Changing Religious Loyalties: A Seeker’s Journey

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I was raised in a mainline evangelical church,1 but it wasn’t until I became an adult that I made a personal and strong commitment to God. The church of my childhood years was associated with a traditional and reserved Calvinistic heritage. However, the church of my young adult years, in the 1970’s, was strongly influenced by the more demonstrative and charismatic orientation of the Jesus People movement on the West Coast of the United States. Later, in my middle adult years, I found myself drawn to yet another church within a traditionally Wesleyan context. Even though the specific sequence of changes varies, friends and colleagues who have followed parallel paths usually agree that our respective theologies are much fuller and richer because of the spiritual journeys we have taken over our lifetimes.

Recently, I had the pleasure of teaching at a small international Christian college framed in the Wesleyan tradition and located in Switzerland. This college draws students from countries throughout Western and Eastern Europe and Asia. Many of the students are from religious traditions other than Wesleyan, and some from non-Christian traditions. As I interacted with these students and recalled my own spiritual journey, I tried to understand what might motivate people to move toward a faith very different from their background—especially in an area like Western Europe that has such strong ties to reformers as Luther and Calvin.

The practice of changing from one belief system or point of view to another throughout the adult stage of life can be seen in examples from various disciplines of thought, such as politics, psychology, and religion.2 A dramatic example within the history of Christianity is seen in the conversion of the Apostle Paul. In Paul’s early adult life he acted passionately on the common hatred toward the upstart faction of Christianity.3 Yet his life became especially noteworthy after he switched to the other side, becoming one of Christianity’s most significant devotees and writing major sections of the New Testament.

Perhaps not as remarkable as the conversion of Paul, current day situations still involve individuals changing from one major world religion to another—from Christianity to Judaism, or Muslim, or to Buddhism. And smaller less dramatic changes can frequently be seen as individuals change denominations within Christianity—from Baptist to Methodist, or Presbyterian to Catholic or Episcopalian, or from church to church in the same denomination.4 Some changing may serve utilitarian purposes, such as the desire to gain social standing and influence, or it may allow one to continue on with a life’s calling or enjoyable profession, or it may be a matter of convenience. While 57 percent of new members in United States churches have moved from a congregation of the same faith tradition, 18 percent have moved from a congregation of a different faith.5 The thesis of this essay is based on an assumption, drawn from research by Kosmin, Mayer, and Keysar, that some individuals within these significant percentages of worshipers have shifted spiritual loyalties as a form of spiritual seeking.6 This appears to be due to ideological shifts that have been, or are, taking place in the individual’s thinking. Kosmin, also suggests that shifting loyalties may be part of the process of dropping out of religion altogether.7 I would add that the dropping out all together may be the result of not finding what was being sought.

The purpose of this paper is two-fold. First, I offer one explanation, in the form of a developmental model, for understanding the potential motivation of those individuals who find their spiritual journey including the changing of religious affiliations and loyalties. The second purpose is to come to an understanding of the motivation of those who make changes in their religious affiliations and fit the definition of a seeker. Knowing that some changers are actually seeking spiritual fulfillment demands a better understanding, as well as different responses and guidance, than that which would be relevant for those who are changing for utilitarian purposes. That we need more than just a single simple response is obvious when we realize that we are considering a behavior that occurs at a rate of sixteen percent in the general population and at a significantly higher rate of current congregation attendees.8 Responses based on assumptions that changing religious affiliations is odd, or only occurs within sub-groups of immature believers or malcontents is simply too naïve.