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Religious Switching: Why Do People Leave? Why Do People Stay?
Wade Poe

     When members of a church leave for a different religion or even a different congregation in the same city, we ought to take notice and ask Why? Churches and their leaderships need to know the reasons why people do or do not engage in religious mobility so they can lead their congregations effectively and with wisdom and so they can shepherd each member of their flock with care.

Why do people leave your church for another one across town or across the street? Do they leave your church because of an in-depth study of the scripture or a heart-felt conviction from God? Or is their leaving influenced by something else that we don't see on the surface? Every year we see a large number of people engage in religious mobility, or religious switching, in the United States. In addition, it is estimated that over half of all the young people who leave home after high school will also leave their faith behind, many of them never to return. Why does this happen? Why do people engage in religious mobility?

Religious mobility includes a wide range of behaviors including 1) moving in or out of identification and involvement with any religion, 2) switching between religions (e.g. from Judaism to Buddhism) and organized religious groups (e.g. from a Baptist church to a Presbyterian church), and 3) movement within a particular religion or religious group (e.g. from one Church of Christ to another Church of Christ within the same community). When members of a church leave for a different religion or even a different congregation in the same city, we ought to take notice and ask Why?" Churches and their leaderships need to know the reasons why people do or do not engage in religious mobility so they can lead their congregations effectively and with wisdom and so they can shepherd each member of their flock with care.

In a recent study of religious mobility among a wide range of religions and religious groups in the central Arkansas area, some very important variables were seen to have a moderate to strong influence on whether or not a person switched from one religious group to another. Generally speaking, the influence of the family and relationships were found to be significant in determining whether or not a person switched their religious affiliation. More specifically, a person was much less likely to engage in religious mobility if his or her parents went to church regularly and took them to Sunday School regularly. What does that mean for us? What can we do to influence people to stay?

Youth and Family Ministry

One of the greatest ways that our churches can influence whether our members stay or switch is to provide great youth and family ministries. Why? The family tends to be the means by which core values are passed from one generation to the next and they are the place where a person's initial worldview is developed. Families not only teach their young to think and act a certain way, they also channel their young into a variety of personal communities (e.g. youth groups, sports teams, Scouts, etc.) which can either further develop and maintain OR weaken their religious beliefs and commitments.

In this study, people reflected that the relationships they and their family developed to a church and its members early in life kept them from switching to a different religious group. Churches that develop ministries designed to help families and young people to live their faith together will create an important network of relationships between families and young people. That network of relationships will help them maintain their commitment to the Lord and to his church. In Ecclesiastes 4:12, the writer said that a “cord of three strands is not quickly broken." Each relationship that a person develops in a church is like a strand in a rope. The more relationship strands you have, the harder it is for a person to break away from what that rope is tied to.

One of the more interesting results from this study was that people who dropped out of church for a period of more than two years were much more likely to be involved in a switch to a different religious group. Young people who do not develop significant and meaningful relationships to other Christians while living at home with their parents have a high probability of leaving their faith behind when they leave home for college or work. Of those young people who do return to church, many of them will not necessarily feel any loyalty to return to the church in which they were raised. Why? Because most people come into contact with a church and make their decision about staying with it based on the presence of and the quality of relationships. If they return to participation in church, they will go where they are developing meaning relationships. If they left a church or religious group where they or their family did not have significant relationships, they will not feel personal or family loyalty to any people and thus any loyalty to that church.

To leave families and young people to fend for themselves in a church is the equivalent of a shepherd letting his sheep make up their own minds about where they will eat, sleep, etc. It is a must that we provide some good, effective form of youth and family ministry in order to keep our own members from roaming away from the Lord's church. Good youth and family ministries work to develop a sense of community and strong relationships between people.

Bible Classes and Children's Ministry

Another important way that our churches can influence whether people stay or switch is to provide great Bible classes and/or children's ministry for their kids. This and other studies reflect that if a person attended Bible classes regularly while growing up, he or she was much less likely to switch religious groups when older. Being a regular part of a Bible class and/or children's ministry builds on the family's involvement with the church. How? Participation in Bible class or children's ministry begins the development of relationships with other Christians and it supports the biblical worldview, which families are actively working to develop in the lives of their kids.

One of the most important items a parent looks for in making a decision about a church is the quality of the care their child will receive. If we have poor quality classes or ministry for our children, it won't be long before many parents notice it and begin assessing their options. On the other hand, provide a great ministry around children and their Bible classes, and many parents will stay involved in a church even if they personally would rather go elsewhere. when you invest in a great Bible school department or children's ministry, you are helping to paint a child's worldview so that they grow up seeing the world through the Bible stories he or she experiences and the relationships he or she develops in the church.

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

The bottom line for many people in staying with a church or switching churches is -- Do I have a group of people who I am connected to in a meaningful way? If the answer is “yes" they will stay with a church through the normal up's and down's and even through very bad times. If, however, the answer is “no”; it won't take much for those people to start shopping around for something different.
Beyond providing great relationship building ministries for young people and families, congregations need to have some method or plan that is intentionally designed for people of all ages to stay involved with others in fellowship and service to the Lord. Some churches choose small groups centered on service, Bible study, or fellowship. Others may choose to get their members involved in a variety of age-specific or service-oriented ministries. Regardless of the format chosen, churches that keep families and people of all ages involved and working with other people in meaningful relationships will have great influence in keeping their members from wandering away from the flock.