America’s Unfaithful Faithful

A recent study by the Pew Forum documents the growing “spiritual mobility” of Americans: more and more Americans are abandoning the religious affiliation of their upbringing and taking on a new religious or spiritual identity (or non-identity). Read an article about this study here.

My friend who alerted me to this fascinating study notes, “What it says to me is that people are seeking something behind church doors that they aren’t finding.” I’d agree with that, but I also think it speaks to how religion has increasingly become more like a marketplace phenomenon (just because I like to drink Guinness doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a Foster’s now and then), suggesting that changing churches is for many people no more momentous than deciding if the new car will be a Chevy or a Ford. I still remember how shocked I was the first time I heard the phrase “health-care consumers” (I was in college at the time) — that something as holy and sacred as health care could be reduced to the mentality of the free market struck me as just somehow terribly wrong. I suppose we are rapidly moving to the day where churchgoers will be seen as “spirituality consumers.”

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Jan

    These views are in contrast to the book I am currently reading by Diana Butler Bass–”Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith.” She points to similar studies as this, but has reports on various neighborhood mainline churches around the US that are growing. They are finding that people are seeking tradition that is meaningful, but also openness and spiritual growth.

  • Carl McColman

    The Pew Forum study isn’t claiming that churches are declining, just that more and more Americans are willing to change denominations and even religions from their childhood faith.

  • Peter

    There have to be several ways to interpret this phenomenon, but let me make a quick attempt:

    I believe that certain church groups or “religious affiliations” are appropriate for certain “stages” of personal spiritual growth. And this appropriateness is not the same for every “spiritual consumer.”

    Moving from one group to another may not be so much a “consumer” thing as a “growth” thing. For just one example: I think Carl would place his Episcopalian experience as quite appropriate for the time in his life when it occurred to him, but not the final place he ended up. Some folks start as Pentecostals and end as Episcopalian or Catholic–and vice versa.

    I used to think that the “liberation” I felt when leaving my liturgical church background for a less traditional, more “open” charismatic environment was objectively a step forward in my growth and would be universally acknowledged as such. But no more. I do not find the increasing spiritual mobility of Americans offensive; I welcome the liberty to search for the expression of our faith that is most fitting for us as we grow, and to change that as we may need to.

  • controlling chaos

    Religion and Politics have one thing in common. They both make things more confusing. I understand that there is One God. The trinity doesn’t make sense to me? God telling Moses to kill one minute and then telling him in the Ten Commandments: though shall not kill?

    If GOD created humans in his likeness then why did we all get so screwed up. I know the next response. SIN! If GOD could already know that SIN would happen, then why even create us at all if we are designed to be perfect? Everything so far Ive read from [BIBLE, TORAH, and every other book] everything contradicts and in every book it’s just one continuous circle. You might be asking yourself, what religion are you? Well I’m not sure. I SEEKING the truth in all of this craziness. I’m simply keeping an open mind and hope someone can really explain things to me in a way that makes any logical since? Hope I’m not waisting your time….

  • Harrison

    Religion is a passing phase in the story of mankind on earth. There is no Truth in it at all, so you may as well not bother looking. The only truth ever is within you, and you know it when you hear it. All religions are founded by the master who knows and lives this. Such people become very influencial in their lives and on the people around them because they vibrate at a very high and deep frequency of being. This energy effects or speaks to those that can hear, and all can hear the voice of truth for it is one and is within.

    The master is influencial, powerful and very effective in his or her life. And because of this, for anyone not in the ‘same place’, these masters have a power that is attractive to us in some form or way, and therefore they have the power to effect our lives. Because they are coming from a good place – God – the effect on us is inspiring, uplifting and expansive. Hence the tendency toward worship, which every true master knows is the first warning sign. After worship comes religion, and then more worship and even more religion, etc etc.

    Jesus was one such master. But something that is little understood, is that apart from any other reason, Jesus simply had to ‘get out of here’, because his vibration was far to high to hang aropund the density of human thought for too long. Anyway, I hope that’s a start….

  • Carl McColman

    Well, it’s interesting to see how this post has inspired people!

    Peter, please understand that I have no desire to make religious mobility per se “wrong.” I’ve worn at least five religious identities in my life (Lutheran, Episcopalian, Druid, Wiccan, Roman Catholic) while flirting with others (Buddhist, Quaker, Unitarian), so I’m hardly one to knock changing one’s faith identity. And from a Wilberian perspective, I would agree with you that different theologies or spiritual practices might be called for at different stages of personal growth. However, I don’t think that all trajectories are necessarily equal: for example, people who go from being Episcopal to Catholic often have radically different motivations than those who go from being Catholic to Episcopal. Not all trajectories are equally “growth-ful” — some may actually be defensive, resistant or avoidant in nature.

    As for Harrison and “Controlled Chaos” – please see my new post Dogma, Dogmatically for some reflections on your posts.

  • treadmarkz

    I agree with Peter that in different stages of our lives we require different things, spiritually, but I also think that humanity requires different things as it grows, and evolves, so there is logically going to be a massive shift as societies grow, together. This shift is happening VERY fast right now because of technological advances, the need to maintain income, the empty importance placed on pop culture, and other distractions in life that leave us very little time to focus on the higher source of life.

  • dionysius

    I think many people really don’t care a lot about dogma or doctrine. Rather, they want a church that has the basics of the Christian faith and meets their needs for fellowship and belonging.

  • Carl McColman

    Most people don’t care about doctrine or dogma…

    Just like people don’t care about the goalie on their favorite soccer team – until the other team scores. Like it or not, every community (even a marriage) has to have some sort of shared understanding, common cultural space, a language that both/all parties speak. Otherwise, community just ain’t happening. Doctrine and dogma simply refer to the agreed-upon boundaries and shared principles around which any community is built — even a community with a sole mission of “the basics of Christian faith” and “fellowship and belonging.”

    Not that I disagree with Dionysius – I think he’s right, most people don’t care. I just think it’s a shame. Because they’re abdicating their spiritual maturity to their subconscious assumptions and prejudices, which will remain subconscious until “the other team” (ie, someone with whom they are in conflict) “scores.”

  • Laura

    I get two feelings when I read this article. Same as you, I suppose. The first thing I thought, I indicated to you when I sent it. I can see how people jump from church to church because they aren’t finding the answers in one and are seeking the answers in the next. It is quite possible that the answers aren’t inside any church at all, but within each person.

    The second feeling I get, like you, is the sense of the *ability* to choose between churches without affiliation. I am quite guilty of this. And happily guilty. I’ll go to all kinds of church services to experience the joy with each community.

    I think there is a difference, a the article itself points out, between people who bounce from church to church because they are seeking something and the people who consider themselves “unaffiliated” without the burden of needing to be classified.

  • Carl McColman

    Yeah, even though I don’t like the idea of us being mere “spiritual consumers” I also think we need to avoid any temptation to make our spirituality mobility “wrong.” In a way, we’ve always been spiritual consumers, at least for as long as there have been priests who “do the ministry” and laypeople who pay them for it. The priests are the producers, the laity the consumers. Now we just have the added benefit of it working in a free market setting. Laura, you’re dead on that something big is missing in big churches. The deeper I get into this current stint of mine in Christianity, the more convinced I’m becoming that house churches, neo-monastic communities, Catholic worker houses, and other alternatives to the traditional parish church represent where the *real* action is within Christianity. This is causing me no small degree of inner angst, a topic which I will exploring soon in a lengthy new blog post that I’ve been working on for several days. Stay tuned!