October 25, 2020

Why People Move Between Different Church Traditions – A Hypothesis



I was wondering a few weeks back, if perhaps people’s worship style preference could be directly correlated to their personality type.  I found this article that seemed to affirm that belief.  I asked our readers to guess what my Myers-Briggs personality type was based on what they knew of my worship style preferences and the way I approach church.  The first response was exactly right!  I started developing that thought a little bit.  That is, if we grew up in a church that didn’t fit our personality type, and wanted to make a change, what would that change look like?    I came up with diagram above.  With apologies to our Orthodox friends and others, I have simplified the American religious landscape into the three largest streams of Christian expression in the U.S.A.

Looking at the diagram from left to right we can make a few observations.

1.  A person who grows up in a liturgical Catholic Church whose personality does not fit well with a liturgical style of worship, and decides to leave, has primarily two options:

  • Become one of the “Nones” –  Agnostic, Atheist, or no religious affiliation
  • Attend an Evangelical Church

2. A person who grows up in a liturgical Mainline Protestant Church whose personality does not fit well with a liturgical style of worship, and decides to leave, has primarily two options:

  • Become one of the “Nones” –  Agnostic, Atheist, or no religious affiliation
  • Attend an Evangelical Church

3. A person who grows up in an Evangelical Church whose personality does not fit well with a non-liturgical style of worship, and decides to leave, has primarily two options:

  • Become one of the “Nones” –  Agnostic, Atheist, or no religious affiliation
  • Attend an Liturgical church.  My hypothesis in this case is that the move will primarily be to a Mainline church, as it will enable them to maintain certain elements of theology with which they are familiar, but attend a style of worship with which they are more comfortable.

4.  If the above hypothesis is correct, we would see the greatest hemorrhaging of attenders from the Catholic Church with two primary outflows, and the most stable numbers in the Evangelical Church with two outflows and two inflows.

I created the graph below a number of years ago from Pew Forum data. It represents people’s moves from the faith of their childhood to their current faith in adulthood.


As predicted, the two major moves out of Catholicism are to the Nones and the Evangelicals. The two major moves out of Mainline churches are to the Nones and the Evangelicals. Finally, the two major moves out of Evangelicalism are to the Nones and the Mainline Churches. Catholics had the strongest decrease in numbers, while Evangelicals remained relatively constant.

Does my hypothesis ring true to you? If so, what should churches do to counteract this? Should they do anything? I haven’t talked about those who have left the Nones, nor do I have a hypothesis about why they end up where they end up. Any ideas for me on this? I want to explore these ideas some more in future posts. As usual your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. Fr. Isaac says

    I’ve seen the mainlines often become a stepping stone to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy for some Evangelicals. Usually the claims of those traditions regarding unbroken connection to the Apostles plays a major part of that. I.e., the Evangelicals who make this journey eventually want to disavow the Reformation completely.

  2. flatrocker says

    I think you miss a more fundamental part of our human decision making. Your hypothesis is centered on the theological and intellectual aspects (which, btw, seems to mirror your own personal struggles in finding a church home). In a lot of cases it also can be as simple as an emotional decision.

    We also leave because 1. We don’t feel welcome, 2. The pastor said something that offends us, 3. The ushers don’t smile, 4. The music is boring, etc., etc. Conversely, we also are attracted to a church because emotionally we feel a connection.

    While the intellectual and theological aspects of the church we attach to are important, there is a deeper emotional connection that seems to initially draws us in. We are willing to give a pass on alot of the theology if the experience resonates with our emotions. To a large extent, we leave because of someone who upsets us. And we come back because of someone who connects with us. The theology is secondary when compared to a personal welcome. It may not be any more complicated than that.

    • Steve Newell says

      I would tend to agree with your assessment. How many people can explain what their church’s doctrine on key questions such as “How are we saved?”, “What is the purpose of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion?”, “Who is the Holy Trinity?”, etc. That being said, I doubt many change for doctrinal reasons.

      Today, many are more people are more concerned about being “doctrinally correct” about their politics then about their faith.

