Musings on Drifting Faith

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.

24 comments for “Musings on Drifting Faith

  1. Rory thanks for your post–

    I submit that the Book of Mormon is the best place to look for answers to the questions you bring to the table.

    My reading from the Book of Mormon and my own experience convinces me that the causes and solutions to drifting faith are directly related to the baptism covenant.

    LDS can acquire the gift of the Holy Ghost if they will seek to fulfill their baptism covenant. If they do in fact receive the gift of the Holy Ghost and remain faithful they will not be moved out of their place by the challenges of life or the ordeals of death. The Lord promises to give His followers the gifts of the Spirit so that they can’t be deceived (D&C 46:8-9) , and also promises to support those–who put their trust in Him–in their trials and troubles (Alma 36:3).

    I have put these promises to the test in military combat, and difficulties and trials of many kinds and have found them to be true.

    With these experiences I have learned that faith in the long run is an individual responsibility and not the churches.

  2. 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

    I’d disagree. If that were the only problem I think there’s a lot churches could do. Although to the degree this plays a part it simply demonstrates that the services once provided by churches are now being provided by the state or by private enterprise. (i.e. a lot of welfare and health issues, socializing, etc.)

    You can see a parallel with what happened to Masonry and other fraternal organizations after WWII. Prior to that time these organizations prospered because they provided connections when moving, provided insurance, and provided socialization for men. As insurance began to be met by other organizations, especially as benefits in a career, and as cosmopolitanism developed, those organizations decreased as a portion of the population to their rather small roll today.

    That said I don’t think this is what is going on. Rather I think that you have the rise of atheism and agnosticism as well as competing religions. Further the expected increase in Catholicism due to immigration hasn’t materialized as many Catholic immigrants tend to fall away from the faith.

    I think what we’re seeing is more akin to what happened within the Jewish community decades ago. They have become secularized. And this secularization isn’t really primarily a function of social services (although the fact we don’t need them helps). Rather it is that for many religion seems outmoded and oddly anchronistic for our modern life.

    That said, trends can change.

    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 the degree our Church (and perhaps much of Christianity) is struggling in terms of offerings it is probably due to the fact so many are single. What do Churches offer to singles socially? Honestly, not much. You can believe but even there society offers a lot in opposition.

    While I can’t prove it, I suspect the fact people are marrying so late (if at all) is the driving cause along with having fewer children.

  3. 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.”

    Could an institution, specifically the church, teach a methodology to individuals on how to create their own tailored experiences?

    Sort of like the phrase “You get out of something what you put into it.”

  4. 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?
    We’ll never really know the answer to this question until either a) the church begins to publish accurate/truthful membership statistics or b) the church opens its membership roles (and information on ex-members) for a detailed study involving surveys and questionnaires. Until then it will only be anecdotal. And anecdotally, I would say that 56% seems about right to me, when the wards in which I have lived have routinely had <50% attendance rates in sacrament meeting.

  5. Further complicating all of this is the stark differences in the lived experiences of members. Rory alluded to this above, but let me provide my own anecdotal data:

    Example 1: We recently baptized a woman who lives 10 miles from our meetinghouse. She has four children and doesn’t have a car. If we can’t provide regular transportation for her family–and this is a big if–she might join the church that is two blocks from her house, or perhaps one that would meet her needs with a church bus. In my parents’ suburban Salt Lake Metro ward, people are thought eccentric if they have less than two cars and everyone lives within ten football fields of the meetinghouse. While I’m not saying that unit does not have real problems, it will not have to deal with this problem.

    Example 2: The Church just standardized where it banks, closing down accounts in local banks and, showing that it has no problem with government welfare recipients, setting up accounts in big national banks. For my ward, this means that two priesthood holders need to make a 70-minute round trip every Sunday because no one lives anywhere near the branch of Wachovia we now use. True, the bank is within the unit boundaries by about 1/4 mile, but this drive is still a drag for the men and for their wives and families. Will this be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for some testimonies as it’s hard enough being a Mormon in the rural Northeast? Time will tell, but, once again, no cognate problem for my parents’ ward.

  6. Clark (#2)

    I’m simply saying that the general level of the church can offer general counsel and implement programs, but to reach individuals it might require more flexibility at regional, local, or even ward levels. I appreciate your comments about the services once provided by organizations, such shifting to secular sources diminishing the need for religious or fraternal organizations makes sense.

    Of course, the argument against my flexibility is found in the smaller churches, non-denominational, or locally-based. They have the ability to cater, and yet they struggle, too.

    Finally, your secularization point is accurate, as the Pew numbers show a marked increase in the unaffiliated. But these follow-on numbers show that, of those drifting, 40 percent are still religious and either on hold or between faiths. They simply haven’t found one yet.

