Religious Churn (Part 1)

Do you know what a churn is? It’s a container (or machine) in which cream or milk is agitated to make butter. The word “churn” can also be used in a more general sense to describe shaking or agitating an object. For example, the storm churned the lake. It is understood that to churn something requires continued motion.

According to a new survey that was just released pertaining to religion in America, it would appear that many Americans are in a religious churn. In other words, there is a constant shake-up or turnover of membership among churches in the USA. Many people are willing to hop from one church to another for various reasons, even if they were reared in that particular religious group.

This intriguing report, called the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, was released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The entire report is 143 pages long and was based on data gathered from a sample size of 35,556 respondents. Luis Lugo, the Pew Forum director, stated that Americans “not only change jobs, change where they live, and change spouses, but they change religions too.”

Apparently, many people have little difficulty leaving a church and embracing a new one. The data shows that 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%. This religious churn applies across the board. Researcher Greg Smith affirmed: “There’s no group that is simply winning or simply losing. Nothing is static. Every group is simultaneously winning and losing.”

It appears that even in religious groups that have maintained relatively steady numbers, there is a remarkable amount of adherents coming and going. For example, if you examine the numbers for the Catholic church since 1972, you would get the impression that its population had remained fairly stable–at about 25% of adult Americans (the current figure is just under 24%). But the Pew report shows that of all those raised Catholic, one-third have left Catholicism. In other words, roughly one out of every ten people in America is an ex-Catholic. However, Catholicism has made up for the losses by adding converts (2.6% of the population) and, more significantly, has enjoyed an influx of new immigrants, mostly Hispanic.

Another example that I found interesting pertains to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their churn is also masked due to the apparent stability of their overall numbers. Yet, the report shows that they have a turnover rate of over 60%. Essentially, two out of every three individuals who were raised in that religious group are not with them any longer. Yet, the Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain roughly the same number of converts because of their aggressive evangelistic methods (e.g., extensive doorknocking and literature distribution).

Although the report does not speculate on the implications of its data, the director did draw some conclusions. Lugo suggested: “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.

Some have described the religious state of America as a “buyer’s market.” There is a lot of competition religiously for adherents and there are so many religious choices available. Many are content to pick and choose what they like, and they have no problem leaving a religion they grew up in if they believe there is something else available that is better. In my opinion, this competition has led many groups to dilute their particular beliefs or compromise long-standing convictions in order to attempt to appeal to a wider base of people. However, once new adherents are attracted to a particular religious group, how will that group keep them (i.e., stop the churning)?

My purpose in this lesson was essentially to provide a glimpse into this fascinating survey (which is available on the internet at http://religions.pewforum.org). I also want to share some thoughts from God’s word on this subject matter, and, Lord willing, we will do that in our next lesson.

[From 02/28/08, www.AudioEvangelism.com. Part 2 tomorrow, if I don’t forget!]

#america, #religious-churn