    • I agree flatrocker. I should be clearer that I am talking about those who change between the major traditions. If I attend an Evangelical church and the church is at least one of: “1. We don’t feel welcome, 2. The pastor said something that offends us, 3. The ushers don’t smile, 4. The music is boring, etc.” then I am likely going to move to another Evangelical church. I will change my heading to help make this clearer.

  3. You may be right,Flatrock, “Man is an emotional creature” I heard that in Psych 101

  4. Does the large decrease in the Catholics happen because of their large size ? I would need to see the numbers which could make your statement very misleading. I have seen more go from the mainlines to Catholic which makes sense if they are liturgical.

    • The bottom graph shows the numbers. Each pixel (click on the graph to see its full size) represents one tenth of one percent of the American population.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Another factor is Evangelicals tend to recruit among Catholics, especially in Latin America. Including painting the Catholic Church as The Whore of Mystery Babylon and offering Real True New Testament Christianity, which would appeal to the young and idealistic. (You find a similar sales pitch in X-Treme Islam.)

      • I participated in two mission trips to the slums in Mexico. We didn’t help anyone but give out bibles and in broken spanish try to convert them. We were all under the impression that christianity was new to them, or they were just deceived by false religions, or something.

        How funny it is to me now, to think of a 14 year old northern white boy handing out spanish John/Romans (which we had also printed and collated and bound ourselves) to a bunch of Catholic Mexicans, and trying to tell them of this “new” person named Jesus Christ. And utterly convinced they could change their lifestyles and have all the free time in the world to pick up a book and read it daily, over and over, as if that would give them eternal life.

        Regret and naivety tend to go hand in hand with me.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I’m sure you’ve heard of “I used to be Catholic, but now I’m CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
          In the Eighties, you heard that phrase a lot in phone-ins to Christianese talk radio.

          • Then there’s the George Carlin variation: “I used to be Irish Catholic, now I’m American. You know, you grow.”

  5. A Simple Hillbilly says

    How much could be attributable to marriage? If you marry someone outside of your “slot” then either the couple will go to different churches, or at last one of them has to change. This has been the case for just about all of my old college friends, as well as myself. Catholic/Pentecostal, Baptist/Methodist, COE/none, Catholic/none, and Independent CC/PCUSA. Something has to give in all these combinations we had.

    • I imagine a lot of it is due to marriage. It would be interesting to see the stats. Here in the Northeast, Catholic/Protestant marriages are a big contributor to Episcopal congregations.

  6. I don’t mean to sound rude, but I think you have too much free time on your hands.

    We don’t need to dissect what is or how it got that way, we need to ask God to lead us to where He wants us to be.

    Now everyone can tell me how arrogant I am.

    • I don’t think I’d call it arrogant. More like incurious. There is a lot of movement in American religion. Understanding why people move can lead to better empathy with people.

    • I’m with cermak here. I’m sure I’d call you arrogant, just “unintrerested” in analysis like this. I love this kind of stuff. I love looking at numbers and trends and thinking about the hows and the whys.

      Similar analogy might be baseball. There are some people who pour their lives into the statistics of baseball and love looking at trends and numbers and analyzing them. Others just watch it for the game. I would say the latter folks might say to the former the same thing you said about Mike Bell: “you guys have way too much time on their hands.”

      No…they just enjoy diving into stuff like this. Me, too.

      • That should be: “I’m NOT sure I’d call you arrogant…”

        Sorry for that major miss. Dang, for an editing button.

        • (This is in response to a comment of mine that is in moderation, and clearly doesn’t make any sense as a stand-alone.

          • Moderation free-er to the rescue!

          • MODERATION MAN……. just giving the new MARVEL super-hero some airplay….. when does this hit NETFLIX ???

          • So, what would MODERATION MAN be? Is he seeking moderation in other people and thus out to curb extremism? Or is it that he’s doing his super-hero stuff in moderation? I’m curious!

    • I also wouldn’t say arrogant. However, according to your rationale, we should never study and learn from history, since it’s already past and can’t be changed. As an analogy (a weak one, but the first one that came to mind): imagine being told that 50% of the population were heavy drinkers. Well, the meaning of that number is somewhat relative. What if the prior year the percentage was 95%? Then that’s good news, that means what’s being done to help the issue is in fact working. Now, what if the prior year the percentage was instead 10%? That’s an entirely different trend. In that case, it seems to be an indication that the issue is worsening and ought to be addressed differently. In any field, whether its politics/science/religion/etc, by better understanding how a system arrived at its present state, you will be better able to understand it and address how to handle it going forward.