  7. Also, some clarifications on my numbers. I relied upon the Washington Post article, but looking at the Pew sources the 56 percent is not, in fact, the number that have changed their affiliation, but rather the number that are still affiliated with their childhood faith. The relevant footnote from Pew reads:

    The original Landscape Survey had a margin of error of ±0.6 percentage points and estimated that 44% of adults currently belong to a religion different than the one in which they were raised, while 56% still belong to their childhood faith. The estimate that 16% of those who still belong to their childhood religion (9% of the total population) say there was a time in their life when they had a different faith than they have now comes from the 973 follow-up interviews and has a margin of error of ±5 percentage points. Thus, we estimate that as few as 47% [(44-1)+(9-5)=47] and as many as 59% [(44+1) + (9+5)=59] of U.S. adults have changed religious affiliation at least once.

    The article conflated some numbers, I repeated them. Lesson learned, go to the source. The study can be found here.

  8. I think the drift within the LDS church is also illustrated in the bloggernacle, not just those who’ve formally left the church, but also new order Mormons and middle-way Mormons. There are also those who claim to be solidly in the Mormon camp, but still attenuate some core beliefs. In addition to the cafeteria style “I’ll take a full serving of this, and some of this, but none of that,” people now seem to be nuancing, or adding shades of grey to, things that I had previously thought of as black-and-white, go-or-no-go.

    Rather than admitting that one can’t or won’t comply with requirement “X” of the gospel (or of church policy), some people nuance away or diminish “X” as non-essential, or even as an incorrect element.

    Rather than figuratively beating one’s breast and admitting a lack of faith/shortcoming/sin, the item is just dismissed or nuanced away.

    Maybe I’m just seeing more nuance as I get older; and maybe the web is facillitating us sharing our nuancing with each other. But my conclusion is that many of us are “protestantizing” the gospel, doing to the gospel as delivered to modern prophets, what Protestants did to Catholicism: “Oh, we don’t actually need that part.”

    A while back, one of the Brethren said something at General Conference about “a testimony has a short shelf life.” That backs up the concept of drifting faith.

  9. Ida, I’m surprised. In my unit, we have been given the option of sending in donations by priority mail. Admittedly, this may be a pilot program not yet available in all areas.

    On the broader issue: Are we to come unto Christ, or is Christ to come unto us? I think the answer in our church is “Yes”, but this creates a tension. Since I don’t see how to resolve that tension, I have to assume it servers some spiritual purpose I can’t see yet.

  10. There are regular discussions in the pages of Christianity today and its web site about the emphasis that Evangelical Christian churches place on constantly inviting everyone to make “a decision for Christ”, to the exclusion of teaching about how to live once you are a committed Christian. Many churches in that movement have formally adopted the doctrine that, once you have declared your faith in Christ, your ultimate salvation is guaranteed, no matter what you do and say later. For many of them, even baptism is one act too many; they reject all actions beyond the declaration of faith as being irrelevent to salvation. So clearly, sabbath observance and tithing are also things that are optional in God’s view.

    Other Evangelical denominations cling to the emphasis on the one time declaration of faith as being salvific, but also assert that those who ARE thus saved will display it in their changed lives (not that their new behavior is a prerequisite for salvation). Yet the emphasis is still at the front end of the experience.

    So, as a matter of religious doctrine, a lot of American Protestants have been taught by their own pastors to believe that, once having experienced salvation, continuing in church participation is sort of optional. Indeed, the discussion in Christianity Today recognizes that many members of Evangelical churches are dissatisfied because there doesn’t seem to be any specifically religious point in long term church attendance. They also seem attracted to the goal of political dominance for their way of thinking, expressly intolerant of outsiders when they are playing in the political realm.

    On the other hand, a lot of Mainline Protestantism seems to have become so focused on “social gospel” issues that they have become adjuncts to larger political and social movements. They seem to justify their existence by demonstrating their social conscience, rather than having any reason for existence independent of movements like social justice, sexual equality in all its variations, and a Palestinian homeland–a reason like, say, personal salvation.

    Even the Southern Baptist Convention has been losing net membership in recent years, while that is the constant theme of the Mainline Protestants. And that course seems to be an inherent result of the fundamental orientations of those two major groups of American Protestants. These observations are of course very general, but I don’t think it is surprising that those churches often don’t engender lifelong commitments in many of their members. In many ways, that is not their goal.

    I suspect that many clergy in those churches assume that people would just stick with their churches if there weren’t active campaigns of recruitment by other denominations like the Mormons. The Baptists have made it very clear that their ministerial antipathy against the LDS Church is based on the observation that they lose some 40,000 members each year to the Mormons. Some Evangelicals (the nicer ones!) have expressed hope that Mormons would “accommodate” themselves into Protestantism, the way the Community of Christ has, and no longer be a “sheep stealing” competitor.

