Are churchgoers faithful or fickle?

January 23, 2009|By DAVID YOUNT / Scripps Howard News Service

A new national survey reveals that churchgoing Protestants are more loyal to their preferred brand of toothpaste and bathroom tissue than to their denomination. Although two-thirds admit to preferring one denomination over all others, only 16 percent of Protestants are exclusively loyal to it.

Catholics appear to be exceptions, with six of every 10 unwilling to consider membership in any other church. This would seem to support the familiar formula that "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic."

However, the survey by Ellison Research addressed only frequent churchgoers. As many as 40 percent of Americans raised as Catholics are no longer active and prefer to consider themselves ex-Catholics rather than seek another church home.

Ellison President Ron Sellers discounts the apparent disparity between loyal Catholics and non-loyal Protestants. "It's not as though there are 200 different Roman Catholic denominations (to choose among)," he says. "On the Protestant side, there are scores of different denominations, with some of them fairly similar in practice and theology. The story of this research is that many Protestants may not see a lot of difference..."


Indeed, he cautions Catholic church leaders that "the bad news ... is that four out of 10 active Catholics would at least be open to another denomination, even though most would prefer to remain in the Catholic Church."

Unfortunately, the survey insinuates that American churches actively compete with one another for members in the same way businesses compete for consumers. In fact, Christian denominations are not at all like alternative brands for commercial goods. Rather, all of them seek to attract Americans to worship the same God and to be faithful to the same Christ. The very existence of so many thriving religious denominations encourages Americans to be faithful.

It is only natural for churchgoers to prefer the familiar when they worship with one another, and to worship with people like themselves. The very existence of options for worship encourages each denomination to be true to its own foundation and traditions rather than borrow from others.

Freedom of religion encourages tolerance and discourages elitism. These days, few denominations claim to hold the patent on salvation. In two surveys last year, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that 70 percent of Americans believe that religions other than their own could lead to eternal life.

Indeed, the same polls revealed that nearly half of Americans believe that heaven is open even to atheists, and a clear majority believe that people with no religious faith whatsoever are eligible for salvation. When Pew asked people what it is that determines whether a person can achieve eternal life, nearly as many answered "by being a good person" as said "believing in Jesus."

A new edition of David Yount's book, "Growing in Faith: A Guide for the Reluctant Christian" (Seabury), is available in paperback. He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and

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