Surveys are tricky things to report, especially when the data is sole sourced, to use a bureaucratic term. Sometimes I get the feeling that those doing the research are stretching a bit to reach their conclusions with the aid of supposedly scientific numbers, and you always have to question to motives of those commissioning the survey.
USA Today‘s Cathy Lynn Grossman writes that a survey from the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, LifeWay Research, shows Protestant churchgoers are restless with their Christian fellowship and are seeking other religious bodies. Now is this really news? Grossman writes that it is:
Most of the switchers who changed their house of worship without making a residential move (58%) say their old church failed to engage their faith, or put their talents to work, or it seemed hypocritical or judgmental.
But 42% of the people say they switched because another church offered more appealing doctrines and preaching or the preacher and church members’ faith seemed more “authentic.”
“We may believe in the same doctrine, the same God and study the same Bible, but we are also imperfect human beings who mess up, who are not always living out those beliefs,” says Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research. He adds in the rise of “consumerism and narcissism” — when people expect to customize every experience to personal taste.
More than half (54%) of switchers changed denominations as well. Fewer than half (44%) said denomination was an important factor in choosing a new church.
The survey is the result of interviews with 632 Protestant adults who said that they switched churches. But of those, only 415 people said the switch was not the result of a residential move. I am not a statistician (though I have taken classes), but I question how these broad conclusions can be made on the basis of 415 Americans (the margin of error is 3.9 percentage points, according to the story).
The other problem I have with the story, which contains some decent analysis once you get past the sketchy numbers, is that it suggests this is a new thing. But there is nothing that event remotely shows that Protestants used to stick with their churches in any greater or lesser numbers, other than this guy:
Says Brad Waggoner, LifeWay’s vice president of research and ministry development: “There’s no simple answer why people are so restless.”
Decades ago, American culture supported church loyalty out of respect for the church, obligation to family, or social expectations. Now, he says, that culture has shifted.
Waggoner also sees other factors at work, such as increased skepticism or cynicism in the wake of clergy sexual abuse or financial scandals. And some are turned off by divisiveness in denominations over doctrine and practice, he says.
The other major problem I had with this story was Grossman’s statement that the Roman Catholic Church sees similar trends. First, you haven’t convinced me that this is a trend among Protestants. Second, Grossman cites little evidence that Catholics are leaving their faith, just that it’s hard to track and that their gains have leveled off:
The number of new converts to Catholicism leveled off at about 150,000 a year for the past decade, while immigration from Catholic countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa has pushed the tally of U.S. Roman Catholics to 64 million. But the church has no mechanism for tracking who washes out of the pews unless they’ve died, been excommunicated or publicly renounced their faith.
“Catholics are very sticky. They may not go to church but they still stick to that identification,” Gautier says.
This survey provides a news hook for a compelling look at current American religiosity, but I feel that Grossman overplayed the survey results and failed to support many of the article’s statements with facts.