      On a side note, I suppose you may have a point if this data/graph were the result of a lifetime’s work; however I’m guessing that spending up to a week to throw a few numbers together illustrating a meaningful religious trend constitutes a waste of time in the grand scheme of things.

      • This is just as true in personal ministry. If you come across a person who seems to have lost faith in humanity and whose life seems to be a mess, you will be able to better love them if you knew for instance that they were repeatedly lied to and betrayed by those around them all growing up. In that case you know that they especially need someone that they can open up to. Above all else, a good friend that they can trust.

      • However, according to your rationale, we should never study and learn from history, since it’s already past and can’t be changed.

        Well, people like Smith Wigglesworth are often lauded for boasting the only book they ever read was the Bible.

        In that case you know that they especially need someone that they can open up to.

        There are probably quite a few people here and elsewhere who are at that place. The trick is, if you are on the receiving end, to humbly listen and realize that what you believe may not be what they need to hear. Just because it worked for you (speaking generally), doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Metaphor about nails and every tool is a hammer.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Well, people like Smith Wigglesworth are often lauded for boasting the only book they ever read was the Bible.

          How does that differ from some Wahabi who has only read (and/or memorized) the Koran?

        • turnsalso says

          humbly listen and realize that what you believe may not be what they need to hear. Just because it worked for you (speaking generally), doesn’t mean it will work for everyone

          One big thing that I can’t stand about myself… It’s why meine Frau and I haven’t found a church to call home.

  7. I find the query “If so, what should churches do to counteract this?” interesting. First, what could they do? Second, should they do any of them?

    The main body of worship style is going to be set by the tradition. Catholic churches are not going to stop being liturgical; baptist churches are not going to suddenly become liturgical. But each can offer supplementary activities that are more in the style of another tradition. Catholic parishes can hold prayer meetings and worship events that are not masses. Attending an evangelical church, I can offer more illustrations on that side. Evangelical churches can incorporate more of the church seasons than they do, even as little as things like printing “second sunday of Easter/Lent/Advent” on their bulletins. They could choose at least one worship song each week as a traditional tune for the season. (Hymns can easily be mixed into CCM – that isn’t enough to really cross-tradition boundaries.) They can resume using set congregational prayers as part of the prayers during the service – the Lord’s Prayer is an easy first step in this direction. Non-lectionary, evangelical churches, can also offer a supplemental lectionary based bible discussion group.

    In addition to having supplemental events and incorporating elements of the other tradition in their praxis, they can also increase their knowledge. I know that some people drift into the nones because a search for a new church fails. Leaders, wisemen, and networkers should know about local alternatives, to help steer folks who are on their way out of their church. Also, imagine if at the end of a service at a visited congregation, visitors who didn’t find that congregation a potential home were given a message “if you visited us today, and don’t think we are your new church home, please speak with brother Bob and sister Sue, who know about many of the other churches in the area and might be able to help you identify another that might be what you missed here”. The church as a whole would be stronger if such practices were widespread. They won’t quickly become that.

  8. This is interesting but given my choice of three local congregations to attend, looking at a graph would not have been much help, not nearly as much help as simply attending a Sunday service at each of the three. I would have predicted the ELCA Lutheran would come out on top, but that was not necessarily so. The people in all three were warm and friendly and welcoming and wanted me to come back. The pastor in one took an immediate dislike to me before we had exchanged a word, and now if he sees me coming turns his back to check his phone. That sort of thing can influence a decision.

    As an introvert, my next favorite part of the liturgy after communion is passing the peace, which as practiced in my chosen congregation is exactly that, a blessing given and received by all. The other two churches do a meet and greet social exchange instead, and I would dread this as my least favorite part of the service. That influences a decision.

    The woman I bought my place from attended the church I now attend tho she was raised Catholic. She moved twenty miles away but when she goes to church, she comes back here even tho there is an ELCA Lutheran half a mile from her now. This has to do with church family, and worship style is mostly beside the point. If the pastor went elsewhere, she might not come back. Same could be true for me.

