who mess up, who are not always living out those beliefs,” says Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research. He adds in the rise of “consumerism and narcissism” — when people expect to customize every experience to personal taste.
More than half (54%) of switchers changed denominations as well. Fewer than half (44%) said denomination was an important factor in choosing a new church.
The study, conducted in December, surveyed 632 Protestant adults who said they switched churches. For findings on the 415 people who had not made a residential move, the margin of error is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
The study follows LifeWay’s 2006 research on 469 “formerly churched” Protestants who quit church altogether.
Of the switchers, 76% call themselves “devout Christians.” Only 19% of the quitters said the same.
The nation’s largest denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, sees similar trends.
“The boundaries that once kept people in one faith, one church, have become more permeable,” says Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
The number of new converts to Catholicism leveled off at about 150,000 a year for the past decade, while immigration from Catholic countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa has pushed the tally of U.S. Roman Catholics to 64 million. But the church has no mechanism for tracking who washes out of the pews unless they’ve died, been excommunicated or publicly renounced their faith.
“Catholics are very sticky. They may not go to church but they still stick to that identification,” Gautier says.
Although the LifeWay research finds most switchers move to larger churches, don’t blame megachurches for poaching the sheep, says Scott Thumma of Hartford Theological Seminary, author of an upcoming book, Beyond Megachurch Myths, based on several studies of churches.
“The 1,200 or so megachurches (defined as churches where 2,000 or more people attend weekend worship) are only one-half of 1% of all U.S. churches and account for only 5% of all weekend worship attenders,” Thumma says.
“And my sense, after years of examining megachurches, is that 80% of the people who join, including those who go through new member classes, are gone within the first two years.”
Says Brad Waggoner, LifeWay’s vice president of research and ministry development: “There’s no simple answer why people are so restless.”
Decades ago, American culture supported church loyalty out of respect for the church, obligation to family, or social expectations. Now, he says, that culture has shifted.
Waggoner also sees other factors at work, such as increased skepticism or cynicism in the wake of clergy sexual abuse or financial scandals. And some are turned off by divisiveness in denominations over doctrine and practice, he says.
The Southern Baptist Convention, he says, still feels the effect of a revolution in leadership in the 1980s that restored theological conservatives to power. The Episcopal Church is struggling now with dissention over views of the Bible and the role of gay clergy.
Though individual churches and pastors can’t erase those overarching concerns, the survey suggests there is a great deal they can change or do to stem the restless tide of switchers and dropouts, Waggoner says.
“We have a biblical responsibility to care for every person in our flock.”
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