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Steep decline in practicing Christians will have major repercussions for church leaders: study

Steep decline in practicing Christians will have major repercussions for church leaders: study

Unsplash/Karl Fredrickson

New research from the Barna Group found that the share of practicing Christians in the United States has nearly dropped in half over the last two decades — a shift the group warns will have “major repercussions” for church leaders.

The latest research from the evangelical Christian polling firm, which examined the role of Christianity in the American Church, reveals that that just 25 percent of Americans are practicing Christians, compared to 45 percent in 2000. 

Barna defines a “practicing Christian” as someone who identifies as a Christian, agrees strongly that faith is very important in their lives and has attended church within the past month.

According to Barna, half of those who identified as practicing Christians in 2000 fell away from consistent faith engagement, essentially becoming non-practicing Christians (2000: 35 percent vs. 2020: 43 percent), while the other half moved into the non-Christian segment (2000: 20 percent vs. 2019: 30 percent).

David Kinnaman, president of Barna, said the findings indicate a “major reshuffling of Americans' spiritual lives.”

“Monthly, committed churchgoers are now about half as common as they were two decades ago,” he said. “This shift has major repercussions for church leaders as there is increased struggle to attract and retain the active segment of churchgoers.”

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. For the report, Barna explored data collected among 96,171 surveys over more than 20 years.

The report also found that while 36 percent fewer Americans attended church weekly in 2020 than in 1993, consistency of Bible reading has remained steady for nearly a decade. Nearly the same percent of U.S. adults today report reading their Bibles weekly as did in 1993 (2020: 35 percent vs. 1993: 34 percent).

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Additionally, large majorities of Americans still say that prayer is something that they do on a weekly basis: From 1996 to 2010, there “was no statistical difference in the percentage of Americans who prayed, with the number hovering around 83 percent,” notes Barna. 

The research indicates that Americans are “softening in their practice of Christianity,” according to Kinnaman. He said it “raises urgent questions for church leaders about the nature of the relationship Americans have to Christian practice.”

“What redefines and what anchors the churchgoing, Bible reading and prayer of adults? Among the interesting stories in the data is that private practices of faith—such as prayer and Scripture intake—aren’t sliding as much as church attendance,” he said. 

Still, the study “shows reasons for continued hope and for additional reflection,” he said, adding that while generational change is certainly taking place, “older generations (Boomers and Elders) are drifting away from conventional church attendance at roughly the same pace as younger generations (Gen X and Millennials).”

“What can church leaders do to engage the one-quarter of Millennials who remain active in Christian practice?” he asked. “How can the Bible-loyal readers continue to form the bedrock of a resilient Church? In what ways can prayer—the most universal of spiritual activities—be sparked to create spiritual renewal in this society?”

Tim Lucas, pastor of Liquid Church in Parsippany, New Jersey, told The Christian Post that amid a “record rise” of the religious “nones,” the church would do well to rethink the way it presents the message of the Gospel.

"I think the hand-wringing approach to millenials and Gen Z is an invitation for a wholesale reinvention of the methods by which we present Jesus to a new generation," he said.

“There’s a cultural shift underway, where young people are extremely experientially oriented. They want to know, ‘What’s the social good in this before I buy it? So the church’s traditional message of evangelism was propositional truth: Here’s why Christianity is valid and a superior belief system. The Good News was proclaimed and explained.”

However, when Jesus shared the “Gospel of grace with truly hell-bent pagans,” He adopted a “double approach,” Lucas argued. 

“There was a demonstration of grace: Be healed, serve the poor. And then there’s the proclamation of the Gospel: Your sins are forgiven,” he said. “Up and coming generations are concerned with biblical justice — how the church tangibly helps the poor and needy. It’s a reverse discipleship process. The church must reclaim its birthright of saying, ‘The message of the Gospel is good for both the soul and body.’”

Liquid Church, a thriving, multi-campus church with over 5,000 members of all ages and demographics, is “close-handed about the message, meaning the Gospel never changes, yet we’re open about the methods because they always need to change to reach the hearts and minds for the next generation,” Lucas said.

“We’re not changing the message but our methods need to change. The Gospel of grace is timeless, but the methods need to look different to reach the next generation for Christ.” 

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