    You can find all your personality types here, Chaplain Mike sets the style and if he moved on I might become an online None. No place else comes close. It was interesting to watch what our Ramblings went thru when Jeff passed it on, a close call with disaster before getting back on its feet. This is all about personality, but I don’t think it’s graphible. You hadda be there. Sorta like with the Holy Spirit.

  9. Wish we could cross reference this with theological traditions, ala Shepherding Movement, 9Marks, SGM, separatism, kingdom keys, etc…

    Side thought. Shepherding. Sheep herding. Someone with a stick guiding/directing/forcing the animals to go a specific way. Keep them in line. Make them drink. Make them eat. Employs sheep dogs to bite sheep to keep them in line.

    Why is “shepherding” portrayed as a comforting thought? Sometimes “The Lord is my Shepherd” is more a threat than a comfort.

    • some lyrics or a poem, maybe a hymn or psalm

      Love rescue me
      Come forth and speak to me
      Raise me up and don’t let me fall
      No man is my enemy
      My own hands imprison me
      Love rescue me

      Many strangers have I met
      On the road to my regret
      Many lost who seek to find themselves in me
      They ask me to reveal
      The very thoughts they would conceal
      Love rescue me

      And the sun in the sky makes a shadow of you and I
      Stretching out as the sun sinks in the sea
      I’m here without a name in the palace of my shame
      Love rescue me

      In the cold mirror of a glass
      I see my reflection pass
      I see the dark shades of what I used to be
      I see the purple of her eyes
      The scarlet of my lies
      Love rescue me

      And the sun in the sky makes a shadow of you and I
      Stretching out as the sun sinks in the sea
      I’m hanging on by my thumbs
      I’m ready for whatever comes
      Love rescue me

      Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow
      Yet I will fear no evil
      I have cursed they rod and staff
      They no longer comfort me
      Love rescue me

      I’ve conquered my past
      The future is here at last
      I stand at the entrance
      To a new world I can see
      The ruins to the right of me
      Will soon have lost sight of me
      Love rescue me

  10. Been there, done, done, done that says

    In most smaller to mid-sized cities evangelical worship tends to be a poor knock-off of the style of music common to theme parks but with less variety, choreography, and flash. After you’ve seen one of those theme park shows, with generic music, seeing another one is repetitious and very tiring.

    Similarly in many evangelical churches the open shirted worship leader, repeating the same praise lyric, with the same guitar chord set, over and over, is a complete disconnect and turnoff. Then compound the pain, of that so-called “worship”, by standing in pretended fawning rapture for a music set of 15-30 minutes and it becomes the deal breaker for many.

    Therefore ex-evangelicals often begin a quest to identify the historic bedrock of Christian faith which necessarily leads toward a liturgical style of worship most often found in mainline, Catholic, or Orthodox expressions of Christianity. Or, as a second coping strategy, the weary evangelicals begin nomadic church shopping for something new and different in worship leadership.

    It would seem the driver is not so much personality types as it is a quest for deeper meaning, truth, and worship…

    • Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends, we’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside…

    • “It would seem the driver is not so much personality types as it is a quest for deeper meaning, truth, and worship…”

      The reason I think personality is for every person who goes one way looking for “deeper meaning, truth, and worship” there is a person coming back the other way seeking to escape the “lifeless liturgy”. (I am not saying that liturgy is lifeless, it is just the comments that I hear from those who have come from liturgical backgrounds.)

      Why do different people respond so differently to the same set of conditions? I pretty sure that personality plays a huge role here.

      • This assumes that perception and reality are identical. Just because somebody perceives one tradition or another to have or not have life, it does not follow that they are necessarily correct. Your theory presupposes your own viewpoint that worship practices which resonate with the individual are more important than practices which are objectively functional. Sometimes “life” is found in the most surprising of places, and sometimes that which seemed so full of it leads to spiritual death.

  11. I posted this yesterday or the day before…
    Curiously, and perhaps quite the anomaly, an acquaintance of mine in my current church home (Nazarene) just joined the Catholic Church. Also curiously, he plans on participating in BOTH churches. I actually think it’s kinda cool and told him I want to know how his journey goes.

