Where Protestants and Catholics Go When They Leave Their Churches

Research shows 1 in 6 US Christians changed their religious affiliation over a four-year span, with nondenominational worshipers leading the way.

Much of the switching in religious identity in the United States over the past several years occurred among the “nones,” specifically Americans who identify as agnostic or as “nothing in particular.” But the Christian landscape hasn’t remained static in the meantime.

Though academics have long wondered whether the US will follow the secularizing trend found in most of Europe, the greatest shifts among believers have occurred within Christianity, not away from it.

The three-wave Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES)—which surveyed the same individuals in 2010, 2012, and 2014, and started with 9,500 respondents—reveals how few Catholics and Protestants have changed affiliations and how many have moved from one denomination (or nondenomination) to another.

During this period, Catholics remained pretty attached to their tradition; they were about half as likely as Americans on average to change their affiliation: 8.8 percent vs. 18.9 percent. When Catholics do switch, they largely shift toward having no faith, with 6.4 percent switching to agnostic, atheist, or “nothing in particular.”

For Catholics, transitioning to another religious tradition is extremely rare. Of the 2,112 Catholics in the CCES sample, fewer than 50 left: 39 became Protestants, 6 became Orthodox Christians, and 3 became Buddhists.

The Catholic sample declined by 1 percent between 2010 and 2014, though this does not suggest a decline in Catholicism as a whole. (ThIS data only includes individuals who switch into or out of Catholicism as adults, and excludes birth or death rates, which also have a tremendous impact on the total number of adherents.)

Protestants—the largest religious tradition in …

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Our Blood Exposes Our Physical—and Spiritual—Health

When we are sick and need to know what can make us whole again, there is no other fount we know.

In the time it takes to read this sentence, your body will produce 17 million blood cells deep in its marrow. To put that in context, that’s as many cells as twice the population of New York City. Once created, those red blood cells move into the bloodstream—red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, all bobbing along in plasma through 60,000 miles of vessels in the human body.

And in the time it took you to read the first paragraph, all of the blood in your body has completed its regular journey—it has traveled from your heart to your extremities and returned, there and back again. Your blood knows your body better than your brain does, as your blood has seen all but the cornea, from the brain to the toes and everything in between. It has sailed on the quick current of the great arterial rivers and through the smallest cholesterol-clogged creeks. It has seen it all.

Because of this Hobbitesque journey, remnants of all of the battles waged by the white blood cells against the enemies of your body, foreign and domestic, persist in your blood. Evidence of aberrations developed over the course of your life lurks behind, indicating future problems on your health’s horizon.

Your blood is a biomarker. Biomarkers, according to epidemiologist Barbara Hulka, are “cellular, biochemical, or molecular alterations that are measurable in biological media such as human tissues, cells, or fluids.”

While your body has many types of biomarkers, blood is in many ways the most promising. Several drops of blood increasingly give doctors a multitude of physiological data about your health. It is thought that blood records all the biological events of your life.

For example, doctors can now analyze a drop …

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Is the Body That ‘Betrayed’ Me Still ‘Very Good’?

What the incarnation affirms about the reality of God’s creation.

I tend to sympathize with the Gnostics most in the morning. It’s currently common to deride these early heretics for despising our physicality and rejecting the goodness of creation. But when I wake up and tenderly place my feet on the ground, breathing slowly as I sense which sore muscles and joints I need to stretch with care, I get it—my body does not greet me as my friend.

Truth be told, my body and I have had something of a strained relationship since I was 24 when, at the peak of my physical health, I developed severe tendonitis in both knees. Since that time, a series of related muscle and joint conditions have led me from one physical therapist to the next. I often joke that my body is one of those carpets with a perennial bump in it—smooth it out in one place and it pops up across the room. And every new bump hurts.

It’s taken me a while to realize how this alienation from my body impacts my walk with God.

In his recent work Embodied Hope, Kelly Kapic insightfully calls attention to the way pain—especially chronic pain—can cause sufferers to “think hard thoughts of God” (to use John Owen’s phrase). We wonder if God loves us, or if he’s punishing us. In the face of suffering, we even question the goodness of God’s gifts, like our bodies, when every inch of flesh can hold a thorn used by Satan to torment us (2 Cor. 12:7).

At some point, all of us will suffer or watch our loved ones suffer pain such that it leads us to question, “Is God the Father, maker of heaven and earth, really for us when our own cells seem to be against us?”

At moments like these, we must recall the gospel of Jesus Christ incarnate, crucified, and risen has a word to speak …

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Why God Still Works Through Fools Like Samson

The deeply flawed Old Testament “hero” was set apart for a very specific purpose.

Growing up in church as a scrawny kid, I was captured by stories of David slaying Goliath, Gideon defeating the Midianites, and especially Samson taking out 1,000 Philistines practically barehanded. While I loved the daring of those figures, I was also taught to be careful about the temptations of great champions: David’s moral failure and desperate attempts to cover it up, Gideon’s late-in-life slip into creating an idol and snare for his family, and the dramatic and colorful life of Samson and his sensational self-destruction.

