Aug 10, 2009

From the Archives

How Faith Varies by Church Size

A new report from The Barna Group, based on interviews with more than 3,000 adults, shows that congregational size is related to the nature of a congregation’s religious beliefs, religious behavior and demographic profile. There are clearly significant differences between the smallest and largest of Protestant churches in terms of the theological beliefs of adherents.

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The survey results discovered the following:
  • On 17 indicators of religious belief and behavior examined in the research there were statistically significant differences between churches of 100 or fewer adult attenders and churches of 1000 or more adult attenders. The only item tested in which there was not a distinction was whether the church attender had prayed during the past week.
  • On all 9 of the belief statements tested, attenders of large churches were more likely than those engaged in a small or mid-sized congregation to give an orthodox biblical response – e.g., the Bible is totally accurate in all the principles it teaches, Satan is not merely symbolic but exists, Jesus led a sinless life, God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe, etc.
  • On seven of the eight behavioral measures, attenders of large churches were substantially more likely than those of small churches to be active. (These included behaviors such as attending church in the past week, reading the Bible in the past week, volunteering at their church in the past week, etc.) The average difference related to these seven behaviors was 17 percentage points.
  • There were significant differences on six of the ten demographic attributes examined. Specifically, larger churches were more likely to have college graduates (a 22 percentage point difference between those who attend churches of 100 adults or less and those who attend congregations with 1000 or more adults), affluent attenders, and children under 18 living in their home. Adults attending Protestant mega-churches were also more likely to be registered to vote and to be registered as a Republican (a 16-point gap compared to adults attending churches of up to 100 adults). Those who attend small churches were more likely to home-school their children.
  • Young adults were somewhat more likely to attend mega-churches than to affiliate with a congregation of any other size. In contrast, adults in their sixties or older were less likely to attend a church of 500 or more attenders than to regularly participate in a smaller church.
  • Overall, the profile of demographics, beliefs and religious behaviors was strikingly similar between congregations of 500 to 999 adult attenders and that of congregations drawing 1000 or more adults. Similarly, congregations with fewer than 50 adults were generally similar regarding most indicators to congregations with 50 to 100 attenders.
  • The point at which congregational belief profiles were mostly likely to diverge was when churches reached the 200-adult range. Those who attend churches of 1000 or more adults are significantly different from the congregations of those attending churches of as many as 200 adults in relation to six out of the 10 belief statements explored.
  • The religious beliefs and behaviors of people who attend house churches, which average about 20 adults in attendance, are more similar to the results for large conventional churches (i.e., more than 500 adults) than they are to the outcomes among those who attend small conventional churches (i.e., less than 50 adults).
  • Despite the substantial attention focused on Protestant mega-churches, such congregations draw about 9% of adults who frequent a Protestant church. In contrast, 41% of adults attending a Protestant church associate with a congregation of 100 or fewer adults. An additional 23% can be found at churches of 101 to 200 adults, 18% associate with bodies of 201 to 499 adults, and 9% can be found in churches of 500 to 999 adults.

Because the study did not examine the point in life or the church at which a particular theological perspective was embraced by respondents, the research results do not mean that larger churches are more likely to provide congregants with conservative biblical views. The research also discovered that the patterns are different among Catholic adults, who are more likely to attend mega-churches than are their Protestant counterparts.


Religious Beliefs of Protestants, by Congregational Size

Belief description*1-100**101-200201-499500-9991000+
Bible is totally accurate in all the principles it teaches60%63%70%67%75%
Have personal responsibility to tell others your beliefs4144475361
Your religious faith is very important in your life8283908890
Satan/devil is a living being not just a symbol of evil3029363851
A good person cannot earn a place in Heaven3339474855
On earth Jesus Christ did not commit sins, like other people4950596574
God is the omnipotent, omniscient creator who rules all8181868690
Born again Christian (see definition below)6364698175
Evangelical Christian (see definition below)911212425
Number of respondents in this subgroup547306247120114

* these are descriptions of the actual survey questions, not the wording of the questions actually used in the research.
** Adult attendance on an average weekend

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About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group among three nationwide random samples of adults. In the course of the 3,014 interviews conducted, each churched respondent who attends a Protestant church was asked to estimate the number of adults who attend their primary church on a typical weekend. These surveys were conducted between January 2007 and November 2008. The range of sampling error associated with the total sample of adults is between ±0.8 and ±1.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The estimated sampling error for each of the segments related to church attendance ranged from ±2.3 to ±9.1 percentage points. These allowances do not include other types of error (known as non-sampling error) that can occur in surveys, such as errors arising from question wording, question sequencing, and the recording of responses.

“Born again Christians” were defined as people who said they had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that was still important in their life today and who also indicated they believed that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

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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