The Washington Post published an article about a follow-on to the recently released Pew Forum survey on Religion & Public Life. (Study Shows Americans Leave Religion Due to Drift, Not Rupture) The data collected indicates a significant amount of “churn” among religious people, with an estimate of over half (56%) of faithful people changing their faith at some point in their lives.
The reasons given were less about differences with policies and high-profile controversies, and more about the drift of the individual’s spirituality. The survey shows that for a large percentage of drifting practitioners, the churches to which they belong are simply unable to meet their needs throughout the course of their lives:
The results are a “big indictment” of organized religion, said Michael Lindsay, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University and author of a book on evangelical leaders. “There is a huge, wide-open back door at most churches. Churches around the country may be able to attract people, but they can’t keep them.”
If this drift is happening in 56 percent of the American population, then over the course of a lifetime it seems reasonable to assume a significant portion of our own members experience such drift. Is it more than half, comparable to the larger population? Or are we doing something differently to reduce that number? Either way, it seems that the number for Mormons could still be a sizable chunk, and that affects both our life-long membership stability as well as our new convert retention. On the flip side, this 56 percent of faith-going drift is likely a significant source of what converts we do receive, and a source of the vibrancy in our culture, even as we attract those in the midst of drift and perhaps inclined to drift right on through. With these numbers based on events over the course of a lifetime, it isn’t possible to compare them side-by-side for net gains or net losses, but these are personal phenomena that we should do our best to understand and address.
Here’s the challenge: If these results demonstrate that churches are not holding on to people because they fail to meet their needs, I don’t think there is anything to be done at a general level to address it. It is too much of an individual experience for an institution to be able to effectively respond, as it would be impossible to tailor an experience for each individual as they pass through the cycles of life, each at their own pace. Further, I don’t think it unreasonable to expect the church to act in broad swaths in an attempt to reach the largest number possible.
To reach the individual it must be at the individual level, through personal ministrations and local attentiveness – attentiveness to the needs of the individual, as well as the needs of the congregation. Our lay ministry has specific advantages, but it comes with associated weaknesses – lack of professional ministerial training, occasionally unqualified counseling, and an incredible demand on personal time and resources. But given that, do we have the tools needed to respond in creative or innovative ways? Do we have the cultural support for such innovations?
Further, is it possible for the individual to negotiate and customize their relationship with the church? Are we able to negotiate and customize for our congregations? With a global organization there must be standards – but rigid reliance upon those standards is a recipe for encouraging drift. I would submit that it is a rare and inspired leader that is able to negotiate between the needs of the institution and the needs of the flock, maintaining integrity for the church and encouraging flexibility among the membership.
But that isn’t easy, particularly when our discourse lacks nuance or even respect for the individual journey. I don’t think we have created space, generally speaking, for a Mormon discourse about drift. We are not comfortable with drift – we label it as lack of faith, sin, or being tossed to and fro. Such rhetoric does nothing to help the individual feel welcome, or even normal, as they experience periods of reduced spiritual longings, commitment, or loyalty. By making space for these individuals and opening our discourse, might we retain connections that will be vital when the religiosity returns? Especially if this drifting is not a move to secularism, but rather for 30 percent of people it is simply putting religiosity on pause or seeking it elsewhere.
Are we able to become comfortable with the notion that everything that persuadeth to believe in Christ is of God? If we are, perhaps we can grant our fellow members, even our family members, the latitude to find God, even as we try to find Him ourselves.