Folks in the U.S. are changing religious affiliation in substantial numbers according to a Pew research study released this week. As the headline in the NY Times put it, we’re living a “fluid religious life.”
While the Pew study doesn’t attempt to offer an explanation, it documents churning as people move in and out of religious communities apparently seeking more meaningful connection.
This has been called “spiritual grazing” and it refers to sampling religion as if it were a salad bar offering, a little of this, a little of that with no lasting commitment to any of it. This may be too harsh and judgmental. The Pew study doesn’t provide enough interpretive data to make this case.
And there is real pain afoot. Indicators of anxiety, mental well-being, happiness and life satisfaction point to widespread distress at midlife. Rates of depression are highest among people in middle age according to a recent study of people in 80 countries. The researchers offer no simple set of causes but it’s clear that people are experiencing distress and it’s understandable they’re seeking relief through spiritual search as well as in other ways.
Family relationships and community support are undergoing change. The workplace is in transition, jobs are evaporating and the economic base is shifting, all of which add to uncertainty in everyday life.
It’s been clear for a long time that denominational loyalty is not as strong as it once was. We don’t remain affiliated with the religious community into which we were born if it doesn’t meet our needs, and many of us weren’t “born into”any religious community, so we’ve no firm connection.
A recent study by The Barna Group confirms this trend. People are seeking spiritual meaning in settings and with technologies that have never served this purpose before. A significant number are turning to online communities, interactive websites and house churches to meet spiritual needs.
George Barna contends this is creating new religious practices that he and co-writer Frank Viola call “pagan Christianity.” People are finding spiritual places apart from the traditional religious settings and practices that have prevailed since the Middle Ages.
The research also calls into question popular notions about defection from mainline denominations. Some critics of mainline Protestant leaders argue that liberal leaders are driving people away. But the Pew research reveals the Roman Catholic church under two decidedly conservative popes has experienced greater defection than Protestants.
Numbers gathered by The United Methodist Church reveal 285,239 more people chose to join the church between 2001 and 2005 than chose to leave.
Given the substantial changes underway across old-line institutions today, I think this claim about leadership causing defection is suspect. It’s too simple. Something deeper and more complex is happening.
There is another nugget here. Pew does not count attrition resulting from death. That’s the cause of the greatest decline in The United Methodist Church. In fact, if you factor out members lost by death, the United Methodists are replacing those who leave by substantial numbers.
My calculations, based on statistics from the church agency that gathers such numbers, show that the inflow of new members is significantly greater than the outflow if we follow the Pew research model and exclude attrition due to death. In the past eight years, United Methodists brought in significantly more new members than they lost, half of them through profession of faith which is the first-time commitment to the faith. In the period from 1995 to 2000 the church gained 481,268 more people than it lost through all reasons excluding death. In the period from 2001 to 2005 it gained 285,239 more than it lost.
Because the greatest single cause for attrition is death, not defection, the challenge the church faces is stepping up its outreach to attract younger people. But the figures do not substantiate a disaffected, moribund community in irreversible decline.
The Pew and Barna studies also point to a question that needs discussion. What measures should be used to assess denominational health today? Membership does not reveal the range of spiritual practices in which people are engaging. Nor does it capture the involvement of those who affiliate informally but choose to not take membership vows. These people participate in Bible study, prayer groups, educational exposures, volunteer mission events, and many other offerings. But their presence and participation escapes notice in membership records. Is there another way to record vitality and outreach?
In a time of significant cultural and social change, people are seeking spiritual comfort and guidance as they search for meaning and purpose in uncharted waters. This presents great opportunity to offer hope, to heal brokenness and to overcome despair. These figures lay out a landscape for significant ministry if we listen with sensitivity and reach out compassionately.