418: Why Are We Spiritually Switching? 10 Secrets in the New Pew Report

    It’s a fair choice of words in our headline today, because I’m going to share with you 10 things you’re not going to learn in most of the other reporting on the important new Pew report about Americans’ patterns in switching religious affiliation. I participated in the in-depth briefing on Monday conducted by Pew researchers via telephone conference call with reporters from CNN, Newsweek, U.S. News, USA Today and other top national news outlets.
    It was clear from journalists’ questions—and the shrinking nature of American news media—that most reports likely will choose one or two headline details, probably link to Pew’s new interactive Web report on the data … and leave it at that.
    Frankly, I don’t think Pew’s own public-relations team did a very good job of summing up the most important findings within their own report. Here’s the original Pew press release—judge for yourself.
    TODAY, here’s ReadTheSpirit’s list of 10 important insights pretty much hidden within the new Pew report—and within most reporting on that data. (If you want to send a link to this story to a friend or colleague—send them /explore/2009/04/ReadTheSpirit-on-Pew.html Or, click on “Share This” at right.)


    The biggest headlines on religion over the past year or so concern the growing number of Americans who have rejected the time-honored social pressure to at least claim they’re part of some religious group. The Pew report confirms that at least 15 percent of Americans (Pew says it’s 16 percent) have no religious affiliation. At least, they have no religious affiliation they care to mention to a pollster.
    That’s a lot of people! It’s more than 40 million of the 300 million people in the U.S. In other research and public dialogue about this issue, these folks often are called “Nones” as in—Q: “What’s your religious affiliation?” A: “None.”
    What the Pew data shows is that the majority of the “Nones” clearly are interested in some form of spirituality. They just haven’t zeroed in on a specific affiliation. They may never choose a single category. Or, by the next wave of polling, say within a year, they may wind up in a new religious home—and no longer be Nones, at all.
    Here’s the key insight: These are fascinating people! If you care about spirituality yourself, you should get to know these friends, colleagues and neighbors—these “Nones.” Many of them will raise inspiring, challenging questions. You may discover this is a spiritually rich part of the community to explore with friends. It’s certainly where most of the important spiritual activity is unfolding right now in America.


    May is Older Americans Month. Check out our “Spiritual Season” column this week for a preview of that observance (last item in that column). These Pew findings, I think, are very important in rethinking the spirituality of aging.
    One headline out of the Pew report is that most religious switching happens when people are young—still in their 20s or early 30s. But, at the other end of the age spectrum, Pew finds that “very few respondents reported changing religious affiliation after the age of 50.”
    Faith is a major part of our life cycle in America, a country that’s distinctive around the world for our intense levels of religious experience. While it’s interesting to explore what may drive younger adults to switch houses of worship—the maturing end of the spectrum is largely unexplored. The Pew data suggest this is a rich field for fresh inquiry.


     While writing for Knight-Ridder newspapers, I covered the rise of the seeker churches in the 1980s. Back then, all the headlines were about younger Americans rejecting churches that “talk about money too much” or “make us sing old hymns” or “serve bad coffee.” That may sound shallow, but those were three of the dozens of “fixes” that seeker churches made to attract millions of churchgoers. And let’s not discount the value of good coffee in a growing church, shall we?
    However — the Pew report makes it clear that most switching is far more complex than that. Protestant switchers tended to have at least 4 reasons for making a switch. Catholics tended to list even more reasons.
    Bottom line: We’re complex people. We don’t switch religious affiliations lightly. There’s no single, cookie-cutter approach to attracting and retaining members.


    Here’s a good example of why our story today is a valuable corrective in the chaotic realm of media these days. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops jumped on the Pew data and published a rather remarkable spin job on the study. Here’s the opening line of the Catholic bishops’ press release: “A Pew Forum poll on Americans and their religious affiliation finds
Catholics have one of the highest retention rates, 68 percent, among
Christian churches when it comes to carrying the Catholic faith into
    Among the other spin-doctored touches in the bishops’ press release was a headline that seemed to blame the church’s shrinkage on “disaffected youth.”
    From the Pew researchers’ own briefing, this is Pew Research Fellow Greg Smith summing up the bad news for Catholics. Of all religious groups, Greg reported: “The Catholic church has suffered the greatest losses. Roughly 1 in 10 American adults are former Catholics and Catholic losses far outnumber gains.” The ratio, according to Pew, is 4 Americans lost for every 1 American who converts.


    We all should learn another language, whatever our faith may be, and Spanish is a great choice for all Americans. But, if you’re Catholic and care about the future of your church—learn Spanish right now.
    The major reason that the Catholic church is not in full-scale retreat in the U.S. is Latino immigration, the Pew researchers point out—data that’s confirmed in a broad array of other studies as well.
    Said one Pew researcher: “The vast majority of immigrants to the United States are Christian and by 2 to 1 they are Catholic vs. Protestant.”
    Second- and third-generation Latino Catholics are more likely to drift away from the church, so Catholics don’t have a “lock” on these Latino families for all time. The future depends on how vigorously the church welcomes these most important new parishioners into the American fold.
    Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, put it this way: “We’re literally seeing before our eyes the complexion of the Roman Catholic church changing in this country. Among Catholic adults under age 40—50 percent are Latino now.”


