My first reaction to the much-publicized U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life was, "Hooray for common sense!"
In finding that 44 percent of Americans change their religious affiliation as they grow up, the survey proved that religious life isn't an exercise in brand loyalty but rather a dynami
In fact, I would find it discouraging if children passed through the ferment of adolescence and into the challenges of adulthood without rethinking their faith. After all, a primary work of adolescence is pulling away from one's parents and claiming one's own identity. Failure to differentiate tends to stunt one's adulthood. And if faith has any central place in one's childhood experiences, then faith must be part of that pulling-away. Otherwise, faith is just an unexamined habit of childhood.
The Pew findings that religious behavior is marked by "fluidity," not consistency, might frustrate institutional managers who had hoped brand loyalty would last a lifetime. But it strikes me as good news that people take their faith seriously enough to examine it and to go in search of real bread.
Rather than pout about brand disloyalty, I'd suggest that denominations and congregations prepare themselves to receive these seekers when they go seeking. After all, it was the refusal of major denominations to notice that Baby Boomers started leaving in 1964 that caused their steep decline in membership. If you don't see the churn, how do you examine your enterprise and respond to the churn? If "none of the above" is the fastest-growing American religious affiliation, then we need to ask: What do adults in America find missing? What movement of the human spirit are we in the religious world failing to sense? What matrix of needs are we ignoring in our stubborn insistence on tradition? What questions are we unable to hear? Rather than complain about the inadequacies of young adults in failing to grasp the virtues of Protestantism, for example, Protestant course-setters should examine the lives of today's young adults and build bridges to them. There is no virtue in ignoring one age cohort in order to keep an older age cohort satisfied. We should try self-examination, not blame.
If, as the Pew study found, mainline Protestantism is a dwindling flock, I'd suggest mainline leaders visit growing congregations, learn from them, and discern what methods can be appropriated without abandoning their progressive theology. In my opinion, our mainline worship tends to be dull, our music lifeless, our ranks too dominated by warriors in theologically insignificant causes, and our openness to new ideas and new personalities dangerously small.
Evangelicals whose ranks are growing are good at what they do, and they work hard at it. If a mainline Protestant preacher put as much energy into preparing a Sunday message as Joel Osteen does, the Pew study would come out differently. Half-hearted choirs that rehearse a few minutes before performance could learn from energetic choruses that rehearse several hours a week.
When nondenominational congregations prosper, as the Pew study found, it seems to me denominations should examine what value they add with their negative branding and costly overhead.
The Pew study is a wakeup call. Too many traditional religious enterprises are complacent and self-absorbed. They pursue correctness and grand gestures, rather than the daily work of being effective and responsive. Nothing will get bette smarter and humbler/
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus," and the founder of the Church Wellness Project, www.churchwellness.com. His Web site is www.morningwalkmedia.com.)