What, if anything, helps Americans grow in their faith? When Barna Group asked, people offered a variety of answers—prayer, family or friends, reading the Bible, having children—but church did not even crack the top-10 list. Although church involvement was once a cornerstone of American life, U.S. adults today are evenly divided on the importance of attending church. While half (49%) say it is “somewhat” or “very” important, the other 51% say it is “not too” or “not at all” important. The divide between the religiously active and those resistant to churchgoing impacts American culture, morality, politics and religion.
Looking to future generations does not paint an optimistic picture for the importance of churchgoing. Millennials (those 30 and under) stand out as least likely to value church attendance; only two in 10 believe it is important. And more than one-third of Millennial young adults (35%) take an anti-church stance. In contrast, Elders (those over 68) are the most likely (40%) to view church attendance as “very” important, compared to one-quarter (24%) who deem it “not at all” important. Boomers (ages 49—67) and Gen Xers (ages 30—48) fall in the middle of these polar opposites. While the debate rages about what will happen to Millennials as they get older—Will they return to church attendance later in life?—they are starting at a lower baseline for church participation and commitment than previous generations of young adults.
While America is evenly split on the question, “Do we still need churches?” Christians need to be able to answer the obvious follow-up: “Why do we still need churches?”
Who Goes to Church—and Why?
While tens of millions of Americans attend church each weekend, the practice has declined in recent years. According to Barna Group’s 2014 tracking data, overall church attendance has dipped from 43% in 2004 to 36% today. But beyond a dip in attendance numbers, the nature of churchgoing is changing. Regular attenders used to be people who went to church three or more weekends each month—or even several times a week. Now people who show up once every four to six weeks consider themselves regular churchgoers. Many pastors and church leaders are accounting for sporadic attendance in their ministry planning.
Furthermore, the percentage of people who have not attended a church function at all in the past six months has surged in the last decade from one-third to nearly two-fifths of all Americans. The shift is even more drastic among younger Americans: more than half of Millennials and Gen Xers say they have not been to church in the last six months.
Millennials who are opting out of church cite three factors with equal weight in their decision: 35% cite the church’s irrelevance, hypocrisy, and the moral failures of its leaders as reasons to check out of church altogether. In addition, two out of 10 unchurched Millennials say they feel God is missing in church, and one out of 10 senses that legitimate doubt is prohibited, starting at the front door.
Perhaps more poignant than reasons not to turn up for church are the motivations of those who do, swimming upstream against the cultural current. Adults who believe church is very important cite two reasons above the rest: to be closer to God (44%) and to learn about God (27%). One in five (22%) say they go to church because the Bible teaches fellowship with other believers. And in spite of a growing epidemic of loneliness, just one in 10 report going to church because they are looking for community.
Although people cite their primary reasons for attending church as growing closer to God and learning more about him, Barna Group finds such closeness is a rare occurrence. Fewer than two out of 10 churchgoers feel close to God on even a monthly basis. Additionally, while almost two-thirds of those who value church attendance go to learn more about God, fewer than one in 10 (6%) who have ever been to church say they learned something about God or Jesus the last time they attended. In fact, the majority of people (61%) say they did not gain any significant or new insights regarding faith when they last attended.
The data shows two trends, often at crosscurrents. Adults are aware of their very real spiritual needs, yet they are increasingly dissatisfied with the church’s attempt to meet those spiritual needs and are turning elsewhere.
Churches that Matter
As a part of Barna Group’s effort to better understand churchgoing in America, we asked thought-leaders to reflect on the results of our nationwide surveys. As a pastor in New York City, one of the most post-Christian cities in America, Jon Tyson has been confronting questions about church for years. After taking a suburban “megachurch” model to the big city, Jon began to ask questions he hadn’t before: How are society’s expectations for church being shaped by culture? What does a truly compelling church community look like, especially in a densely populated city? Can Christians still find life and purpose in the church?
In FRAMES: Sacred Roots, Tyson wrestles with what the data shows about the American church today, and revisits the early church to catch a vision of what it should—and can—be.
He writes, “In contrast to the early church, we live in one of the most well-resourced Christian cultures in history. Think about the ease, access and cultural privilege with which we American Christians find ourselves today. We can get any number of Bible translations at a Walmart or Dollar Store. Podcasts are readily available from the most gifted and popular Bible teachers. We can watch video sermons, listen to live worship albums and read in-depth studies in Greek and Hebrew. Many of us have entire collections of Bible software on our phones. We have Bible conferences, church growth conferences, denominational conferences, leadership conferences, missional conferences, church planting conferences and even conferences for pastors and people who don’t like church. We have Christian TV, Christian radio, short-term mission trips and presidents who are interviewed about their personal relationships with Jesus Christ.
“How could the early church capture the imagination of the Roman empire while we, with all our resources and rigor, are slowly losing influence in our culture?”
“The early church leaders didn’t have the things we now consider essential for our faith. They didn’t have official church buildings, vision statements or core values. They had no social media, radio broadcasts or celebrity pastors. They didn’t even have the completed New Testament. Christ-followers were often deeply misunderstood, persecuted and some gave their lives for their faith. Yet they loved and they served and they prayed and they blessed—and slowly, over hundreds of years, they brought the empire to its knees. They did it through love.”
Read more in Sacred Roots: Why the Church Still Matters
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About the Research
This research is part of Barna Group’s FRAMES project. The project included four separate nationwide studies conducted between May and August 2013. These public opinion studies were conducted using a mix of telephone (including cell phones) and online interviewing among 4,495 adults. The maximum sampling error for any of the four studies is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Generations: Millennials are the generation born between 1984 through 2002; Busters (or Gen-Xers), between 1965 and 1983; Boomers, between 1946 and 1964; and Elders, in 1945 or earlier.
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
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© Barna Group, 2014