Feb 18, 2008

From the Archives

Americans Embrace Various Alternatives to a Conventional Church Experience as Being Fully Biblical

2008 promises to be a year of significant change for Americans. The presidential election has already introduced significant transitions into the political process and conversation. The sagging economy is altering many people’s financial behavior and lifestyles. New technology is transforming perceptions of the world and how we connect with people. And a new study from The Barna Group suggests that a major shift in people’s spirituality is now well under way.

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Change of Heart

For decades, American Christians, who comprise more than four of our every five adults, assumed they had one legitimate way to practice their faith: through involvement in a conventional church. But new research shows that this mind set is no longer prevalent in the U.S. The latest Barna study shows that a majority of adults now believe that there are various biblically legitimate alternatives to participation in a conventional church.

Each of six alternatives was deemed by a most adults to be “a complete and biblically valid way for someone who does NOT participate in the services or activities of a conventional church to experience and express their faith in God.” Those alternatives include engaging in faith activities at home, with one’s family (considered acceptable by 89% of adults); being active in a house church (75%); watching a religious television program (69%); listening to a religious radio broadcast (68%); attending a special ministry event, such as a concert or community service activity (68%); and participating in a marketplace ministry (54%).

Smaller proportions of the public consider other alternatives to be complete and biblically valid ways of experiencing and expressing their faith in God. Those include interacting with a faith-oriented website (45%) and participating in live events via the Internet (42%).

Activity Outside the Conventional Church

The Barna study also found that tens of millions of people are experiencing and expressing their faith in God independent of any connection to a conventional church. In the past month, 55% of adults had attended a conventional church service. During that same month, 28% of all adults who did not attend a conventional church activity did, however, participate in an alternative means of experiencing and expressing their faith in God.

Looking at some of the newer and more controversial methods of spiritual engagement, the survey found that 4% had participated in a house church or simple church; 9% had been involved in a ministry that met in the marketplace; and 12% had engaged in spiritual activity on the Internet.

Pastors Accept House Churches

In a companion study conducted by The Barna Group among Senior Pastors of Protestant churches, two out of three pastors agreed that “house churches are legitimate Christian churches.” Surprisingly, pastors from mainline churches were more likely than pastors from other Protestant congregations to consider house churches to be biblically defensible forms of church experience. Among the pastors least likely to support the legitimacy of house churches were pastors who earn more than $75,000 annually; African-American pastors; and pastors of charismatic or Pentecostal churches.

The views of Protestant pastors regarding house churches show that they assign both strengths and weaknesses to house churches. For instance, more than three-quarters of conventional church pastors (77%) contend that “house churches genuinely worship God.” Two-thirds (66%) said “a house church might be a better spiritual fit for someone than a conventional local church.” And three out of every five (60%) noted that “house churches produce genuine disciples of Christ.”

However, less than half of all pastors of conventional churches said that they would ever recommend a house church to someone (40%). Also, only one out of three conventional church pastors (31%) believes that “house churches have sufficient spiritual accountability.”

Paradoxically, only half (54%) of the Senior Pastors of conventional churches who believe that house churches are biblically legitimate forms of church said that they might ever recommend a house church to someone.

Issues with the Origins of Church Practices

The research parallels the findings of a controversial new book co-authored by researcher George Barna, entitled Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Christian Practices. In that book, Barna and co-author Frank Viola explain the origins of many common routines widely used in conventional churches, ranging from preaching to communion. The early Christians met almost exclusively in homes and had few of the trappings that characterize 21st-century churches and services. Many of the church habits in place today were not apostolic or biblical practices but are vestiges of pagan practices adopted by Christians in the third century or later.

Pagan Christianity? contends that most of today’s church practices have no biblical foundation, and in some cases, hinder people from having a genuine experience with God. With extensive footnotes and documentation, the book shows that the following church practices had little to do with scriptural mandate or apostolic application:

  • Church buildings were initially constructed under the Roman emperor Constantine, around 327. The early Christian church met in homes.
  • The pulpit was a piece of stagecraft borrowed from Greek culture in which professional speakers delivered monologues in public debates. There is no evidence that Jesus, the apostles, or other leaders in the early Church used a pulpit; it seems to have been introduced into Christian circles in the mid-third century.
  • The order of worship originated in the Roman Catholic Mass under the leadership of Pope Gregory in the sixth century.
  • Preaching a sermon to an audience was ushered into the church world late in the second century. Sermons were an extension of the activity of the Greek sophists, who had mastered the art of rhetorical oratory.
  • There were no pastors, as an official or director of a group of believers, until sometime in the second century. That was eventually furthered by the practice of ordination, which was based upon the prevailing Roman custom of appointing men to public office.

The biblical approach to “communion” or the “Lord’s Supper,” was truncated late in the second century from a full, festive communal meal without clergy officiating to the presently common habit of having a sip of wine and morsel of bread (or juice and a wafer) under the guidance of a recognized clergyman.

Pagan Christianity? also addresses a myriad of other practices, including tax-exempt status for churches, pews, stained glass windows, altar calls, the pastoral prayer, church bulletins, bishops, clergy attire, choirs, tithing, the collection plate, seminary training, infant baptism, the “sinner’s prayer,” and funeral processions, among others.

Early reviews of Pagan Christianity? have been divided between reviewers who appreciate the honest, painstakingly researched appraisal of church practices, and those who are incensed that the roots and biblical validity of so many common practices are questioned. “Whenever you challenge hallowed behaviors, controversy is the natural result,” responded Barna. “Every believer must decide whether it is more important to follow biblical guidelines and examples or to instead maintain human traditions and preferences. If nothing else, Frank and I hope this book stimulates significant reflection and conversation about why the Church does what it does, what is the biblical model of the Church, and how we can be a more authentic representation of the Church that God envisions.”George Barna commented that the objective of the book is not to criticize churches, but to give people the freedom to re-think many modern church practices. “Often, people feel as if their worship and ministry are confined to what is routinely done because those patterns have a biblical basis or mandate,” explained the author of more than three dozen books about faith and culture. “But when you research the origins of church practices, and study the practices of the early church, you discover that most of our current church practices have ancient cultural origins, with no biblical basis. As people seek a deeper relationship with God and other believers, the book encourages them to do so with the knowledge that the Bible describes a spiritual experience that relatively few Americans have known – a model that is more organic and in which every person functions as a priest of the living God.”

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About the Research

This report is based upon two nationwide telephone surveys conducted by The Barna Group. One survey was a sample of 1005 adults, age 18 and older, conducted in December 2007 randomly selected from across the continental United States. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The other survey included interviews with 615 Senior Pastors of Protestant churches, randomly sampled from all Protestant churches in the continental states during December 2007. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables. All interviews in both surveys were conducted via telephone, and multiple callbacks were made to each telephone number to provide a representative sample.

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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