Changing Religious Loyalties: A Seeker’s Journey

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The developmental and dynamic model proposed here presupposes an innate desire toward a sense of wholeness or completeness within the context of psychological development. Therefore, as perspectives change through the process of maturation, the view of what is important at different phases in life changes accordingly and impacts the individual’s emotional, intellectual, spiritual and social contexts. Experiencing a sense of emptiness, incompleteness, or inconsistency often motivates us to seek out more fulfilling or meaningful perspectives and experiences. If one perceives that the environment or situation is restricting growth or that they are incomplete, they are likely to be motivated to seek a solution that is more fulfilling. (Often, early in our lives we may be unaware of what is making us feel uneasy.) I heard it said many years ago, that for some people the denomination one becomes a Christian in is not the same one they are able to continue to grow in. And, that the denomination they change to, so they continue to experience growth, could not have been the one they were initially converted in. This concept seemed related to the variation in those individuals’ particular developmental needs between the initial transition stage and the later stage of greater immersion outlined earlier in the developmental section of this paper.33

Admittedly, an existential uneasiness does not account for all of the situations where an individual decides to change group loyalties, but it does seem to provide an apt and accurate description for many individuals with whom I have worked in a professional relationship as a psychologist and churchman. The implication is that people have switched churches and or denominations in order to continue to develop/grow spiritually. For the sake of discussion, accepting that this does account for a certain percentage of the population, it is worth considering the extent to which the denominational boundaries impedes and/or facilitates the seeking and growth process of individuals that come into and/or leave our churches.34 Thus, the impact and possible alienation of automatically assuming a negative personality trait or immaturity as the reason for the person leaving a fellowship must be reconsidered.

Attributional Bias
Within the inner circles of life-long devotees to an established denomination the opinions of those who change allegiances are often cast in heavily biased contexts. Depending on one’s particular vantage point, these opinions often attribute the changes of a person’s allegiance to various personality strengths or flaws the person might possess. If the person is changing to a perspective basically agreed with, or to our side, his or her action is assumed to be indicative of positive personality strengths such as being able to see the big picture, being flexible and adaptable, and so forth. However, if the person is leaving a group and changing to the other side—to the opposition—they are more likely to be characterized in a negative light. They might be said, for example, to lack commitment, to be wishy-washy, selfish, unstable—or, at the very least, ignorant of all the facts. Further, members of the group left behind often experience leaving as personal rejection.35 There is well-established folk wisdom guiding views on the appropriateness of making changes from one perspective to another. Examples include such axioms as being set in one’s ways, not being able to teach an old dog, new tricks, and the foolishness of changing horses in the middle of the stream. Interestingly, folk wisdom also validates the opposite. For example, the flexibility of the willow branch that can bend and shift under intense pressure with out breaking is frequently cited.

Additionally, there is often significant variability within those denominations that appear, at first glance, to be homogeneous. For example, the denomination to which I belong, the Church of the Nazarene, has become a much more heterogeneous denomination than it was in the early years of its development. An example of this is the idea of how an individual becomes, or develops into a mature Christian. Instead of taking predominately one view or the other, sixty-three percent of the participants in one study describe a developmental path to their faith other than an entire and complete one-time experience.36 This leaves thirty-seven percent who hold to a single event or occurrence. Thus, the more an organization can embrace and encourage broader world views within its belief system, the more those who are seekers may be able to remain in the denomination. And, it would seem, the healthier the organization is for those individual’s continued investment.

This dynamic triangle model provides a growth perspective on the impact that traversing various religious contexts has on the process of spiritual seeking. This growth-oriented context for understanding what previously may have seemed to be aimless meanderings has certainly been helpful to me. At the same time it also emphasizes the essential place that various theological perspectives have in each other’s existence. Also suggested is a heightened sense of responsibility to facilitate and support those individuals who cross our paths. Especially for those who seem to be preoccupied with what is “not correct” about their present position in life, or seem to be wandering in a wilderness of ideas and believed-in behaviors that should be taking place. These thoughts also urge us to encourage each other, when we find ourselves drawn to opposing points of view, to allow a continuation of the process of spiritual seeking.

Doug Henning is the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Mid-America Nazarene University. This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.