Jun 8, 2009

From the Archives

Americans Are Exploring New Ways of Experiencing God

Americans are in a new age of exploration, deploying new approaches to marriage, communications, sexuality, education, and more. According to the results from a new nationwide survey by The Barna Group, the “and more” includes how people pursue their faith and how they choose to relate to God and other people of faith.

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What People Are Thinking about Their Faith

The new study reveals some intriguing perspectives embraced by adults in the U.S.

88% of American adults say that “my religious faith is very important in my life.”

Faith is not going away despite the prolific media attention devoted to the demise of traditional faith practices and beliefs. Nine out of ten adults admit that their faith plays a meaningful role in their life. There is nothing on the horizon to suggest that this is likely to change in the foreseeable future.

75% say they sense that “God is motivating people to stay connected with Him, but in different ways and through different types of experiences than in the past.”

There is a growing sense of release from traditional religious practices in this country. People are suggesting that they want more of God and less of the stuff that gets between them and their relationship with God. This mindset is equally common among Catholics and Protestants.

45% say they are “willing to try a new church.”

A staggering number of Americans – almost half of the nation’s 230 million adults – are open to changing their church home, demonstrating their lack of connection with their present community of faith and their desire to have a more significant connection. It may also be a reflection of people’s increasing lack of loyalty to both organizations and personal relationships, and the growing sense that there is always something better available if you can simply find it.

64% say they are “completely open to carrying out and pursuing your faith in an environment or structure that differs from that of a typical church.”

Two out of three adults contend that they are not tied to a conventional church setting as they seek to experience and express their faith. This openness to new contexts, processes and structures is especially common among Baby Boomers (68%). Interest in pursuing faith is similar in all areas of the nation with the exception of the Northeast (56%).

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50% say “a growing number of people I know are tired of the usual type of church experience.”

It is not just the survey respondents who indicated their willingness to change churches or to consider different forms of church experience. Half of all adults said they are aware of such a willingness to experiment on the part of people they know because those individuals are tired of the common church experience. This awareness was especially acute among blacks (59%) and Hispanics (58%).

71% say they are “more likely to develop my religious beliefs on my own, rather than to accept an entire set of beliefs that a particular church teaches.”

Levels of distrust toward churches, church leaders and organized Christianity have been growing over the past two decades. That concern – along with the heightened independence of Americans and the profound access to information that has characterized the past decade – may have led to the emergence of a large majority of adults feeling responsible for their own theological and spiritual development. Other studies have shown an inclination for people to view a local church as a supplier of useful guidance and support, but not necessarily a reliable source of a comprehensive slate of beliefs that they must adopt.

Across the board, the research showed that women are driving these changes. This is particularly significant given prior research from Barna showing that women are more spiritually inclined, are the primary shapers of family faith experiences, and are the backbone of activity in the typical conventional church. Specifically, Barna discovered that women were more likely than men to pursue their faith in a different type of structure or environment (68% of women, 59% of men); to sense that God is motivating people to experience faith in different ways (79% vs. 60%, respectively); and to be willing try a new church (50% vs. 40%).

Changes Are Already Happening

George Barna, whose firm conducted this study, pointed out that this is not mere daydreaming by Americans, but that a spiritual makeover is already taking place in America.

Barna revealed that about 7% of adults attend a house church in a typical month, which is a seven-fold increase in the past decade. In addition, about half as many people now rely upon marketplace ministries for spiritual experiences as attend a conventional church service during a given month, and millions of adults are becoming increasingly reliant upon faith-based media – such as television, radio, and the Internet – for religious experience and expression. Put together, this represents a massive realignment of religious behavior over the past decade.

The rapid growth of the house church or simple church movement has been especially significant. Barna has just released a new book, co-authored with simple church pioneers Tony and Felicity Dale, entitled The Rabbit and the Elephant. The book discusses the growth of the simple church movement, describing home-based churches as a form of “new wineskins” (i.e., a new approach) in an age when people are seeking faith experiences that are dynamic and genuine.

The Rabbit and the Elephant describes the experience of the Dales coming to the United States and initiating a house church. Since their early efforts at establishing such an organic faith community they have become significant leaders in the national simple church movement. For this book, they teamed with George Barna (who provided current research findings regarding people’s transitions in church experience) to explain what they have experienced and learned in the process. The book talks about:

  • key differences in how simple churches and conventional churches grow
  • forms of accountability in simple churches
  • how success is gauged and facilitated in an organic environment
  • the different types of leadership found in conventional and simple churches
  • the outreach and reproducibility models that characterize simple churches
About the Research
The data presented in this Update are from a national survey of adults (age 18 and older) who were randomly sampled from the 48 continental states. The survey was conducted via telephone among 1,004 people in August 2008. The range of sampling error associated with the sample is between ±1.4 and ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

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About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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