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3 Things Church Leaders Must Know as They Navigate Election Season


Articles in Culture & Media in Leaders & Pastors • October 21, 2020

As the U.S. presidential election looms, pastors might wonder how to lead well during this time of increased tension. If our data on the tug-of-war for their engagement is any indication, they likely feel there is no way to win with all of their congregants.

Today’s article offers three research insights to help pastors understand the current climate and thoughtfully guide their church through this divided moment.

Yes, the Church’s Political Engagement Has Intensified Since 2016
Regardless of whether pastors are talking about political issues, their people certainly are—and much more so than in the past. Barna research conducted earlier this year show engagement in following or discussing politics since the 2016 election has risen among both practicing Christians (48% of Christians who attend church at least monthly and say their faith is important to them) and the general population (41% of all U.S. adults). While two in five say their involvement has stayed the same (44% practicing Christian, 45% U.S. adults), neither group has had much decrease in political engagement (9% vs. 14%). Unchurched adults—those who have not attended church within the past six months—report the least amount of movement over the past four years, with one-third (35%) noting an increase in engagement, 12 percent claiming a decrease and half (53%) saying their engagement has stayed the same.

Within this same study, data show that the majority of practicing Christians (58%) and churched adults (64%)—those who have attended church within the past six months—says their church leaders speak at least occasionally on these topics. However, a plurality of each (36% practicing Christians, 27% U.S. churched adults) say their ministers never broach these issues. But regardless of whether or not their pastors address politics from the pulpit, do Americans even want to hear from their church leaders on these issues?

When asked if they wished their pastors spoke more or less about political issues, two in five practicing Christians (46%) and churched adults (40%) say “neither—keep it the same.” One-quarter (26% practicing Christians vs. 30% churched adults) prefers these issues were brought up more, while about one in five (18% each) prefers these were addressed less. Among both practicing Christians and churched adults in general, data show that those who are male, Millennial or identify as an ethnic minority are more likely to say they prefer their ministers to speak on political issues “a lot more.”

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On our ChurchPulse Weekly podcast, Pete Scazzero, founder of Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, shares, “For me to be a non-anxious presence, and to be able to listen to people who think differently than me, that takes a lot of character.”

1. What are you doing to combat anxiety during this season? How are you investing in your own character as a leader?

2. Do you feel your congregants are looking to you to lead them through this season? How can you speak into their lives with biblical and pastoral perspective while being aware of diverging viewpoints and without dictating what they should do?

3. As you lead your people, who is helping to guide you? Where do you look for advice and education—and are those items fulfilled by a variety of diverse voices?

 4. In what ways does your church help facilitate conversations around social and moral issues, both during the sermon and in church programming? How can you continue to encourage peaceful dialogue where people feel loved by God and seen, heard and cared for by their church community?

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You’re Not Alone in Feeling Like Your Influence Is in Question
Past Barna research from The State of Pastors (2016) show that—even four years ago—pastors’ credibility and influence in the community is in question. While one in five U.S. adults (21%) and half of evangelicals (52%) and practicing Christians (51%) believe Christian ministers are “very credible when it comes to important issues of our day,” one in 10 U.S. adults (11%) says pastors are “not at all credible.” When it comes to church leaders’ reliability on key topics within the Church and our nation, just 17 percent of U.S. adults say pastors are very reliable. A plurality (39%) view them as the opposite.

More recent research, published in Faith Leadership in a Divided Culture (2019) found that while clergy members believe it is a critical part of their pastoral role to help Christians have biblical beliefs about specific social issues (90%) and help Christians think well about culture in general (72%), most clergy (60%) only believe they have “some” influence with their congregation (vs. 31% a lot, 7% not too much, 2% a little to none).

In this same study, leaders express frequently or occasionally feeling limited in their ability to speak out on moral and social issues because people will take offense (50%) and pressured to speak out on these same issues even if they don’t feel comfortable doing so (34%). The majority of church leaders says these limitations (64%) and pressures (69%) come from people inside their church—not outside. 

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1. Do you feel pressured or limited when it comes to addressing social issues from the pulpit? Where does this feeling come from? 

2. How do you determine what social issues to address and when to address them? Do you make these decisions alone or with advisors?

3. With pastors’ credibility in question across the nation, how can your sermons and outreach help strengthen the bond of trust between church leadership and your congregation or community?

Young People in Your Church Likely Connect Relevance to Justice
Gen Z and Millennials have grown up in the most diverse generations the U.S. has seen thus far. They are also connected to their peers around the world and are highly aware of the social issues that plague not just our country, but nations around the globe. When it comes to solutions for these issues however, young people are not turning to the Church for answers.

