Church analysts have noted that most congregations operate independently of the ideas and efforts of other churches. That absence of consensus emerged in the data from a new study conducted by The Barna Group (Ventura, California) regarding the ministry priorities of Protestant churches. When a nationally representative sample of 614 Senior Pastors was asked to identify the top three ministry priorities for their church in the coming year, not a single ministry emphasis was listed by even half of the church leaders.
Overall, twelve different ministry emphases were listed by at least 3% of the pastors, aligned in three distinct levels of priority.
The most frequently mentioned priorities were discipleship and spiritual development (47%); evangelism and outreach (46%); and preaching (35%).
The second level of priorities included congregational care efforts, such as visitation and counseling (24%); worship (19%); ministry to teenagers and young adults (17%); missions (15%); community service (15%); ministry to children (13%); and congregational fellowship (11%).
The lowest priorities among the dozen ministries described by pastors were ministry to families (4%) and prayer (3%).
Priorities Varied by Church Types
The survey data revealed that different types of churches had different rankings regarding their priorities.
The most obvious differences were between white and black churches. Half of all white churches (50%) listed discipleship as their dominant priority, followed by evangelism (41%) and preaching (36%). Black churches, however, placed evangelism as their undisputed highest priority (67%), trailed by discipleship (35%), congregational care (24%) and preaching (24%). One-quarter of white churches (23%) said worship was a high priority, placing fifth in the ranking. However, just 3% of black churches listed worship as a top priority, ranking it 11th on their list. White churches placed ministry to children as their seventh highest priority (15%), while black congregations were less focused on children, rating it ninth (listed by 6%).
Baptist churches were distinguished by placing evangelism at the top of their ranking: 56% included it among their top priorities. (The figure was even higher among Southern Baptist churches: 60% rated it in their three highest priorities.) Baptist churches were also those most likely to name preaching as a priority. In contrast, mainline churches led the pack in citing discipleship ministries as their highest priority (54%). Pentecostal churches were substantially less likely than either Baptist or mainline pastors to mention discipleship (36%).
Male and female pastors had a few substantial disparities in perspective. Less than half of male pastors (46%) offered discipleship as a top priority compared to two-thirds of female pastors (65%). Female pastors were also twice as likely as their male counterparts to list community service as a high priority (29% versus 14%, respectively). Even though relatively few of the male pastors listed prayer as a major emphasis (4%), not a single female pastor identified prayer.
Also of interest was the fact that the largest churches studied were far more likely than smaller congregations to prioritize evangelism and outreach – which may explain their growth. However, larger churches were also those least likely to mention congregational care ministries as a priority.
Some Ministries Are Favored By Divergent Groups
Several of the ministry emphases that fell within the second and third tiers had notable champions within the church world.
For instance, worship was a relatively higher priority for mainline pastors (37%) than for Baptist (12%) or Pentecostal (13%) pastors. It was also less frequently cited by pastors of small churches (16% of those at churches with 100 or fewer adults) than by their colleagues pastoring larger congregations (23%).
Ministry to teenagers was most likely to be promoted in Pentecostal congregations (25%) and churches in the South (21%).
Missions gained the highest proportion of support from pastors of Baptist churches (22%) and theologically liberal congregations (23%). The least support for missions was expressed among pastors under the age of 40 (10% listed missions).
Besides the disparity listed between black and white congregations regarding ministry to children, pastors under 40 were twice as likely as older pastors to prioritize children (22% versus 11%, respectively). Churches in the Northeast and Midwest were also somewhat less likely to prioritize children’s ministry (9%) than were pastors from churches in the South and West (15%).
Reactions to the Results
Some of the survey outcomes surprised George Barna, who directed the research. “The magnitude of the differences between black and white congregations is very significant,” explained the author of the recent book describing faith in the lives of African-Americans, entitled High Impact African-American Churches. “Compared to white pastors, few black pastors identified worship and preaching as top priorities, in spite of the fact that our surveys among church-goers show that African-Americans are much more likely than white congregants to be satisfied with their worship experience and to feel they have been in God’s presence at their worship services. This may reflect the fact that black pastors are attempting to broaden the faith experience and depth of their people by shifting their focus onto other dimensions of spiritual growth.”
Barna also mentioned that even though no specific types of ministries were prioritized by a majority of pastors, the distribution of priorities across the various church segments was strikingly similar. “While there are certainly distinctions worthy of note,” the researcher commented, “what really stands out is the consistency of the profile of priorities among pastors of vastly different church backgrounds and perspectives. Church size, regional location, doctrinal leaning, pastoral age and even pastoral gender produced surprisingly few major differences. This may reflect the similar emphasis that most pastors receive in their pastoral training. At the same time, it also suggests that it would be quite unlikely to see a significant shift in ministry priorities among the nation’s churches. What we have in place today is likely to remain relatively static for the foreseeable future, unless a confluence of leadership, events and resources emerges to alter the prevailing perspectives and habits of our Protestant churches.”
Additional Reading and Resources
- For more information, see Habits of Highly Effective Churches
The data described above are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 614 Senior Pastors of Protestant churches conducted in December 2004. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with that sample is ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Pastors in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of churches in the sample reflects the proportion of the churches from that denomination among all Protestant churches in the U.S. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a statistically reliable distribution of pastors.
“Mainline” churches are those associated with the American Baptist Churches/U.S.A.; United Church of Christ; Episcopal Church; United Methodist Church; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; and Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984, it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. If you would like to receive regular e-mailings of a brief overview of each new bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna Research web site (www.barna.org).
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009
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