    Anyway, I suggest that, while there may be commonalities about people who become “detached” from their former churches, there are some reasons for detachment that are specific to broad categories of churches.

  11. “I don’t think we have created space, generally speaking, for a Mormon discourse about drift.”

    I agree that we are turning away a lot of good people. Maybe this is why our USA growth is only like 1.5%. There was a membership increase of 100k members in the USA from 2007 to 2008. Children of record was 120k worldwide – if we assume half of that was in the USA then we are at 40k converts. Assuming typical low retention rates, and we are looking at 20k members that in the USA that are actually joining and involved in our community each year. If about half the missionaries serving are in the USA, then we’re looking at a one to one ratio: 20k missionaries = 20k members. That’s not so great for all the time and effort put into missionary work.

    If we were really open to including people of all types, these numbers would dramatically increase. But I don’t think our current culture of doubt=sin will allow it. Hopefully we can soon realize that faith is a spiritual gift that many do not and will not ever have. We need to move away from teaching that you HAVE to have faith. Some have the gift of faith and some have the gift to believe those who have faith and some don’t have either. And it’s ok because all can contribute in some way to the body of Christ. They should all be included in our worship. It is likewise problematic when faith is a prerequisite to Temple worship when the scriptures teach that all in the church do not have it. In my opinion, the desire to believe is all that should be required, even if full belief, faith, or knowledge is not there.

  12. gma #11: I’m not sure what definitions of belief and faith you’re using.

    To me, belief is merely a mental assent to a proposition. Faith is living, doing outward actions, ie, keeping commandments, that are in accord with the belief. So belief + obedience = faith. I think that is an appropriate description of the temple rec interview: “Do you believe the church is true, etc., etc.?” “Yes.” “Are you keeping the commandments?” “Yes.” And I think that is the honorable way to have a temple recommend.

    I think the question: “Do you have a testimony of …?” is also in the temple rec interview. But the definition of testimony is left up to the interviewee, isn’t it? One of the Brethren, either Pres Monson or Elder Scott once said “Testimony is faith, and faith is testimony.”

    There are “I believe…” testimonies, and there are “I know… ” testimonies.

    Perhaps the gift described as “believing on the faith of others” turns into faith, by definition, as soon as the believer keeps the commandments. IE, you show your faith as John said, by your works/actions.

  13. But I don’t think our current culture of doubt=sin will allow it. Hopefully we can soon realize that faith is a spiritual gift that many do not and will not ever have
    Amen, Brother!

  14. Bookslinger (#11)

    I have as much faith in your definitions as you do in GMA’s. Since when does faith have anything to do with action? Faith is nothing more than believing in something that cannot be proven.

    And while our outward actions may be indicative of our faith/belief, that’s not always true. I know of a certain LDS man who personally abhors tortures, but went to great lengths for his boss to declare torture legal.

    I also know of many inactive LDS who, when asked, still profess belief in the tenets of the church, but for whatever personal reason, just aren’t actively involved in the church. I also know of members of the church who go to church regularly, hold callings, pay tithing, etc., but would privately admit that they don’t believe in the church or god.

  15. kari #14:

    1. I’ve often been guilty of saying one thing, but then doing another thing that either explicitly or implicitly is in contradiction to what I’ve said. Sometimes my conscience sorts things out, sometimes my conscience convicts me, and other times I feel like I have to leave it up to God to judge me as I sometimes just don’t know.

    There are a bunch of things that I give mental and verbal assent to, but I fail to actually _do_ anything about them. So either I’m a hypocrite in those things, or am lazy, or a sinner, or I just don’t actually have faith in what I say that I believe.

    2. I’ve been told that the Greek words for “believe” and “belief” used in the New Testament have a connotation of dedication and action attached to them, beyond mere mental and verbal assent. ( Can any Greek scholars here shed further light? )

    3. Actions speak louder than words.

    4. The famous “faith without works” and “shew faith by works” discourse:,17-18,20,22,24,26#14 (I was wrong. I wrote John earlier instead of James.)

    5. I was trying to lower the bar and _include_ more people for GMA’s hypothetical example of who is admitted to temple worship. If one honestly says he believes (even if he’s believing on the faith of others), and (strives to) keep the commandments, then (by James’ definition) that’s faith, and I think that’s an entre to the Temple.

    6. Alma’s definition of faith in chap 32 also requires action: _nourishing_ the seed/seedling/tree.

    7. Even many of our mainstream Christian critics define faith as “a belief (that results) in action.”

    8. Elder Bednar quoted Joseph Smith in the “Lectures on Faith” about faith being a principle of action.

    And now I think I’ve drifted too far from the original post.

    How do we keep ourselves (and our families) from drifting away even while in the faith? How do we find the motivation to keep on keeping on?

