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."
The report, released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, is the first selection of data from a 35,000- person poll called the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Says Pew Forum director Luis Lugo, Americans "not only change jobs, change where they live, and change spouses, but they change religions too. We totally knew it was happening, but this survey enabled us to document it clearly."
According to Pew, 28% of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another one. And that does not even include those who switched from one Protestant denomination to another; if it did, the number would jump to 44%. Says Greg Smith, one of the main researchers for the "Landscape" data, churn applies across the board. "There's no group that is simply winning or simply losing," he says. "Nothing is static. Every group is simultaneously winning and losing."
For some groups, their relatively steady number of adherents over the years hides a remarkable amount of coming and going. Simply counting Catholics since 1972, for example, you would get the impression that its population had remained fairly static - at about 25% of adult Americans (the current number is 23.9%). But the Pew report shows that of all those raised Catholic, a third have left the church. (That means that roughly one out of every 10 people in America is a former Catholic, and that ex-Catholics are almost as numerous as the America's second biggest religious group, Southern Baptists.) But Catholicism has made up for the losses by adding converts (2.6% of the population) and, more significantly, enjoying an influx of new immigrants, mostly Hispanic.
An even more extreme example of what might be called "masked churn" is the relatively tiny Jehovah's Witnesses, with a turnover rate of about two-thirds. That means that two-thirds of the people who told Pew they were raised Jehovah's Witnesses no longer are - yet the group attracts roughly the same number of converts. Notes Lugo, "No wonder they have to keep on knocking on doors."
The single biggest "winner," in terms of number gained versus number lost, was not a religious group at all, but the "unaffiliated" category. About 16% of those polled defined their religious affiliation that way (including people who regarded themselves as religious, along with atheists and agnostics); only 7% had been brought up that way. That's an impressive gain, but Lugo points out that churn is everywhere: even the unaffiliated group lost 50% of its original membership to one church or another.
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 Pew report has other interesting findings; the highest rates for marrying within one's own faith, for example, are among Hindus (90%) and Mormons (83%).
I have to say that my own experiences agree with the results of this study. Born and christened in the Methodist Church, then dragged kicking and once even screaming by my mother into every charismatic and fundamentalist sect there is except for the Assemblies of God, for some reason, with a long dark night of the soul in particular at the Church of Christ and the Southern Baptists. At the age of 14 I was luckily introduced to the Episcopal Church, and once I had a car, I never looked back, even when my parents forbade me from attending it because it was too "Catholic." I loved the fact that worshippers were encouraged to think for themselves. I loved the music. I loved the liturgy. I loved the Prayer Book. I loved the fact that no one started shrieking at the top of their lungs randomly. I loved the fact that Episcopalians were far more prone to talk about how to live by Christian principles instead of cherry-picking verses to support oppressing someone else-- (Jack Iker obviously didn't attend my first parish).
Withe the data on the Roman Catholic Church, I think that the situation here in the US is not that much different from the situation in western Europe-- many are nominal Catholics who rarely attend Mass and are alienated from much of the doctrine and lack of social action. Many former Catholics that I know resented the fact that the laity's needs and concerns receive no consideration whatsoever, chafed at the marginalization of women when they provide the backbone of the faithful, and denounced the failure of a celibate clergy to understand the needs and concerns of the people in the pews, people for whom they are supposed to act as shepherds, pastors, and counselors. In Europe, people remain on the roles but stop attending services. Here in the US, I think it is just more acceptable to actually exercise some free will and find a religious situation that is more suitable and accessible to their own concerns.
As to the question of whether some churches might be tempted to dilute their beliefs in an attempt to gain and hold members, you've got to say that that happens. Look at all the churches and books and evangelists preaching the so-called "Prosperity Gospel," which I find pretty empty.
Rather than look at religious affiliation, my interest is in how one lives one's life. I have a relative who trumpets how much time she spends at church-- but if you really examine it, she spends time in an enormous, mall-like building owned by a church drinking lattes, watching movies, and learning flower arrangement. Precious little outreach or spiritual formation goes on in all these hours. She could do all of these things in a secular environment, since there is no religious content whatsoever in any of these activities. Nothing much is required of those who participate. Her children engage in fund-raisers for mission trips in which they go to Sea World instead of performing actual mission work right in her hometown, because that's not enough of a "treat." These types of mega-churches seem to meet people where they are-- which is fine, at the outset-- but then never seem to move people beyond a superior feeling of belonging to a very clean social club.
Certainly, we see these types of churches in every denomination, and the Episcopal Church certainly has parishes which are gigantic networking sites rather than places of worship. Our culture's message of "I'm okay, you're okay" and reliance upon the self-esteem doctrine has reinforced that change and growth is unnecessary in our personal lives.