Even before the pandemic, traditional metrics of church health were becoming less concrete, thanks to growing dropout rates and trends like “worship shifting.” Over the last two years, church leaders have faced new challenges to understand how they are nurturing their congregations and impacting their communities. The strain on pastors is apparent, as two in five tell Barna they are thinking about leaving full-time ministry.
Barna and our partners at Gloo have been building The State of Your Church project to provide pastors and church leaders with a more holistic framework for understanding the health of their congregations. The project outlines five markers of flourishing people and 15 markers of thriving churches. (You can assess your own church on these factors using Barna’s ChurchPulse, available for free in Barna Access.)
Below, we’ll offer a glimpse into a couple key aspects of our research on flourishing people and thriving churches, as well as information on how pastors can start measuring what matters in their ministry.
52% of Churched Adults Are Flourishing in Relationships
As pastors look toward the renewal of the Church and pursue it in their own communities, research encourages leaders to pay closer attention to how people are really doing and in what ways they are growing, stuck or deficient. This is where human flourishing comes in.
Barna’s work on the topic of flourishing is just one contribution to a broad and growing field of study. Scientists and researchers such as Harvard University’s Tyler J. VanderWeele have examined the topic of human flourishing in depth. Typically, these studies approach flourishing through the lens of relationships, vocation, finances and physical and mental well-being.[i] Fascinatingly, research such as VanderWeele’s repeatedly shows that individuals whose lives are grounded in faith and who maintain connection to an active church community are more likely to flourish in the other key dimensions of life.
Take for example the dimension of relationships. Barna data from past studies such as Households of Faith and Restoring Relationships show that relationships are keys in connection and in faith—and, further, relational flourishing plays a significant role in human flourishing overall.
What is the state of relationships in the U.S. Church today?
As of summer 2021, overall, churched adults fare better than the general population in their relationships, though they are still split in their relational flourishing. Just over half (52% vs. 34% of the general population) are strong in this dimension, meaning they score themselves at a nine or 10 on a zero to 10. This reflects their combined score of two individual questions; 54 percent score highly in their relational satisfaction and 58 percent score highly in their relational contentment.
For practicing Christians, the percentage with a high relational flourishing score overall ticks up to 61. Consistently, practicing Christians fare better across the dimensions included in Barna’s research on flourishing.
A church that not only welcomes and connects people but also operates out of an awareness (if not a proficiency in) in the realities of what it takes to be content and satisfied in relationships today is key in supporting the whole-life flourishing of congregants.
48% of Churched Adults Rate Their Church Highly in the Area of Spiritual Formation
While attendance and giving data are useful operational metrics, they fail to tell the real story of whether a church is fulfilling its mission to nurture, send and equip disciples. The exploration of what we call “thriving churches” is rooted in several signs of a ministry’s priorities and effectiveness, rather than only traditional or numerical indicators.
What do we mean by thriving? By definition, thriving is vigorous growth. It speaks of a journey toward health and success. Indeed, it is a synonym of “flourishing,” and it is no stretch to say that the work of promoting human flourishing and building thriving churches is interconnected. Adults who are committed to a church do, in fact, often offer higher scores across thriving categories.
Take for example spiritual formation, one of the 15 markers of thriving churches. This is a building block in the work of a church and, encouragingly, 48 percent of churched adults strongly feel spiritual formation is part of their church experience. This means they highly rate their church as a partner in spiritual formation and believe the next steps for their spiritual growth within the church are made clear. For practicing Christians, the percentage that gives a high score for spiritual formation goes up 10 points (58%); they are especially likely to feel their church is an essential partner in their growth (72% give a high score on this question).
Unsurprisingly, those who enthusiastically report experiencing spiritual formation in church overlap with those experiencing spiritual growth in their lives (69% of those with a lot of recent spiritual growth report strong spiritual formation in their church; likewise, 60% who strongly agree they are in an environment of spiritual formation report a lot of spiritual growth). Whether their growth draws them into the church or the church draws them toward growth, the effect is to be drawn closer to God.
The research around flourishing people and thriving churches show that, now more than ever, simply counting heads in pews or views on a streaming service cannot fully reveal the impact of a church, the effectiveness of the pastorate or the transformative power of discipleship.
Reflecting on this new framework for measuring what matters in ministry, Barna CEO David Kinnaman notes, “I firmly believe this moment provides an opportunity to pioneer new ways of leading God’s people and new, deeper pathways to discipling people.
“It’s a kairos moment,” he continues. “An opportunity to fashion new wineskins, as Jesus suggested we do. A chance to seek the Lord’s heart for more of what he desires. Of course, God is still changing lives. And he seeks to do that through the Church, through your church.”
Kinnaman concludes, “God is always doing new things in the world (see Isaiah 43:19). What a privilege it is for us to leverage this moment to pursue a renewed and revived Christian community.”
Additional research and resources:
- Interested in learning more about measuring what matters in ministry? Check out Barna’s The State of Your Church project to get more information on flourishing people and thriving churches.
- Check in on your congregants and staff with the ChurchPulse assessment to see how your people feel about their spiritual growth at your church. The ChurchPulse assessment is available for free with a Barna Access login or a Barna Access Plus subscription.
- Research from Barna’s The State of Your Church project is available in a brand new report titled, The State of Your Church: Measuring What Matters in Ministry. Purchase it on Barna’s online store or read it today in Barna Access Plus.
- This data, along with more findings on flourishing people and thriving churches, was presented during a live webcast on March 1, 2022. View the webcast and learn more about the project on Barna Access.
About the Research
The research for this study consisted of an online study conducted September 16-October 4, 2021 with 1003 churched U.S. adults. The margin of error for this sample is plus or minus 2.9 percent at a 95-percent confidence level.
[i] The Human Flourishing Program, Institute for Quantitative Social Science, “Our Flourishing Measure,” Harvard University, n.d., https://hfh.fas.harvard.edu/measuring-flourishing.
Barna Research 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.
© Barna Group, 2022