In Gen Z (2018), data show that among Gen Z teens who believe church is not important, three in five (59%) expound by saying “the church is not relevant to me personally.” Among Gen Z as a whole, one-quarter (24%) says “the faith and teachings I encounter at church seem rather shallow.”

When it comes to The Connected Generation (2019), research shows that 18–35-years-olds around the world tend to be dissatisfied with their church experience, longing for congregations to do more to fight injustice. There is hope, however, as a plurality of young adults—both in the U.S. and internationally—says that the Church has been a place of formation and activation for them.   

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1. Do younger generations —Millennials and Gen Z, specifically—have a seat at the table when it comes to your church’s leadership and decision-making?

2. Are you integrating certain justice efforts into your sermons and church priorities? Why or why not?

3. Have you ever seen young people disconnect from your church over its silence or disagreement on justice issues?

4. When you see Millennials and Gen Z welcomed and active in the life of your church, what is spurring their engagement?

We’ve been listening to and learning from leaders on these and other issues through impactful conversations on the ChurchPulse Weekly podcast, hosted by Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman.

More in-depth research on faith and politics in America can be found on Barna Access Plus. Resources such as briefings on Race Today and The Brand of Evangelicals as well as Barna’s complete library of reports and courses are available through our premium subscription service.

Comment on this research and follow our work:
Twitter: @davidkinnaman | @barnagroup
Facebook: Barna Group

About the Research
Recent data on the current political engagement of pastors and their people is from a Barna survey that was conducted Feb 18-Mar 2, 2020 with 1,604 adults including 1,003 general population adults and 919 practicing Christians adults. The sample error for practicing Christian data is 3.1% at the 95% confidence level, and 2.9% for the general population data. Both surveys were conducted online.

The State of Pastors: This research was conducted on behalf of Pepperdine University. A total of 900 Protestant senior pastors were interviewed by telephone and online from April through December 2015. Pastors were recruited from publicly available church listings covering 90 percent of U.S. churches that have a physical address and a listed phone number or email address. Churches selected for inclusion were called up to five times at different times of the day to increase the probably of successful contact. The sample error for this study is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.

Faith Leadership in a Divided Culture: The statistics and data-based analyses in this study are derived from a series of national public opinion surveys conducted by Barna Group, among 1,608 clergy in the U.S. in 2014, 513 Protestant pastors in the U.S. in 2015 / 2016 and 601 Protestant pastors in the U.S. in 2017. Responses were collected via telephone and online. Once data was collected, minimal statistical weights were applied to several demographic variables to more closely correspond to known national averages. On questions for which tracking was available, findings from these recent studies were compared to Barna’s database of national studies from the past three decades. Data from the clergy study were minimally weighted on denomination and region to more closely reflect the demographic characteristics of churches in each media market. When researchers describe the accuracy of survey results, they usually provide the estimated amount of “sampling error.” This refers to the degree of possible inaccuracy that could be attributed to interviewing a group of people that is not completely representative of the population from which they were drawn. For the general population surveys, the sampling error ranged from 2.7 to 2.9, for religious leaders, it ranged from 2.2 to 3.9. Major portions of this research was supported by the Maclellan Foundation; Barna Group was solely responsible for the design and analysis of the research findings.

Gen Z: Two nationally representative studies of teens were conducted. The first was conducted using an online consumer panel November 4–16, 2016, and included 1,490 U.S. teenagers 13 to 18 years old. The second was conducted July 7–18, 2017, and also used an online consumer panel, which included 507 U.S. teenagers 13 to 18 years old. The data from both surveys were minimally weighted to known U.S. Census data in order to be representative of ethnicity, gender, age and region. One nationally representative study of 1,517 U.S. adults ages 19 and older was conducted using an online panel November 4–16, 2016. The data were minimally weighted to known U.S. Census data in order to be representative of ethnicity, gender, age and region.

The Connected Generation: This study is based on online, representative public opinion surveys conducted by Barna Group. A total of 15,369 respondents ages 18 to 35 across 25 countries were surveyed between December 4, 2018 and February 15, 2019. See full details of sample distribution based on continent and country at theconnectedgeneration.com.

U.S. adults are U.S. residents 18 and older.
Christian clergy are pastors of a congregation in a mainstream tradition of Christianity.
Protestant clergy are pastors of a congregation in a Protestant tradition of Christianity.
Practicing Christians identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month.
Churched adults have been to church in the last six months.
Unchurched adults have not been to church in the last six months.

Photo by Tiffany Tertipes on Unsplash.

About Barna
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, 2020

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