New Pew Study Shows Continued Fragmentation in the Church


By Darren M. Slade
FaithX Research Coordinator

According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2016, nearly half (49%) of American churchgoers have actively sought a new church home at least once in their lifetime.[1] Roughly three-in-ten Christians (29%) sought a new congregation within the last five years.[2] While the main reason for this pursuit was due to moving (34%), the second and third most common reasons for seeking a new congregation was marriage/divorce (11%) or conflict with clergy or another member of the congregation (11%).[3] Almost one-in-ten (7%) cite other problems with their previous church, including theological disagreements (3%), general dissatisfaction (3%), and difficulties with church leadership (1%).[4] This indicates that internal conflict constitutes a substantial reason for why church members switch congregations and change churches, confirming the long-held suspicion that church fragmentation is due (at least in part) to theological and hermeneutical strife.[5]

What is it about church life that compels American Christians to fight with each other and, ultimately, to abandon their houses of worship? Do we simply conclude that sinful humanity’s fallen nature precludes Christians from maintaining peace and harmony within the body of Christ? Is the problem regional where the individualistic, decentralized, populist, and pluralistic American culture (and even the West in general) creates a propensity for fragmentation? Does this trend reflect a more damaging christological implication, suggesting that Christ has failed in his duties to remain the “head” of an organized, coherent, and productive “body” (cf. Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22; Col. 1:18)? This is especially pertinent since conflict has permeated the church since its inception as indicated repeatedly in the New Testament epistles.

In his book, Paradoxy, Ken Howard argues that the focus of every church should not be doctrine or action but relationship with Jesus Christ. The foundation of this new paradigm is the acknowledgment that Jesus is Lord and that he loves humanity. This allows for a greater diversity of opinions and beliefs within the church body, but the presence of God’s love is the unifying factor that maintains a healthy and biblical congregation. A Christian is someone whose primary focus is to engage in a loving relationship with Christ and with others.[6]

Is this a potential solution to the problem of fragmentation or does it reflect a community desperately seeking to avoid conflict at all costs? Is love for Christ enough to stop this trend of church splitting?

Dennis Hollinger explains that problems in ministry are oftentimes the result of overemphasizing one of three areas in the Christian life. He argues that churches need to focus on their maturation process by developing growth, balance, and interaction between the head (doctrine, theology), heart (relationship, worship), and hands (action, charity) of the Christian community.[7]

Is this really the root cause of the problem? Are American Christians just overly immature and in need of good discipleship?

For me personally, I have attempted to be an active member of three separate churches in my life as a Christian, and I left every one of them due to internal conflict with members of the congregation, especially their leadership. While I have grown and learned from these experiences, the wounds of having been discounted, discouraged, and disowned continue to affect my understanding of Christianity today. And I know I am not alone. Even during my years at seminary and discussions with other PhD students, I have repeatedly encountered disenfranchised Christians who no longer feel welcomed inside a church building, though they remain anxious to build God’s kingdom. From my perspective, something drastic has to change in Christianity or the religion itself will surely die.

The problem of division within the church can no longer remain the sole purview of Christians actively engaged in professional ministry. The outcome of these trends is in fact reshaping the structure and ideology of Christianity itself, where conflict is expected, doctrinal unity is suspended, and faith is abandoned. It is apparent that change is happening within the church, but these changes have the very real potential of ending the Christian religion entirely since congregations can no longer sustain these increasingly divisive and hostile environments.

We would like to hear from you. Have you noticed the same contentious fragmentation and church splitting in your own life? What are some of the reasons why you have left previous congregations or have stopped going to church in general? What do you think are the underlying causes of Christianity’s seemingly discordant nature and inability to create cohesion among its members?

click here to view or download the full Pew Research article

[1] Choosing a New Church or House of Worship: Americans Look for Good Sermons, Warm Welcome (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, Aug. 23, 2016), 11, accessed August 28, 2016,

[2] Choosing, 14.

[3] Choosing, 11. The survey articulates this conflict as a “disagreement with clergy or fellow congregants at their previous church.”

[4] Choosing., 13.

[5] For an excellent overview of this position, as well as a possible biblicist origin to the problem of church splitting, see Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011), 16-37.

[6] Ken Howard, Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010), 99-137.

[7] Dennis P. Hollinger, “Three H’s of Christian Maturity,” Reformed Journal 37, no. 1 (January 1987): 12-16.

[su_note note_color=”#e6e6e6″ radius=”0″]

Darren Slade

Darren Slade

Darren Slade is Research Coordinator for The FaithX Project, coordinating and curating research on the future of Christianity. Darren is a doctor student at Liberty University.