New Research Sends Message to Churches: Modernize or Die

As the youngest child of a Southern Baptist preacher, I literally grew up in the church. Attendance at Sunday morning and evening service, along with Wednesday night prayer services and the occasional all-week revival, were mandatory. A fever over 100 may qualify you for a Sunday off, but that was about the only acceptable excuse.

The minister’s family had to be present at all functions – smiling and greeting. We were to be the model family for the congregation – showing our love for both God and the church in our pretty clothes and our pretty smiles. As anyone who has suffered through being the child of a preacher knows – often your family was the most dysfunctional – the most wounded and battered. Our family was no different.

When I became a teenager, and church attendance became an option and not a requirement, I dropped out of church as fast as I could. My older brothers, too, drifted away from the church in early adulthood. One sister backslid for awhile, but has since returned to the Southern Baptist roots of her youth. My oldest sister, however, never wavered. She has remained true to the Baptist faith to this day.

My brothers and I fit the latest trend shown by a new Pew Forum poll on why Americans change their religious affiliation. The “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.” poll showed 44 percent of the U.S. adult population has changed their religious affiliation at some point in their lives – sometimes more than once. What’s more, most leave their childhood faith before the age of 24.

“In sum, Americans change religious affiliation often, early, and for many different reasons,” said John Green, a Senior Fellow at Pew.

Chief among those reasons for Catholics who left their religion, the researchers found, was that most of them are like my brothers – they simply gradually drifted away from religion. This was true for 54 percent of those who left Catholicism and became Protestants. For those who left religion altogether – 71 percent said they simply drifted away from church – no longer feeling a need to be part of the community.

Forty percent of Protestants say they gradually drifted away from church. For 58 percent of them, however, they told pollsters they simply found a flavor of Protestantism they liked more than their childhood church.

Another reason many Catholics gave for jumping the fence to Protestantism is that their spiritual needs were not being met by the Catholic Church. The church failed to spiritually feed 71 percent of those who became Protestants. This was the second leading reason for Protestants – 51 percent of them said the church had failed them on a spiritual level.

This should be a wake-up call for all churches – Catholic or Protestant, Evangelical or Mainline. For some reason, the church is failing to capture the imagination of its flock. Overall, the church is failing in important ways to build a sustainable and thriving community that will attract, feed, nurture, and hold people throughout their lifetime. Instead, church is becoming stale, uninviting and boring. It no longer provides spiritual sustenance or holds any deep meaning for its congregations. Instead of building excitement and a commitment to social justice, the Good News is producing yawns – and not just from those who haunt the back rows, but those who otherwise would be committed to the church and its mission. That has led to the largest group being those who are unaffiliated with any religion.

“(This is) a group that consists of atheists and agnostics as well as people who say they just don’t belong to any particular religion. Overall, more than one in ten U.S. adults has become unaffiliated with any particular religion after having been raised in one faith or another,” said Greg Smith, a Research Fellow at Pew.

What does the survey show the church must do to hold, feed, and energize its flock? Modernize.

“Many of those who become unaffiliated say they’ve done so due to disillusionment or disenchantment with religious people or organizations, saying that religious people are hypocritical and judgmental rather than sincere or forgiving, or that religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality,” Smith said.

Most who left both the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations and remain unaffiliated did so because they no longer agreed with the conservative teachings from the church on issues like abortion, homosexuality, the Bible and social justice issues like poverty, war and the death penalty. For 54 percent of those raised Catholic who are no unaffiliated, they left because the church’s teaching was too conservative on abortion and homosexuality. Only one percent left because they believed the church’s teaching was too liberal on these subjects. Fourteen percent of those raised Catholic who have become Protestant feel the Catholic Church’s teaching on these issues was too conservative. Twenty percent of now unaffiliated Protestants agreed, as did 7 percent of Protestants who had swapped Protestant traditions.

I left the church for a variety of reasons. As a preacher’s daughter I saw my dad ascend to the pulpit every Sunday and hold the congregation in the palm of his hand as he taught from the Bible. He made his audience laugh, cry, and think. Even at an early age I felt the call to follow in his footsteps – to take my place behind the pulpit to exhort the believers. Only, I couldn’t do that in the Southern Baptist church where women still cannot be ordained. In my teens, I came to the realization that my sexual orientation was also out of sync with Southern Baptist dogma. It was only later, in my 20s, when I realized that even the other teachings, especially about homosexuality and the authority of the Bible, were far too conservative for my taste. I spent several years trying on religions from Zen to Buddhism to Unitarianism, to Taoism. I missed Jesus – so returned to my Christian roots and have since become a licensed UCC minister.

What my experience, and the experience of those polled shows, is that the church has solidly become what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed so many years ago – society’s tail light. With its conservative teachings on abortion, homosexuality, the Bible, and social justice issues that really matter to those who may be spiritual but not religious – the church has lagged behind its intended flock in spiritual growth.

This may go a long way to explain why mainline Protestant denominations are seeing a drop off in growth over the years – but what explains the documented growth among Evangelicals – who are decidedly conservative in their teachings? Their advantage, according to Green is that they hold the edge in recruitment practices (meaning “evangelism”) and other areas.

“Higher fertility rates among Evangelicals, generally speaking, but also to the extent that there are Protestant immigrants, they tend to be Evangelical – three to one – over Mainline Protestants,” Green said. “So if you put all this evidence together it seems favorable to the growing number of Evangelical Protestants.”

However, trends even among Evangelicals have been toward modernization of their message – especially on the environment and other social justice issues like poverty and war. While there will always be churches that stress ultra conservative views on abortion, homosexuality and biblical authority, even the Evangelical church seems to be recognizing that unless it updates its views on the issues that are important to its members and potential members – it too will easily go the way of mainline Protestants and start bleeding members.

This new data should be studied closely by churches of every stripe and denomination. It clearly shows that churches that are unwilling to update their beliefs, or unwilling to go out and invite people to become part of their community, or fail to create vibrant communities that nurture and grow, or fail to produce a forward-thinking, question-welcoming, soul and imagination capturing theology, will continue to see fewer and fewer faces in the pews each Sunday morning.