A new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life details just how fluid religious commitment is among Americans. The survey, however, only confirms what the casual observer of religon in the U.S. already knows: we are a fickle people when it comes to religious affiliation. Here's how the survey opens:
Americans change religious affiliation early and often. In total, about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives. Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24, and many of those who change religion do so more than once. These are among the key findings of a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. The survey documents the fluidity of religious affiliation in the U.S. and describes in detail the patterns and reasons for change.
Responding to the survey Time magazine's Amy Sullivan summarizes why some people switch religious homes:
With all those options, choosing a church (or mosque or synagogue or temple) isn't just a matter of theology for many Americans. They might decide where to worship because they adhere to a broad tradition — like Protestantism — or because they are drawn to a particular denomination, subdenomination or even an individual congregation. Or they might choose based on location or children's activities or the quality of preaching or music or potluck offerings. The concept of church-shopping itself is uniquely American.
Our consumer-oriented culture has trained us to think choosing a church is like picking a cell phone plan: find the one that meets all my needs while offering me the best "deal." But choosing a church is not like picking a cell phone plan or restaurant or movie or television show.
It is one thing to switch from Coke to Pepsi because one of the two happens to be on sale, but quite another when we leave a church simply because one down the street has a better coffee bar in the foyer. In other words, choosing a church should be primarily "a matter of theology." This requires a whole new way of thinking. A consumer oriented mind-set by definition holds weak loyalities to any one thing. The consumer mind must be ready to move quickly to the latest best deal or new thing. The theologically-oriented mindset is strongly tied to foundational doctrines and is not easily moved. The former is fickle and mobile; the latter is committed and grounded.
So how do we begin to treat church unlike the way we determine what coffee to buy at Starbucks?
1. Recognize the consumer orientation of American culture. See it for what it is and don't pretend we're not living within it. Instead, we must learn to not be conformed to this world (cf. Romans 12:1-2). The best way to do this is to "set our minds on things above" (cf. Colossians 3:1-4) through consistent Bible study, prayer and fellowship with other believers. But it also requires shunning many of the fallen habits of the world. Discernment is needed.
2. Resolve to find a church based on matters of first rather than secondary importance. For example, what does the church believe about the gospel? The Bible? God? Christ? The Holy Spirit? Church leadership? How these questions are answered should be what drives us to a particular local church not how good the potlucks are on Wednesday night (as important as that is!).
3. Persevere in your local church. The consumer will not endure faulty products. But the Christian is not called to a product, but to Christ and His church. And churches are flawed. Why? Because they're full of people like us--people being sanctified. As the apostle said, "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect..." (Philippians 3:12). Indeed, we are a work in progress so love, gentleness, forebearance, forgiveness, patience, kindness, etc. must be what marks us as we learn to live together in local fellowship.
More could be said, but I am convinced that we have a tremendous opportunity to get the attention of our market-driven, consumer-oriented culture by modeling the very opposite behavior when it comes to church. When fickleness is the norm deep commitment will stand out like a shining star at night. When those people close to us see this devotion they may even ask why--with all its flaws--we stay committed to our local church. And when that question comes I pray we will have a reason far more powerful than, "We like the music on Sunday mornings." No, let us say, "The gospel is preached and lived out there. Why would I go anywhere else?"
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About Mike Pohlman
Mike serves as the senior pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Bellingham, Washington. Mike is a former church planter in the Pacific Northwest, and served for three years as the executive producer of The Albert Mohler Program, a nationally syndicated radio show dedicated to Christianity and culture. Mike has a PhD in American church history from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mike is husband to Julia and father to four wonderful children: Samuel (12), Anna (10), John (9) and Michael (4). When not pastoring, Mike loves sports, music, and hanging out with his family.
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