MONTCLAIR, N.J.—Lynn Beattie has always been a Protestant but not always in a congregation like Christ Church, where she stopped in last Wednesday night for a charismatic-style service that saw a few hundred congregants lifting their hands in praise as they sang along to high-decibel Christian rock. Some were moved to speak in tongues.
A 53-year-old homemaker, Beattie was raised a Baptist. But she married her husband, Rick, who was raised Roman Catholic, in a Methodist church because they had recently relocated to a new town, and, she says, "it seemed like a church on Main Street USA." She had her first child dedicated—the rough equivalent of a baptism—in that church, but she and Rick eventually tired of its button-down style. "We wanted a greater experience with God," Beattie says.
Which is why she and her husband—who plays guitar in Christ Church's worship band—have attended nondenominational charismatic churches for nearly 20 years now.
At Christ Church, a congregation of 6,000 that meets in a century-old Romanesque cathedral in this town 15 miles west of New York City, the Beatties' hodgepodge religious backgrounds are the norm. Senior Pastor David Ireland says the overwhelming majority of his congregants grew up in a faith tradition outside of charismatic Christianity, which eschews liturgy and encourages adherents to enter ecstatic states. Ireland's pews are filled with former Catholics, former mainline Protestants—even some onetime Muslims and Hindus—along with a growing number who were raised with no religion at all.
It turns out that Ireland's flock is a lot more representative of the American religious landscape than previously thought. A report out today from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that slightly more than half of Americans have changed religious affiliations at least once during their lives and that many have switched even more—including to or from affiliating with no faith tradition whatsoever.
Some end up returning to the faith of their childhood, but a whopping 44 percent of Americans now claim a religious affiliation that's different from the one in which they were raised. "What's motivating the changes is a set of discontents with particular religions and denominations and congregations, rather than a widespread discontent with matters spiritual," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum and one of the report's authors. "It speaks to the challenges of religious institutions to stay relevant, but also to great opportunities they have to reach new people."
"Many people who have moved would be willing to move again," Green says. "And those not involved in organized religion would be open to it if they found something that appealed to them."
A surprisingly high number have changed religious affiliation more than once, including two thirds of Americans who were raised Catholic or Protestant but who are currently unaffiliated with any religion. About half of those who have switched from one Protestant denomination to another have done so more than once.
Previous studies on religious affiliation tracked Americans who jumped from one major religious tradition to another, from Catholicism to Protestantism or from no religion to Islam, for example. But the new Pew survey also includes those moving from one Protestant denomination to another, like Christ Church's Beattie. Fifteen percent of Americans were raised in one Protestant denomination but now belong to a different one.
The new report doesn't track which Protestant denominations are gaining and losing members, but a recent Trinity College survey found that mainline churches like the Methodists, Lutherans, and Episcopalians are losing numbers while evangelical and nondenominational churches are gaining. There are now 8 million nondenominational Christians, according to the Trinity report, up from 2.5 million in 2001.
"We're gravitating away from religion and toward spirituality, which is what's happening with the huge growth of nondenominational Protestants," says Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion professor. "These nondenominational churches are customized for each individual. Even the megachurches are broken into small groups to enhance the church experience."
Prothero contrasts the tailored approach of congregations like Montclair's Christ Church, which on Wednesday night hosted a handful of study sessions for members with diverse interests, to the more one-size-fits-all mainline and Catholic churches.
The Pew study found that the Catholic Church faced the biggest defections, with 10 percent of the adult population in the United States now formerly Catholic. About half are now Protestant, and the most frequently cited reason among that group for leaving Catholicism is that their spiritual needs were not being met. Six in ten Americans who left one Protestant denomination for another gave the same reason.
"I was hungry for the Bible," says Rosa Howell, 50, explaining her decision to leave Catholicism for Christ Church even after attending Catholic schools straight through to 12th grade. "I was looking for a truer relationship with God," she says. "The Catholic Church teaches you the rituals, but you didn't learn the Bible."
The survey found that just 27 percent of former Catholics left because of the clergy abuse scandal of the past decade, while about twice as many cited the church's teachings on homosexuality and abortion as a reason for leaving. The group giving those kinds of political reasons is more inclined to be currently unaffiliated.
The Pew report also provides a striking new portrait of those religiously unaffiliated Americans, the fastest-growing segment of the American religious landscape. The report finds that religiously unaffiliated, widely considered to represent a dramatic spike in avowed secularists, are actually quite open to religion and that only a minority feel that science disproves religion.
Just like Protestants who left their denominations, religiously unaffiliated Americans are more likely to have grown disenchanted with their particular congregations or clergy than with religion per se. "Paradoxically, the unaffiliated have gained the most members in the process of religious change despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all religious groups," the report says. "Most people who were raised unaffiliated now belong to a religious group."
Which helps explain why Christ Church's Ireland is seeing more and more people joining his church who have no faith background whatsoever. "I used to start with the presumption that people knew the basics of the Bible," he says. "Now I start with no presumptions at all."