All of these stories served as lessons to us that great strength demands responsibility, and there is danger of misusing those gifts. The consecrated life demands constant self-examination and moral integrity.

When I re-read the account of Samson recently, in Judges 13–16, I was looking for that lesson I had been taught as a young man. But it wasn’t there. Instead, what I discovered was a new way of looking at what it might mean to live a consecrated—but empty—life.

Can a fool with no redeeming qualities still be consecrated? The conclusion I came to after re-reading the tale of Samson surprised me.

The hero Israel deserved

Samson was a miracle child announced by the angel to his mother and father—like Samuel, John the Baptist, or Jesus—so it’s easy to expect great things from the beginning. Why else would there be so much preparation for his arrival? Fully a quarter of his entire story is spent on the buildup to his birth, so it makes sense to assume after his miraculous birth announcement that he will have a life and calling to match. Anxious to believe he will be the one to deliver the people from their oppression and rebellion against God, we soon …

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How History’s Revivals Teach Us to Pray

The case for communing with God in a daring and agonizing way.

From 1949 to 1952, the unthinkable unfolded on Scottish islands known as the Hebrides: revival! Seemingly out of nowhere, a spiritual awakening swept across the islands of Lewis and Harris, replacing post–World War II despair and depression with earnest, zealous faith. Some historians believe this was the last genuine awakening in the western world.

When I came across a book detailing the Hebridian Revival, I wanted to know how a community was transformed from spiritual freefall to stunning renewal. So I booked a flight to Scotland, hoping to meet anyone who might remember what happened in those days. To my amazement, I met 11 eyewitnesses—in their 80s now—who agreed to interviews in the sanctuary of the very church where the awakening began.

Bundled against the wintry barrenness outside, my new friends warmed with memories as tears flowed freely. While they admitted strong preaching and other measures had played a role in the revival, to a person they described something more essential when God moved: a kind of spiritual posture among those at the core of the awakening.

They told of the attitude of brokenness and desperation that stirred Christians in that day, a spirit of necessity and audacity, a manner of prayer that could be daring and agonizing. They called it “travailing prayer,” from how Paul described his prayers for the Galatians “of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you” (4:19 KJV).

Ever since I looked into the eyes of people who experienced the revival that we so desperately long to see again, I have come to believe that the link from here to there is in the hearts of men and women willing to receive this gift of travail.

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Why Christian High Schools Are Filling with Atheist Students

Foreign students offer US schools treasure in heaven and on earth.

For most of Wheaton Academy’s 165-year history, it was a boarding school. Boarding was ended in the 1980s, then brought back—structured as host families—in 2006.

“China had just started its student visas a year or two before,” said Brenda Vishanoff, vice principal for student services and student learning. The first year, the Christian high school near Chicago had two international students—one from China and one from the Central African Republic. In later years, the number jumped to 8, then 16, then 37.

Soon, Wheaton Academy had more international students than it could take, so it opened a network to place them with other Christian schools. Most of those students—including 45 of the 60 enrolled there this year—have been from China.

The growth reflects a national trend. From 2004 to 2016, the number of international high school students in the United States more than tripled, according to a recent report by the Institute of International Education (IIE). Nearly three-quarters of international students enrolled on an F-1 visa (good until graduation) in 2016; of those, more than half were Chinese (58%).

Chinese parents send their children to America out of frustration with their own highly competitive and narrowly tracked education system, Vishanoff said. As the Chinese economy grew, more parents had the resources to send their child to the US for college. Soon realizing that an American high school education eases the transition to college—and perhaps makes their child’s application more attractive—parents began sending them earlier.

Because public high schools only allow J-1 visas (good for a year or less), nearly all international high school students on F-1 …

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Gleanings: March 2018

Important developments in the church and the world (as they appeared in our March issue).

Trump turns Obama’s HHS into pro-life advocate

A new division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will be dedicated to hearing complaints from health workers who face discrimination for refusing services that violate their religious beliefs. The new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division will enforce 25 conscience-rights protections, including new provisions under the Affordable Care Act that allow providers and insurers to decline abortions and assisted suicide. It’s important to remember that the change “can—and in all likelihood, will—be narrowed or reversed by a subsequent administration,” First Amendment expert John Inazu said. Still, the regulations “signal meaningful enforcement of existing protections for religious liberty.”

Bolivia: Evangelism outlawed along with terrorism—briefly

Evangelicals in Bolivia were “deeply worried” in January after their socialist government changed the penal code to outlaw recruiting people for religious purposes. “Whoever recruits, transports, deprives of freedom, or hosts people with the aim of recruiting them to take part in armed conflicts or religious or worship organizations will be penalized 5 to 12 years of imprisonment,” read a translation by Evangelical Focus. The code “is imprecise, ambiguous, badly written, contradictory, and its punitive power can constitute state abuse,” the National Association of Evangelicals in Bolivia stated. On their Sunday of prayer and fasting, President Evo Morales pledged to repeal the entire code and start over.

