In recent years, the role of the Church in America has undergone a series of complicated shifts. While people have always looked to churches as important community spaces, the changing needs of society have been reflected in a changing idea of what churches can and should offer.
In the midst of these shifts, pastors may find themselves in a difficult spot. Today’s article, an excerpt from our Resilient Pastor series in Barna Access Plus, explores how pastors, Christians and non-Christians say a church should show up in its community.
Pastors Believe the Church’s Main Role Is to Tell Others About Jesus
There are some stark differences between what pastors and their communities around them think a church should focus on. In general, pastors see many ways the Church could show up, but think the local church should mostly be focused on evangelism and discipleship—telling people about Jesus and helping them grow in the faith. Eighty-four percent of pastors say the local church’s role in community is to “tell others about Jesus,” and 75 percent say it should “help Christians grow.”
Non-Christians, on the other hand, think local churches should focus outward, providing practical help for people in their community. Non-Christians’ top choices for the role of churches in their community are to provide hands-on help (39%) and practical assistance (38%). Crucially, however, 26 percent of non-Christians selected “none of the above”—a reminder that the church’s role is sometimes perceived to stop at the church’s door.
Self-identified Christians’ views seem to split the difference between pastors and non-Christians, definitely favoring the spiritual role of churches (62% of Christians select “help Christians grow” and 58% say “tell others about Jesus”) while also agreeing with non-Christian respondents that churches should provide hands-on help (51%) and practical assistance (46%).
Most pastors don’t disagree that the local church has external and tangible needs to meet in the community, but those roles definitely fall lower on their priority list than they do for non-Christians. It’s also notable that both Christians (52%) and non-Christians (38%) are more likely than pastors (31%) to think churches should offer counseling.
Just 2 in 5 Pastors Say Their Church Is Effective in Community Outreach
It’s probably no coincidence that these answers align with pastors’ sense of their churches’ effectiveness. For instance, Barna finds that 76 percent of pastors feel that their church is at least somewhat effective at discipleship and spiritual formation, but only 39 percent feel they are at least somewhat effective in terms of outreach to their community.
However, both of these percentages are ticking downward. In 2015, 87 percent of pastors said their church was at least somewhat effective at discipleship. At that time, 63 percent said they were effective at reaching unchurched people—23 points higher than at present.
Even if we set aside how pastors feel about some of their admitted lower priorities, this declining sense of effectiveness in discipleship and especially in outreach suggests pastors aren’t meeting their own standards in the areas they do see as most important: sharing about Jesus and helping Christians grow.
Additionally, a pastor who has seriously considered quitting in the last year is much more likely to think their church is ineffective. One in three (34%) says their church is either not very effective or not at all effective at discipleship (vs. only 18 percent of pastors who haven’t considered quitting). Low confidence in a church’s outreach may especially be tied to burnout; 67 percent of pastors who’ve considered quitting say their church is either not very or not at all effective at reaching out to the community (vs. 54 percent of pastors who haven’t considered quitting). It may be tough to tackle a pastor’s personal weariness without addressing these ministry concerns, or vice versa.
Clearly, this goes beyond what pastors want for their congregations, what congregants want from their pastors, and what neighbors want out of their local churches. “The Church” is a broad concept for many, and while it would be impossible to cater to every single expectation this entails, leaders should pay attention to the notable distinctions between what people want from churches and what pastors believe they should be offering.
There are ways for pastors and communities to get on the same page (or at least in the same chapter) about the role of the church in their communities—but it’s going to take some humility, introspection and, most importantly, open communication to get there.
Further reading and resources:
- The entire Resilient Pastor series—which explores pastors’ self-leadership, church leadership and cultural leadership—is currently available to read on Barna Access Plus.
- For the first excerpt from this series—which covers the decrease in pastoral security and confidence—check out this article.
- For the second excerpt from this series—which covers what pastors wish they’d been better prepared for in ministry—check out this article.
- Read this article to review data on pastors’ increased risk of burnout in 2021.
- Pastors offer the reasons why they’ve considered leaving full-time ministry in this article from 2022.
- Barna data in this article shows that, for pastors who want to quit ministry, self-care and soul-care are slipping.
About the Research
2015 data: Barna conducted 901 interviews with Protestant senior pastors in the U.S. between April and December 2015. The interviews were conducted through a mix of online and phone. Quotas were set to ensure representation by denomination, church size and region. Minimal statistical weighting was applied to maximize representation and the margin of error is +/- 3.1% at the 95% confidence level.
2020 data: Barna conducted 408 online interviews with Protestant senior pastors in the U.S. from September 16–October 8, 2020. Quotas were set to ensure representation by denomination, church size and region. Minimal statistical weighting was applied to maximize representation and the sample error is +/- 4.8% at the 95% confidence level.
2022 data: Barna conducted 585 online interviews with Protestant senior pastors in the U.S. from September 6–16, 2022. Quotas were set to ensure representation by denomination, church size and region and oversampling was conducted to reach female senior pastors. Minimal statistical weighting was applied to maximize representation and the sample error is +/- 3.8% at the 95% confidence level.
© Barna Group, 2023.
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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