What Are Your Church’s Push and Pull Factors? (Part 1)
What Are Your Church’s Push and Pull Factors? (Part 1)

By Kent Fillinger

My three daughters and I went to New York City for the first time last October. Our visit to Ellis Island was a definite highlight! I was amazed to learn what more than 12 million people encountered at Ellis Island.

One part of the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration had the history of migration and the peopling of America. I found one display titled “Push and Pull Factors.” The sign said, “Historians talk about the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that influence migration. ‘Push’ refers to the reasons people leave one place to go to another. ‘Pull’ looks at why they go to a particular place rather than other possible destinations. These factors come into play whether people are moving from one part of a country to another or halfway around the world.”

As I read this, it occurred to me these same push and pull factors also apply to how people “migrate” from one church or one religion to the next. I wondered, What factors or situations cause someone to be pushed out of a church or a religion? And what conditions pull someone into one church or into a faith over another?

Then, I recalled recent research that addressed some of these push and pull factors. I’ll start with some foundational facts to help set the stage. Then, I’ll address some push factors in this article. Next month, I’ll conclude with some pull factors.

 

Foundational Facts

The migration of people from one religion or church to the next is sometimes referred to as “religious switching.” Thirty-four percent of American adults have a religious identity different from the faith of their childhood. Former Christians represent 19.2 percent of all U.S. adults.

Catholicism has been the hardest hit by religious switching. There are now more than six former Catholics for every new convert to Catholicism. Contrast this with evangelicals, the only group that has gained more people than they’ve lost. And nondenominational Protestants have gained five new people through religious switching for every one person they’ve lost. Evangelicals who identify with nondenominational churches grew from 13 to 19 percent from 2007 to 2014.

Understanding the patterns of religious switching is central to making sense of the trends observed in American religion. The reason the “nones” have grown rapidly in recent decades is because they’re the single biggest destination of movement across religious boundaries. For example, 18 percent of adults who were raised in a religious faith are now unaffiliated (they check “none” on surveys of religious affiliation). By comparison, only 4 percent of adults who were not raised with any religion now belong to a religious faith. That works out to a 1-to-4.5 ratio (in the wrong direction).

Whites are more likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated than blacks or Hispanics. In 2014, 24 percent of whites said they had no religion. Religious groups that are growing tend to be younger—and are continuing to get younger—while religious groups that are shrinking tend to be relatively older and are getting older. Unfortunately, no generation has become more religiously affiliated as it ages.

The median age of Christian adults in 2014 was 49—up from 46 in 2007. And 21 percent of Christians, compared with only 9 percent of those who were unaffiliated, were over the age of 65. The median age of the religiously unaffiliated in 2014 was 36—down from 38 in 2007.

A 2016 research study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) noted that religiously unaffiliated Americans are not all the same. Their research identified three types of unaffiliated:

  • Rejectionists (58 percent) claim religion is not personally important in their lives and believe religion as a whole does more harm than good in society.
  • Apatheists (22 percent) claim religion is not personally important to them, but believe it generally is more socially helpful than harmful.
  • Unattached believers (18 percent) have no religious community but say religion is important to society as well as to them personally.

“Few are actively looking to find a religious community,” noted David P. King, “but they also do not seem to be replacing religious institutions with their own individual spirituality” (from “Does Religion Still Matter in Public Life,” Insights newsletter, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis, September 20, 2016). Only 3 to 4 percent of apatheists and rejectionists are likely to say they are looking to join a religious community or congregation compared with 22 percent of unattached believers.

The PRRI research also found that “young adults today are nearly four times as likely as young adults a generation ago to identify as religiously unaffiliated. Today, 39 percent of young adults (ages 18-29) are religiously unaffiliated” (from “Exodus: Why Americans Are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back,” by Betsy Cooper, et al., 2016; accessed at prri.org).

 

Common Push Factors

In its Fall 2016 issue, Facts & Trends published a LifeWay Research online survey of 2,000 “unchurched” Americans (those who have not attended a worship service in the last six months, outside of a holiday or special occasion) which found the top three reasons people reported leaving the church were:

  • only attended because my parents made me (25 percent)
  • lost interest (23 percent)
  • turned off by the church’s moral stances (21 percent)

The LifeWay study also found that 56 percent of the unchurched identify as Christians, and of this group, 25 percent reported having a strong faith. Almost half said they were willing to freely engage in conversations about their religious beliefs if someone asked. But two-thirds of these unchurched folks don’t intend to return to church in the future.

The PRRI study showed that most Americans who leave their childhood religious identity to become unaffiliated generally do so before age 18. They found a variety of reasons Americans leave their childhood religion, but the most commonly cited reason (60 percent) for disaffiliation was a “lack of belief in the teaching of the religion.” Other push factors included:

  • Their family was never that religious when they were growing up (32 percent).
  • They experienced negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people (29 percent).

Two additional push factors noted in the PRRI research included divorce and living in religiously mixed households. Americans who were raised by divorced parents are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than children whose parents were married during most of their formative years (35 percent vs. 23 percent, respectively). And Americans raised in mixed religious households are more likely to identify as unaffiliated than those raised in households where parents shared the same faith (31 percent vs. 22 percent, respectively).

The 2016 Religious Landscape Study by Pew Research asked people to explain in their own words why they no longer identify with a religious group. This resulted in hundreds of different responses (detailed by Michael Lipka in “Why America’s ‘nones’ left religion behind,” August 24, 2016, accessible at the Pew Research Center website, pewresearch.org). These four common themes emerged:

  • don’t believe/disenchanted (49 percent)
  • dislike organized religion (20 percent)
  • religiously unsure/undecided (18 percent)
  • inactive believer (10 percent)

A couple of years ago, I attended a lecture presented by Alan Cooperman, director of religious research at Pew Research. He noted several deeper theories behind the growth of the nones.

First, he cited politics, noting that the unaffiliated are more likely to be Democrats. (Among Democrats, 61 percent are unaffiliated, compared with 25 percent who are affiliated.) The Barna Group added some interesting research on Americans it described in the March 2017 article “Meet Those Who ‘Love Jesus, but Not the Church” (accessible at barna.com). Barna said this group makes up 10 percent of the U.S. population and is growing. The article said, “The fact that they are just as likely to identify as Democrat (30%) than Republican (25%) is interesting. . . . It’s possible that left-leaning people of faith are encountering some level of political discord with their church, which may have prompted an exit.”

Cooperman’s second theory behind the rise of the nones was because (1) there are fewer marriages and (2) of the couples who are married, more are religiously unaffiliated. The group of “never married” increased from 15 to 28 percent from 1960 to 2010. Fifty-four percent of unaffiliated Americans who are married today report that their spouse is also unaffiliated. A generation ago, unaffiliated Americans were much more likely to be married to a religious spouse.

A third theory he noted was affluence. Wealthier nations tend to be less religious, but the U.S. is a prominent exception.

Cooperman’s research showed that most Americans feel religion’s influence on society is declining, and most feel this is a bad thing. He concluded by saying millennials are engaging in nonreligious activities like CrossFit that are providing them with sources of meaning, purpose, and a common cause in addition to community, support, and strong accountability. These are things that people in the past have sought and found in a church.

Next month, I’ll discuss the most common pull factors that bring people to church.

 

Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting and director of partnerships with CMF International, Indianapolis, Indiana.

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