    Well, first we apologize for calling anyone “stupid”—but you understand the reference. It’s something we tell ourselves on a daily basis here at ReadTheSpirit. This week, you can’t look at this Pew data without “my spiritual needs” screaming back at you as some of the most potent fuel driving religious change. This insight isn’t new, but the Pew data drives it home with a sledgehammer. It’s why ReadTheSpirit’s central goal is “spiritual connection.”
    Americans are deeply religious, but first and foremost we want useful spiritual insights that will help us climb out of bed each morning, face another stressful day—and reassure us that something we’re doing in life truly matters.
    When was the last time your house of worship focused on the most central spiritual needs of the congregation right now? I’m not talking about high-flown theological reflection here. I’m talking about our fears of job loss, anxieties about health care, struggles with cancer, fears for the future of our children, worries about aging. In short: meeting our real spiritual needs.

No. 7: GOOD NEWS …

    Luis Lugo put this crucial point succinctly: “Very few people have a Damascus Road experience that causes them to change.”
    In other words, the Pew data show over and over again that a lot of this switching is not a “lightbulb” moment. It’s a drift over a long time. The word “drift” comes up over and over again in the Pew analysis.
    A lot of our religious switching occurs simply because many religious groups aren’t paying attention to congregational care—basic stuff. We certainly can’t control people’s individual spiritual journeys, but we can pay attention to who’s involved—and who’s already starting to drift. There’s a wide open opportunity here simply to reengage in a meaningful way with people who we’re letting go … further … and further … until they’re gone.

No. 8: GOOD NEWS …

    There’s a close relationship to Americans’ distinctive love of religion—and the diversity of religious choices we’ve welcomed nationwide. This switching drives religious leaders crazy, especially when it comes time to repair the roof or find leadership to run new programs. All too often, these millions of drifting Americans are maddeningly just beyond our fingertips when we want their help.
    But, all in all, the Pew researchers find that America’s religious diversity is a huge plus. In fact, the diversity of Protestant flavors in America is one reason that Pew researcher John Green makes this remarkable statement: “Protestantism as a version of Christianity seems to be very vital and healthy in the United States but part of its strength is because of its enormous diversity.”
    If you’re Protestant, isn’t that like a gulp of strong coffee? When was the last time you heard an expert say that Protestantism is very vital and healthy and enormously diverse. Mostly, we hear doom and gloom, right? Frame that quote—and celebrate our diversity.

No. 9: NO—That’s NO—

    One journalist in the briefing hauled out the popular claim that church attendance is declining. This claim stems from the fact that attendance is declining in many specific denominations. The claim also has been fueled by confusion over polling methods in the past 20 years and debates over the meaning of “regular attendance.”
    Bottom line, though—the data continue to show stable levels of religious practice, including worship attendance overall. People may not be coming to your church or your denomination in record numbers anymore. Southern Baptists and Catholics are two groups coming to terms with this sad truth.
    But they’re going somewhere.
    This is another John Green conclusion from the Pew data: “The overall level of worship attendance has hardly changed at all. It has been very stable.”
    Americans aren’t rejecting religion—not even attendance at worship.

No. 10: GOOD NEWS …

    The Pew report is drawn from thousands of interviews, but the sample is not big enough to draw detailed conclusions about minority faiths in the U.S.—Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam.
    Nevertheless, there were tantalizing references to these groups during the briefing by Pew researchers. One thing that’s certainly true is this: If you’re part of the Christian majority in the U.S., you might discover important insights from your neighbors of other faiths.
    This is an almost entirely untapped source of wisdom in the U.S. At ReadTheSpirit, we partner with a number of terrific interfaith groups nationwide—but this is a sad truth about our amazing religious diversity: There’s almost never a professional-to-professional opportunity for sharing insights into religious development.
    Here’s an example: The future of religious life in American belongs to communities that are diverse and know how to welcome immigrants. The single most diverse religious group in America is Islam. Christians could learn a lot from Muslim struggles to unite the Islamic community in the midst of its extreme diversity. But, most Christian leaders would never think to contact top Muslim scholars to learn from them on this crucial point.
    Another example: Welcoming immigrants is so tough that most Christian denominations barely touch the challenge. Catholics and Lutherans are among the denominations that have a strong track record. But the one religious group with decades of professional expertise in welcoming and training immigrants is Judaism. But when was the last time that Christian leaders asked Jewish leaders to teach them about these vital areas of expertise?
    The list of untapped opportunities goes on and on … and on …


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