    So where does THIS guy fit?…LOL.

    • Christiane says

      He fits in the mystical Body of Christ.

      • Yes.

        I’m curious if he’s gotten any backlash from my fellow congregants. I’m intrigued by what he’s doing, as I’ve found myself thinking about dabbling in other faith traditions like RCC, too, just to mix some other worship avenues with my current one.

    • I have heard more than once a pastor mention the issue of people attending two churches (or more). So it must be more common than expected. I would be interested to hear how many here do, or know people who do. And why.

  12. It would seem the driver is not so much personality types as it is a quest for deeper meaning, truth, and worship…

    Is there often a deeper meaning beyond Christ and him crucified? I know i’ve got astray at times looking for the secret meanings behind things, not common/hidden knowledge, something new and different to hear. And America seems rife with that desire, despite being so anti-intellectual about it all.

    Ironically, I now do what so many back then mocked, looking for the “real meaning” behind Scripture, via reading Enns and the like. You know, the real meaning, like what the writer actually said and meant, which requires hours of research and education beyond the Bible/Holy Spirit, and not just what the text “really” means via dispensationalism or automatic reading or whatever.

  13. The “Nones” are by no means mostly atheists and agnostics; the polls show that the proportion of folks willing to so identify rarely tops off at more than 3% to 5% of the population. The “Nones” are folks who may have strong spiritual views but their concept of spirituality has become personal and private rather than social and corporate. As polls show, the fastest growing religious demographic especially among the young. I don’t think we can emphasize this enough. The Church wrings it’s hands and wonders what it’s doing wrong but there may simply be no cure for such a cultural shift.

    There is a tremendous opportunity here. All gardeners occasionally prune a tree for it’s health. If the Church loses it’s privileges then immediately the barnacles and leeches that attach themselves to it out of opportunity and advantage will drop off. Maybe it’s time for a purge. Maybe we should welcome it.

  14. In my (limited) experience, there are only two really influential factors in the current trend to sample different traditions. The first is sociological. Singles want to go where the singles are. Young kids? Dear God, point me to a nursery. Early career? Show me the movers and shakers. The second is almost behind this trend – people just haven’t got strong conviction on doctrinal minutea. This is partly a growing consciousness of how philosophy has intersected with perception, and partly a result of Christianity becoming simultaneously ubiquitous and embattled (#firstworldproblems).

    For my own part, I am content to worship in a Lutheran church with a liturgical style, and find the Confessions to mirror my own understanding of the Bible and church history. At the same time I emphatically do not believe that the Confessions are “true”, or that binary epistemological categories even exist. I think I am somewhat normal in that regard, which is why a lot of folks are trending “done” – there just isn’t a church available that covers what is important to them, while leaving meaningless baggage behind. Frankly, if I hadn’t found almost exactly that I would probably be a done, too. My Sundays are too valuable to waste on moaning a bunch of tacky songs to a rock band and then listening to some dude in jeans yammer about “5 Biblical ways to ruin your marriage.” I can stream TED talks if I want random life coaching.

  15. Step 1: Long married Evangelical

    Step 2. Cheat on your spouse

    Step 3. Get divorced

    Step 4. Move to mainline or become a NONE

  16. What the data seems to suggest is that being a none is the most unstable.

    A high percentage of the childhood nones go on to something else. A high percentage of the current nones came from somewhere else.

    For the other categories, the seem to be more static, where most of the befores come from most of the afters.

    As a mostly none-ish, I like that nones have different stories to tell. In fact, I like most of the category crossing stories regardless of what the before identity is and the after identity. I often find the these stories to be part of significant transformation.

    Another analysis could be done on category crossers and category non-crossers. On this axis, I think you’d find interesting aspects.

    And for what it’s worth, I find the Bible very much to be full of stories of category crossers.

    • “And for what it’s worth, I find the Bible very much to be full of stories of category crossers.”

      That’s an interesting thought. Can’t help but think of the LGBXYZ whatever that is today.

