Church-hopping is news?

Compucorp344BSurveys 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.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    I went to the Lifeway site to gain more insight into the survey: how it was conducted, what questions were asked, etc. Didn’t find much. 415 people were surveyed in December 2006. Over the phone? Were 415 surveyed, or were survey results obtained from 415 people? If the former, how many results were obtained? If the latter, how many were surveyed?

    It is very difficult to do solid surveys that yield meaningful results. When an organization is unwilling to post the raw data and releases only selected results along with their interpretations, that’s a warning sign. But that didn’t stop Grossman from publishing the interpretations as fact.

    One question apparently was this: What had the greater impact on your decision to switch churches?
    a) My need/desire to leave my previous church
    b) My need/desire to join my current church

    My opinion: Useless question.

    Another question apparently asked for the respondent to select one or more reasons why he left his previous church and also to identify the primary reason. Respondents apparently chose from a list that included the following:
    * My church was not helping me to develop spiritually
    * I did not feel engaged or involved in meaningful church work
    * Church members were judgmental of others
    * Members seemed hypocritical
    * Church didn’t seem to be a place where God was at work
    * Church was run by a clique that discouraged involvement
    * Pastor was not a good preacher
    * Pastor was judgmental of others
    * Pastor seemed hypocritical
    * The church made too many changes in general

    There were more than 10 choices. I have responded to phone surveys, and I tune out after about five or six choices. I suspect that people tended to choose items that appeared fairly early in the list. Who decided what items would be in the list? There are “judgmental” and “hypocritical” choices for both other church members and the pastor. Why? It indicates bias based on previous surveys done by Barna and possibly by Lifeway, judging from their Web site.

    Grossman jumped the gun. Here’s hoping that 2008 political surveys are constructed better and interpreted more carefully. But don’t hold your breath.

  • Charlie

    Why is Pi on the calculator?

  • Jerry

    stretching a bit to reach their conclusions with the aid of supposedly scientific numbers

    It’s been a long time since I read the book How to Lie With Statistics, but I think that book or a similar one should be required reading for journalists. It’s an innoculation against assuming numbers mean what someone says they do.

    Why is Pi on the calculator? Forgive me but maybe because there will be “pi in the sky by and by”?

  • dpulliam

    Please don’t read anything into pi being on the calculator…I actually had not noticed it. I was just looking for a statistical device.

  • Michel

    I suspect that the poll of 632 Protestant adults is probably more solid than you may think. Any result like this needs to be followed up, so we shouldn’t carve anything in stone. That said, I would not be shocked to find other surveys did confirm this result.

    The big thing missing from the story is the any qualification of any norm these stats are being compared against. Virtually all lying with stats starts by blurring the audience’s sense of what is normal.

    What jumps right out at me in the bit cited above is this:

    “Decades ago, American culture supported church loyalty out of respect for the church, obligation to family, or social expectations.”

    What exactly does decades ago mean? If I had to guess, I’d say the immediate post-war period. And if so, we have a problem because the immediate post-war period was a bizarre anomally in the history of religion in the west. A brief period when community churches attracted unusually large and loyal followings. This is not surprising, given what the world had just been through.

    But it makes a very poor basis of comparison when analyzing supposed trends in religion.


  • dpulliam

    I agree Michel and thanks for the additional historical analysis. What frustrated me the most was the way the article tried to act like it was news that Protestants would church jump from time-to-time.

  • Rathje


    Isn’t leaving when you’re not satisfied with your current church one of the central existential foundations of Protestantism?

    I mean, Protestants have been doing this ever since Luther and Calvin.

  • Julia Duin

    Actually, I think Cathy is onto something but it’s difficult to support her thesis using just Lifeway stats.
    I am convinced Protestants are seeping out of church in record levels – am researching a book on this, btw so am looking for folks to interview! – but proving it is very tough. George Barna has done lots of research on this, but one cannot build a book just on his findings. CARA (a Catholic group – Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate or something like that) has put out stats showing the Catholic Church’s “backdoor revival;” the USCCB has also released figures showing how the numbers of folks being baptized, going to confession, etc., is diving.
    It is difficult to measure a negative – that is, how many people are NOT in a given locale – but it’s clear to anyone driving about on empty streets on Sunday mornings that 40% of the US populace is not in church these days. I’ve also been fascinated with how supermarkets are saying Sunday is now their busiest days in the week – what does that say about observing the Sabbath?
    What is easier is to measure a positive, ie how many people are joining house churches these days.
    So yes, it’s true it is not huge news that Prots switch churches (which is why I didn’t do a story on Lifeway’s release). But don’t criticize Cathy unduly – finding the proof behind such a hard-to-find group of people is tough. I’ve been working on this since last summer so I know.

  • Philocrites

    Regarding people who leave Roman Catholicism: I’ve commented here before that the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) from Hartford Seminary did generate numbers on “religious switching.” (See Chapter 4 of “Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non-religious Americans” by Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar.) The ARIS survey estimates that 9.5 million Americans have switched out of Catholicism during their lifetime, while 4.3 million switched in. These figures are in a chart estimating “lifetime change in adults’ religious identification for selected religious groups,” page 57.

    The Protestant groups aren’t aggregated, so you’d have to go through denomination by denomination. Baptists, for example, show up as having 4.6 million out-switchers and 4.4 million in-switchers. Meanwhile, 6.6 million people who were once upon a time affiliated with a religious group now claim to have no religion.

  • Dan

    It is my understanding that many — maybe even most — people who switch into Roman Catholicism do so because they are marrying, or have married, a Catholic spouse. That reason is not among the reasons the respondents had to choose from, according to what is in Chris Bollinger’s post.

  • Jason

    While the number of subjects interviewed in this survey is certainly enough to draw appropriate statistical conclusions assuming that all other relevant factors are considered, this story is utterly and completely pointless.

    Quite simply, the entire premise of the story (which is theoretically given in the opening paragraphs) is completely disingenuous and is never even remotely proven. They utterly and thoroughly missed the point of the survey.

    The faithful are restless, a new study of Protestant churchgoers suggests.

    They’re switching from church to church, powered by a mix of dissatisfaction and yearning, according to the study by LifeWay Research.

    The closest assertion that the Protestant faithful are actually restless, however, is found when it is mentioned that membership in Catholicism, the antithesis of a Protestant denomination, has stagnated over the last decade. The author makes it sound like Protestants are leaving the church because of a survey where all of the subjects were Protestants who left the church. It is such a logically flawed assumption that I do not even know where to begin.

    Imagine a survey commissioned by USA Today to find out why people stopped subscribing to their publication. After interviewing 500 people who ended their subscription, would it be sensical to interpret the results as meaning that USA Today is losing subscribers? It is perfectly possible for the subscription rate to be skyrocketing.

    The survey is relevant inasmuch as it attempts to reveal why people are convinced to change churches. It is important information for denominations and church leaders, no doubt, but this article fails to reflect that reality.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Folks, there is evidence that the survey was poorly constructed, with questions and answers showing bias. It’s difficult to tell for sure, but I suspect that the survey was conducted poorly, too. You can’t conclude anything substantive from it. Garbage in, garbage out. Grossman phoned in the article. Move on.