A Christian Response to Pew’s “Faith in Flux”

The “Faith in Flux” report from Pew Forum on Religion provides some pretty dire news for those who take religious identity seriously. About half of American–that’s right, half–leave their childhood faith at some point in their lives, and many who change their religion do so more than once.

The reasons people give for changing their religion – or leaving religion altogether – differ widely depending on the origin and destination of the convert. The group that has grown the most in recent years due to religious change is the unaffiliated population. Two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated and half of former Protestants who have become unaffiliated say they left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, and roughly four-in-ten say they became unaffiliated because they do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions. Additionally, many people who left a religion to become unaffiliated say they did so in part because they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money. Far fewer say they became unaffiliated because they believe that modern science proves that religion is just superstition.

Catholics, according to the report, have been hit hardest by this trend. According to Pew, “Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change.”

While the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown the most due to changes in religious affiliation, the Catholic Church has lost the most members in the same process; this is the case even though Catholicism’s retention rate of childhood members (68%) is far greater than the retention rate of the unaffiliated and is comparable with or better than the retention rates of other religious groups. Those who have left Catholicism outnumber those who have joined the Catholic Church by nearly a four-to-one margin. Overall, one-in-ten American adults (10.1%) have left the Catholic Church after having been raised Catholic, while only 2.6% of adults have become Catholic after having been raised something other than Catholic.

A lot of those Catholics leaving, around half to be more specific, are becoming Protestant, and most of those are becoming Evangelical Protestants.

Former Catholics are about evenly divided between those who have become Protestant and those who are now unaffiliated with any religion, with fewer now adhering to other faiths. Among Catholics who have become Protestant, most now belong to evangelical denominations, with fewer associated with mainline Protestant denominations and historically black churches.

Why are so many leaving? Pew gives a variety of reasons:

*the most common reason for leaving Catholicism cited by former Catholics who have become Protestant is that their spiritual needs were not being met (71%).
*A similar number of former Catholics who have become Protestant say they left their former religion because they found another faith they liked more; nearly six-in-ten of those who changed denominational families within Protestantism also say this.
*Nearly two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated say they left the Catholic Church because they stopped believing in its teachings.
*Other reasons include dissatisfaction with the worship service, dissatisfaction with the clergy, and unhappiness about the teachings of the Bible.

In light of this data, Randy Harris, the renowned Church of Christ preacher and ACU professor provides a moving and compelling Christian response. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Church of Christ (also referred to as Churches of Christ), it is an evangelical and congregational Christian movement with three distinct markers: adult believer baptism, acapella worship, and weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Other distinctive elements of the Church of Christ include a strong Biblical literalism, a conscious effort to restore first century Christian church as established by Christ, and a common sense post-enlightenment philosophical basis (with sadly no emphasis on metaphysics).

Randy Harris is perhaps the most famous preacher within the Church of Christ community, and if not the most famous, definitely one of the most talented. Look up his popular sermon “Jesus–God’s YES” on iTunes if you don’t believe me. However, Randy Harris also has a deep love for contemplative prayer, and at the Church of Christ university where he teaches, he is known as “the only Church of Christ monk.” He has also participated in Jesuit and Franciscan retreats. With all of this, it makes sense that he would get the question, “Why not just become Catholic?” And, in fact, he does get this question quite a lot, which he answers on his blog:

How can a contemplative mystic stay in Churches of Christ? Why don’t I move to Catholicism or Orthodoxy where mysticism is more at home?

The simple answer is I am a catholic with a little c. I am a part of the universal church of God which Jesus came proclaiming, so I can rightly claim those mystics as part of my spiritual heritage. To be Catholic with a big C in order to lay claim to Trappist, Carmalite, or Franciscan spirituality (all of which have blessed me!) requires a sectarianism that I have already rejected in wrestling with my own heritage. I reject both Catholic and Church of Christ claims of exclusivity. So I happily embrace my deeply flawed tradition rather than jump to equally flawed ones and I embrace all of those Christians through the ages who have taught me to pray. And as a matter of calling, I hope to make the mystical element a little bigger part of a movement that has been hyper-rational.

All of us who claim that our Christian faith plays an important part in our lives get frustrated with some of the specificities of that faith. Progressive Catholics get frustrated about the teachings on artificial birth control, the failure to ordain women, and the opposition to abortion. On the other side, more conservative Catholics bemoan the liturgical decline following Vatican II, the acceptance of female altar servers, and the widespread support within the Catholic community for gay marriage, legal abortion, artificial birth control, and a whole host of “mortal sins.” Evangelical Protestants are starting to realize that accepting evolution doesn’t have to undermine the Bible, and mainline Protestants are starting to realize that accepting everything is not the way to keep congregants in the pews.

No Christian church, and no Christian denomination can claim to be perfect, to adequately and accurately represent the church that Christ founded. But, as Randy Harris reminds us, all Christians are little-c catholics in a deeply divided church. Much of the discontent we feel, and much of the desire we have to seek out a better and more perfect church, one with better liturgy and preaching, one with a more Biblically-grounded faith or a more integral appropriation of the tradition, is a natural recognition of the deep divisions that exist within the Christian Church. The solution to those divisions, I am becoming more and more convinced, is not conversion. As a Catholic, especially in light of the realities Pew provides, I recognize that an emphasis on conversion is a losing game–for every Randy Harris we get, another 3-4 Catholics will leave. Rather, I think Christians who continue to take their faith seriously (I can’t speak to those who lose their faith) ought to, in most cases, stay put, to continue to worship in the tradition that has formed them and claims them, and to reform it from within. I think we also need to listen to others who stand on the solid rock of Christ, to discern the spirits of our faith, and integrate those elements of other Christian traditions we find to be true and good and holy.

Randy Harris is not a Catholic, but he is a Christian. And he is teaching hundreds of Church of Christ students and even more Church of Christ congregants a year to love and appreciate elements of the Catholic tradition, and more importantly, to call Catholics “brothers and sisters in Christ.” I think this is an excellent Christian response to Pew’s “Faith in Flux.”

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1 comment so far

  1. John Farrell on

    Great post.


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