      Often here someone comments how awful it is that we have 10,000 denominations or however many it is today. I look on it as a good thing. A place for everyone and everyone in their place, unless they’re moving. including the Nones, which is a denomination in the sense that non-denominational churches are a denomination.. Even the folks at Westboro Baptist have their home where they feel most comfortable. And for all the folks that believe there should only be one denomination in the world with everyone else not really Christian, there are a number of choices available.

      For all the argumentation and anguish, I do feel that people should go where they are most comfortable unless they are specifically being directed somewhere in particular, and yes, it’s probably mostly determined by personality. I joined the church when I said yes to God, and all my times with various congregations have been learning experiences helping me get to where I am today. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

      I do think it would help a lot if we stopped thinking of all this as changing or leaving churches. Those are congregations, and there really is only one church in God’s eyesight, even tho it has more flavors than Baskin-Robbins.

  17. Don’t forget about us “Dones” – which, unless things change, I am thinking more and more best describes me/us.

  18. hey Mike,

    2ish years ago, I was in a spot a lot like you. I had just had a major surgery and was recovering from it and had moved an hour+ from where i was living to recover with family. But i had no church. I was an egalitarian, open communion, left of center Christian. I’m guessing at the time I would have fit in with PCUSA or many Episcopal churches, but i liked my sunday morning light show/rock concert too!

    For myself, a lot of that changed when i read the book Desiring the Kingdom, by your fellow Canadian James KA Smith. In it, he sets forth a powerful argument for the necessity of high liturgy; that without it, the Church lacks the ability to re-form the Christian’s heart away from the cultural liturgies that we breathe without even thinking about it. I agreed whole-heartedly with that argument. So i began to look at liturgical churches. There aren’t many, really. It came down to Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox. I really had moved away from protestantism in my recovery time. I rejected sola scriptura and penal substitution, so the Lutherans were out without me even having to investigate. I went to an Anglican service for Palm Sunday. It was beautiful, but in the end, Anglican/Episcopal churches are too Democratic and I was not interested in debates over the reality of the resurrection or Christ’s divinity/existence, etc.

    So there was the Catholic church and the Orthodox church. I spent about two months talking with a Catholic priest. he was wonderful, but over time a certain un-ease developed in how the church expressed things. I was left with Orthodoxy and that was the last place i wanted to go. I’d been for about 5 services a year prior and got in lengthy battles with convert friends and it left a really sour taste in my mouth. I pretty much wanted anything but Orthodoxy. I went kicking and screaming but 13 months later I was received into the Church. Despite all my desire NOT to do so, it was the place I ended up and I am beyond grateful for it. It is a place both me and my wife have found tremendous healing from the enormous mess we made of our lives prior to meeting and during our courtship/engagement. So, for us, we didn’t have a preference. For us, it was to become Orthodox so that we could be shaped like Christ. We believed it was possible in other places, but in one way or another those other places lack all the tools that Orthodoxy offers. Despite our reluctance and desire to be other places, it was the best thing we’ve ever done.

  19. Mike, if your theory is true, then you should expect to find many traditions/denominations filled with mostly similar personality types. I rarely see this, and when I do, it’s in Pentecostal churches. The Evangelical, mainline, and Cathodox congregations I’ve known seem to attract the full spectrum of personalities. Liturgy is not an appeal to a personality types, but rather, the absence of such appeal. Half the people in liturgical churches find it dreadfully boring, but they stay for other reasons. For many people, worship style preference really isn’t that big a deal at all. Most people I know chose a congregation for the people they know in it. It’s relationships that draw them in and keep them, the attraction of an aesthetically pleasing service often doesn’t have much keeping power.

    Take my own congregation, for example. We worship in practically every style. We have people who like high church tradition. We have K-Love fans who can’t understand why we can’t just commit to our wet finger to the wind. We have older revivalists who just like their old time gospel songs. We have old school Lutherans who don’t need no stinking hymnal, they can sing from memory thank you very much. We have new converts that hardly have any idea what’s going on or why. Some crave dirges, others want to slap their knees, and still others want to close their eyes, lift their hands, and feel something touch them down inside.

    We utilize some extraordinarily diverse aesthetics at our congregation, and as a result, most of the people above are fortunate to get their preference more than once a month. Perhaps it is something more than personality that draws us together.