‘Mr. Awana’ Art Rorheim dies

The Chicago youth minister who co-created the Awana program and served the organization for …

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Is ISIS Really Muslim?

Christians can learn from Egyptian debate over terrorism and true Islam.

For Egyptian Christians, 2017 was the deadliest modern year on record. At least 87 were killed by terrorists.

But despite being labeled by ISIS as its “favorite prey,” Copts were only 12 percent of such fatalities last year. Far more Muslims died in extremist violence at the hand of fellow believers.

Unless they aren’t believers at all.

If American Christians often don’t know how to understand Islam, they can take some comfort knowing that Egyptian Muslims struggle too.

A tragic case study occurred in December, when more than 300 people were killed at a Sinai mosque belonging to a Sufi order. Sufi Muslims are known for their mystical practices in search of spiritual communion with God. Many also seek intercession at the graves of Muslim saints.

In casual but solemn conversation at an upper-class organization in Cairo, one well-educated Egyptian woman reflected on the tragedy with colleagues. “Yes, but they are Sufis,” she said. “They’re not really Muslims.”

The woman was not making light of the massacre, nor justifying it. But she had internalized a message preached by another type of Muslim—Salafis—who judge Sufi practices to be outside the bounds of orthodox Islam. And when Salafis become jihadists, they may well kill Sufis as apostates.

In angry conversation with a middle-class taxi driver in Cairo, one typical Egyptian denounced ISIS for its crimes against both mosques and churches. “No, we can’t say that they aren’t Muslims,” he said. “Of course they are.”

What causes such confusion? Innocent victims, praying in a mosque, are placed outside of Islam while murderers, salivating at the entrance, remain in the faith?

At issue is …

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20 Truths on The Human Right by Rice Broocks

God’s Sovereignty, Justice, and Truth.

Rice Broocks’ book God’s Not Dead inspired the movie by the same name, though it’s an apologetics book (that has a brief cameo in the movie) explaining the rationality of the faith.

His new book was just released today. It’s call The Human Right: To Know Jesus and Make Him Known.

Brooks is a pastor, writer, and professor. He serves with me as one of our Billy Graham Center Fellows. Below is what I found especially helpful in an advance copy of his book.

1. Cynics point to the humanitarian problems around the world and then tell us that there is no God who cares. To answer the cynics who say that pain points to a God who doesn’t care, consider that the World Health Organization says that we could feed the entire world with food and clean water for thirty billion dollars per year. Yet we spend One trillion dollars on military worldwide. The cynics can’t honestly answer the question about human depravity. They fail because they point their rage at God rather than fellow humans who could solve hunger with 3% of their military budgets.

2. Our own silence in the world is the greatest threat to the church today. We need to boldly and lovingly speak up in the public arena. Our salvation is not a private possession that we store up in our churches.

3. The gospel is public truth. Jesus died publicly. Showed himself alive publicly. And his Word is a public document. When we treat the gospel as public truth, our priorities transform to a position where we not only see the proclamation of Christ’s truth as imperative, but we also see the demonstration of His justice as significant. The reason why human injustice is not talked about much by many churches is that the gospel is not talked about by many …

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Commentary: What ‘Black Panther’ Means to Christians

This celebration of black culture and black success points to a bigger story for the church.

A while ago, I stopped watching a certain type of black movie.

In the wake of the black suffering that I saw in real life, I didn’t want to see another black slave scene. I didn’t want the water hoses of Alabama to once again wreck my hopes. I didn’t want to see us integrate another school, sports team, or profession despite the overwhelming odds. I didn’t avoid these films because I was ashamed of our history, but because my soul needed rest.

The film Black Panther presented itself differently. It did not set out to highlight black suffering, but black achievement. Furthermore, it was black achievement in a black context. For black people, this was a film for us, by us, and about us.

The Marvel movie—set in a fictional, futuristic African country (Wakanda) and featuring an African and African American cast—has even inspired black viewers to come to the movie dressed in traditional African clothing.

This response might seem excessive, but given the history of cinema, the chance to center the black experience outside of the setting of extreme poverty is no small thing. Black audiences are celebrating the vision for a bigger story for black boys and girls; their support is a call to attend to the whole of black life and culture.

American evangelicals might look to Black Panther as a starting point for dialogue and reflection as they increasingly address concerns about diversity, reconciliation, and representation in their churches and the church at large.

This movie milestone exemplifies how deeply we as a people want to be our whole black selves and tell our whole stories. We resist the expectation that we must conform to cultural norms in order to be accepted in white spaces, including evangelical …

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