In a portrait of the "unchurched" in America, a new study found that most are willing to hear what people have to say about Christianity but a majority also sees the church as a place full of hypocrites.
"A full 72 percent of the people interviewed said they think the church 'is full of hypocrites,'" said LifeWay Research director Ed Stetzer. "At the same time, however, 71 percent of the respondents said they believe Jesus 'makes a positive difference in a person's life' and 78 percent said they would 'be willing to listen' to someone who wanted to share what they believed about Christianity."
LifeWay Research studied 1,402 adults who were unchurched - those who had not attended a religious service at a church, synagogue or mosque in the previous six months - last spring and summer.
Many unchurched adults don't have a biblical understanding about God and Jesus, according to the survey.
Study results, released this week, showed that while 64 percent of the respondents think "the Christian religion is a relevant and viable religion for today," 72 percent of unchurched adults said they believe God, a higher or supreme being actually exists. Only 48 percent agree there is only one God as described in the Bible and 61 percent believe the God of the Bible is no different from the gods or spiritual being depicted.
"If you went back 100 years in North America, there would have been a consensus that God is the God in the Bible. We can't assume this any longer," said Stetzer. "We no longer have a home-field advantage as Christians in this culture."
LifeWay Research Associate Director Scott McConnell isn't surprised that the unchurched population doesn't understand Bible basics.
"If you aren't going to church, you don't have an opportunity to be informed about what the Bible teaches or what other faiths teach," he said. "It's not surprising then that unchurched people lump world religions all together and consider the gods described in them as being the same."
Up from 17 percent in 2004, 22 percent of Americans say they never go to church - the highest ever recorded by the General Social Survey.
But the problem is compounded by a widespread notion of religious tolerance that says religious and spiritual truth is a matter of personal opinion, Stetzer said, according to the report.
"We found a real openness to hearing about matters of faith, but the study also clearly documents what I call the Oprah-ization of American Christianity," he said. "It's very much a generic 'big guy in the sky' view of God and a 'you believe what you believe, I believe what I believe' viewpoint on theology. People say, 'Who am I to judge?'
"We have seen this in the current political campaigns, in regard to Mormonism," Stetzer added. "Recently a Christian leader was asked whether Mormons are Christians, and he replied that no, Mormons are outside the standard definition of what an orthodox Christian is. The host was shocked somebody would say that. How dare we say someone else is or is not a Christian?"
The American public seems to hold a similar opinion, Stetzer indicated.
"Christians begin with a faith system that teaches who God is, but the people in our culture not only don't believe that, but often consider us intolerant because we dare to believe it," he said.
Many unchurched Americans have a negative perception of the church.
"There will always be the stumbling block of the cross. Yet our study shows that many are tripping over the church before they hear the message of the cross," said Stetzer.
A majority of unchurched Americans (79 percent) think that Christianity today is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people; 86 percent believe they can have a good relationship with God without being involved in church.
"These outsiders are making a clear comment that churches are not getting through on the two greatest commandments," to love God and love your neighbor, said McConnell.
What they see the church as is "candles, pews and flowers, rather than people living out their love for God by loving others," he noted. "Such skepticism can only be overcome by churches and believers who demonstrate the unity and love for which Jesus prayed."
Other findings showed that 44 percent said Christians "get on my nerves."
Still, a majority (89 percent) of the unchurched have at least one close friend who is Christian, Stetzer noted. And while turned off by church, 78 percent are willing to listen to someone who wanted to talk about their Christian beliefs. The number rose to 89 percent among adults 18-29 years of age.
Additionally, 78 percent of adults 30 years and older said they would enjoy an honest conversation with a friend about religious and spiritual beliefs, even if they disagreed with the friend.
Only 28 percent of adults 30 years and older said they think Christians they know talk to them too much about their beliefs.
"We think religion is a topic that is off-limits in polite conversation, but unchurched people say they would enjoy conversations about spiritual matters," Stetzer noted.