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Barna: 5 trends driving Americans' perception of church relevance, influence

Barna: 5 trends driving Americans' perception of church relevance, influence

(Photo: Unsplash/Jonathan Meyer)

New research by the evangelical Christian polling firm Barna Group, which looked at how Americans relate with the churches they attend, reveals five notable trends affecting pastors and Christian leaders.

The findings are part of the State of the Church 2020 study, a year-long examination of the spiritual and religious trends that define American life these days. The researchers primarily explored two different categories of adults who have relatively recent experience in a Christian church: practicing Christians and churched adults.

“In the first case, we’re talking about those who are the most church savvy adults. In the second, we’re looking at all of those adults who are reasonably familiar with the experience of churchgoing,” Barna President David Kinnaman explained in an article based on the research.

Here are the five trends that Barna discovered:

1. Declining church loyalty, ‘church hopping’

Barna found that nearly two in five churchgoers report regularly attending multiple churches, suggesting that just because somebody might attend church doesn’t mean they attend the same church every time. 

However, 63 percent of churched adults and 72 percent of practicing Christians tend to stick with a single congregation. And nearly two in five churched adults and one-quarter of practicing Christians at least occasionally attend other churches.

“Interestingly, church hoppers are just as likely as more loyal attenders to report weekly attendance. In other words, just because they select from a handful of different churches to attend doesn’t make them any less likely to actually attend church on any given weekend,” the study says. “Also, those who 'hop around' don’t do so as a routine part of their churchgoing in a given month, but typically attend another church occasionally.”

2. Churchgoers on the value of church

The study shows that two-thirds of churched adults say they attend church because they “enjoy doing it,” and the same is true for four in five practicing Christians. One in six churchgoers says they attend because they “have to” and one in seven says they do so “out of habit.”

“While most churchgoers attribute positive feelings to their participation in church, half of Christians agree that 'church as usual' is declining in popularity. Or, at least, churchgoers perceive that other people feel this way,” it says.

About half of Christians and more than half of churched adults overall admit that people they know are tired of the usual type of church experience, it adds. “While you might think that some groups of Christians are more likely than others to feel this way, data show no significant difference across denomination, generation or faith segment.”

3. Churchgoers largely experience or expect positive emotions and outcomes by going to church.

Overall, 37 percent churched adults say they leave worship services feeling inspired, 37 percent feel encouraged, 34 percent feel forgiven, 33 percent feel as though they have connected with God or experienced his presence, and 26 percent say they are challenged to change something in their life, every time. Nearly 30 percent of churched adults express always feeling that attending service was the most important experience they had all week and 28 percent say that they learned something new.

“Even so, 32 percent of churched adults say they feel disappointed by the experience at least half of the time and another 40 percent leave feeling guilty.”

Kinnaman cautioned, “In survey research, people tend to under-report negative experiences. As researchers, we have to amplify the times when they have the courage to report these kinds of disappointing experiences, and acknowledge there may be other ways a worship community has let them down, beyond those listed here.”

4. Church membership is still a common practice and is correlated with positive outcomes — but its importance is declining among younger churchgoers.

Fifty-four percent of those who attend church at least every six months report being an official member at their place of worship, with 37 percent reporting they regularly attend but are not members. Practicing Christians, expectedly, show deeper commitment, with 71 percent noting they are members and 26 percent claiming regular attendance without membership.

“Surprisingly, no significant differences emerged in membership rates between denominations — whether mainline or non-mainline, Protestant or Catholic,” the study revealed.

“However, a different story emerges when looking across the generations. Boomers are more likely than both Gen X and Millennials to be formal members of their congregation, with nearly seven in 10 churched Boomers (68% vs. 48% churched Millennials and 51% churched Gen X) confirming membership. Younger generations of churchgoers were also more likely to mention ‘not applicable,’ which suggests that the category of membership isn’t even part of their church’s nomenclature.”

The study also showed that 72 percent of members are more likely to say they connect with God or personally experience His presence during worship services most of the time, compared to 52 percent of non-members saying so.

5. The perception of the Church’s relevance to the community is under question — especially among non-Christians.

Barna found that while practicing Christians firmly believe that Christian churches have a strong community impact — 66 percent very positive and 28 percent somewhat positive — the rest of the American population is not as quick to sing their praises. 

Only about a quarter agrees that churches have a very positive impact, and roughly the same percentage say it has no effect at all. Thirty-eight percent of U.S. adults say it has just a somewhat positive impact. “Non-Christians, meanwhile, are inclined toward indifference (39% no impact) or more willing to see harm in churches’ local contributions (8% very negative, 10% somewhat negative).”

The general population, and practicing Christians especially, look at the Christian faith positively — 75 percent of U.S. adults, 100 percent of practicing Christians, 91 percent of self-identified Christians, 49 percent of non-Christians, regardless of generation, race or denomination, Barna found. However, the Church itself is regarded as irrelevant by about one in 10 Americans.

“Even some who are committed members of the Church feel it is falling out of style; the percentage of practicing Christian Millennials who agree the Church is irrelevant today is the same as non-Christians who hold this view (25% each definitely agree).”

Barna announced the relaunch of its State of the Church survey report after a gap of 10 years of its public release, earlier this month. The group said it was using new technology to help churches personalize the insights, beginning with the 2020 report.

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