    I think the “drift” mentioned in the original post happens in the LDS church too. Hopefully, we can bring in converts who “drift out” of other churches, but once inside, how do we keep from drifting? How do we anchor ourselves deep inside the restored gospel and its official authoriized vehicle (the church) so we don’t wander off, get bored, get offended, etc. ?

  16. Great discussion.

    I think the ability to attract and retain members is impacted by several key factors:

    1) Relevance of the institution. I think our church gets high marks here when you consider forums such as General Conference where the entire membership gets very timely, relelvant, and faith promoting messages about the challenges of our day. The fact that we sustain these leaders as prophets, seers, and revelators makes their messages all the more impactful.

    2) Relevance of the message. Here again we get high marks, as we have an important message about our eternal destiny and the covenant relationship required to inherit future blessings.

    3) Local level. While we have very inspired and talented local leaders, I find most programs are not flexible enough to adjust to the needs of local members. This is unfortunate.

    As members live in the local level, the ability to tailor programs including scope, frequency, and intent would be critical to adjust to the needs of local units. My frustration is when local programs (that are failing) are not adjusted to meet local needs. If the CHI indicates that program x must meet once per week, and PPIs should be conducted monthly, etc, etc, we risk running an empty program (shell), that can sometimes waste peoples valuable time, and fall short of its intended purpose. But any deviation from the prescribed protocols, and your ideas and suggestions for improvement are usually deemed heretical and unorthodox.

    I understand that there is a tension between uniformity, correlation, and structure vs flexibility, but I think we almost always error on the side of uniform program rigidity as compared to local leaders being able to adapt and modify programs. For example, this may mean that Mutual doesn’t meet every week! (Gasp!!)

    What this comes down to is what level of trust will local leaders be empowered to make decisions and modify programs without damaging the distinctive Mormon experience and “franchise.”?

    My own take is that a greater ability to make the worship experience relevant to the needs of local wards will be helpful in reducing membership drift and inactivity for members who are not finding their worship experience relevant anymore.

  17. The Church has very little comfortable accommodation for cultural Mormons or secular Mormons (unless they go under the radar about this), the way Judaism has accommodation for secular Jews or Catholicism has for lapsed Catholics, and so on. There are reasons for this. Should it change? A more interesting question is: will it ever change? It’s obvious there could (and if I was a betting man I’d bet on would) be many more people at church every week if it did change. But church would also be different then, wouldn’t it?

  18. #10 Raymond Takashi Swenson ~ Good observations.

    For my own part as an evangelical, I have grown quite frustrated with the immense emphasis on the initial conversion experience at the expense of focus on sanctification & retention. The conversion makes up such a tiny portion of the Christian’s life. I agree that justification is important, but it’s hard for me to say that it’s more important than discipleship. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, that’s like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is more important.

    I have more to say about this, but it’s late and my thoughts are muddied. I’ll try to get back to this tomorrow.

  19. Sorry for the threadjack —

    Does anyone know why,, and are down??
    . still is up.

  20. I think too many religious people (including LDS members) base their spiritual growth on their church activity and fail to pursue progression on their own – outside and independent of the Church. Therefore, when some historical issue breaks into their consciousness – or they are offended by someone – or they face a difficult trial – or something else shakes their faith, they have no personal, internal faith foundation on which to rely. Hence, they drift.

    I believe those who never drift fall into two categories:

    1) Those who never question – who simply are “blessed” to be believers;

    2) Those who gain a testimony / witness / relationship / faith / conviction / whatever totally independent of their religion – those who become “agents unto themselves” – who are able to act and not to be acted upon.

    Most people never take the time and give the attention necessary to pursue personal spiritual growth as a unique, separate journey. Therefore, when the wind blows hard enough, they “drift” – since they aren’t anchored properly on their own.

  21. Oh, and I also think carving out a place for “drifters” was one of Elder Wirthlin’s main themes during the last few years of his life, at the very least. His orchestra / piccolo analogy was amazing.

    I also was impressed by Elder Andersen’s and Elder Cook’s recent remarks in this regard.

  22. I don’t know Ray…

    My experience is that inactive members I encounter in real life, and not on the internet, didn’t leave because of cognitive dissonance over uncomfortable Church history. Often they aren’t even aware of it.

    The internet ex-Mormon or disaffected Mormon community artificially skews toward people with the sort of issues groups like FAIR are dedicated to combating.

    In the real world, it seems to be more a matter of burnout, or lack of social life, or something along those lines.

  23. #21 Ray says in well.

    The church is in a better position for success when the members are not dependent on the church for testimony, but have achieved the goal of being rooted and grounded, as Paul teaches (Colossians 1:23, Ephesians 3:17). I would think being rooted and grounded is to have a testimony from the Holy Ghost.

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