It’s Mostly the Liberal Churches That People Are Leaving

It’s Mostly the Liberal Churches That People Are Leaving April 10, 2024

The conventional wisdom is that church affiliation is plummeting because Christians support right wing politics,  are intolerant of LGBTQs, and hold to other culturally conservative beliefs.  Those are surely factors in many cases, but the churches that are showing the biggest exodus are the denominations that promote progressive politics, support the LGBTQ agenda, and are culturally liberal.

The Public Religion Research Institute conducted a study of the retention rate of churches, including both the “churning” of church affiliation–that is, members leaving one denomination for another–as well as “disaffiliation,” in which members leave to become “nones.”

The study report, entitled”Religious Change in America,” found that “White evangelical Protestants have one of the highest retention rates of all religious groups.”  In 2023, they retained 76% of their members.  This is actually an improvement.  In 2016, their retention rate was 66%.  “White mainline/non-evangelical Protestants also continue losing more members than they replace and at higher rates than other Protestants.”  In 2023, their retention rate was 58%.

Religions with the highest retention rates were Black Protestants (82%) and Jews (77%).  White Catholics had a retention rate of 62%, with Hispanic Catholics at 68%.

Of those who left their churches to become unaffiliated with any church, 35% were mainline/non-evangelical Protestants; 35% were Catholics; and 16% were evangelical Protestants.  Those leaving non-Christian traditions were only 8%.

Why did they become unaffiliated?  The biggest reason given was simply that they no longer believe in the church’s teachings, at 67%.  And of those beliefs, 47% cited the church’s “negative teaching about or treatment of gay and lesbian people.”  Most of those must have been responding to the official Catholic teachings, since 35% were leaving liberal Protestant denominations that for the most part support the LGBTQ cause.

To be sure, “‘Unaffiliated’ is the only major religious category experiencing growth,” to the point that 26% of the American surveyed are no longer members of any church.  A major reason given, though, for giving up church entirely is that their family was not all that religious while they were growing up, cited by 41% of the unaffiliated.

A different study of young adults aged 18-30 found similar results, and it has the virtue of spinning out the confessional Missouri Synod Lutherans from mainline liberal Lutherans.  Consulting data from the ongoing General Social Survey, the Catholic periodical The Pillar found that in the 2018-2022 cohort a shocking 42% say that their religion is “none,” with 29% saying they are Protestant, and 19% saying they are Catholic.

In 1978-1982, 19% of young adults were members of the Protestant Mainline.  In 1998-2002, that number had declined to 11%.  In 2018-2022, that number was only 5%!

The category of “other Protestants” fared much better.  In the words of the report:

The group labeled as “Other Protestants” includes more evangelical denominations, including the various denominations of Baptists, the Missouri Synod Lutherans, and the African Methodist Episcopal communities, as well as non-denominational Protestants.

These evangelical and non-denominational Protestants decreased from 38% of young respondents in 1978-1982 to 24% in 2018-2022. This is still a very significant decline, but not as large as among mainline Protestants.

Breaking it down still further,

The number of young adult respondents claiming membership in every single named Protestant denomination had declined by 65% or more over the last 40 years. Baptists had declined the least, at 65%, while Lutherans had seen the largest decline at 75%. But across the board this was a change which can only be described as a collapse.

Meanwhile, non-denominational and other Protestants had actually seen their share increase slightly among young people.

That share increases in the three cohorts from 15.1% to 15.6% to 15.7%.  This is more evidence of the greater retention in more conservative traditions.  The chart showing this data has a prominent asterix, with a note saying “*Missouri Synod Lutherans are included in Non-Denom/Other.”  That’s odd for the LCMS to be included with the non-denoms, which doubtless improves our numbers.  But this is still better than other evangelical categories, such as the Baptists, whose numbers have gone down from 23.3% to 17.4% to 8%.

None of this is reason for complacency, much less self-congratulation.  All churches need to do a better job of retaining their members and especially their young people.  But the answer is not simply capitulating to the non-Christian culture.  Churches that go that route are faring even worse than those that resist it.

After all, if there is no difference between what the church teaches and what the culture teaches, why get up on Sunday mornings to go to church?  Churches must offer the “unaffiliated” what they do not have, but what they need.  When the culture and the church are at odds, it isn’t surprising that church affiliation declines.  What else could we expect?  But as the culture crashes and burns, churches can tend to the casualties.


Illustration by Carol M Highsmith via Rawpixel, CC0


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