How Liturgical Are Today’s Christians?

Research Releases in Faith & Christianity • February 13, 2018

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the inauguration of the 40-day liturgical season of Lent, observed with the marking of ashes to the forehead. This ritual and other practices for congregational worship like readings, confessions and creeds are part of what is known as Christian liturgy. Though practiced for centuries, these traditions are mostly absent from many contemporary worship expressions today. But just how familiar are practicing Christians (those who attend a religious service at least once a month, say their faith is very important and self-identify as a Christian) with the concept of Christian liturgy? What is their personal experience with it and what rituals do they take part in as a church community? In this new study, explored at-length in Barna Trends, here is what Barna learned about American practicing Christians’ current commitment to a particular style of service or spiritual expression.

Strong Familiarity with Christian Liturgy
Most practicing Christians are at least aware of the concept of liturgy: Just over six in 10 are either very (32%) or somewhat familiar (30%) with Christian liturgy, while one-fifth (19%) has never heard of it. But even though Christian liturgy is at least somewhat recognizable to most, those who have a strong familiarity with it are concentrated in ethnic and denominational pockets. For instance, more than one-third of white practicing Christians (37%) and almost three in 10 Hispanic practicing Christians (28%) are very familiar with the concept of liturgy. Even though Catholic practice has been trending down, there are strong Catholic (and thus liturgical) roots and awareness in Hispanic communities across the country. One in 7 (14%) black practicing Christians is well acquainted with the concept, likely because many black faith communities developed around less institutional and more charismatic corporate worship. Among faith segments, evangelicals are the least aware, while Catholics and mainline Protestants (American Baptists, Episcopal, Lutheran, United Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.) know it best. Almost half as many evangelicals as non-evangelicals are very familiar with the concept (19% vs. 35%), while half of Catholics (49%), and more than one-third of Protestant mainliners (37%) are very familiar. Similar to evangelicals, only 18 percent of Protestant non-mainliners know liturgical practice well. Looking at generational breakdowns, Millennials (34%) and Gen X (41%) are especially acquainted with liturgy, both more so than either Boomers (26%) or Elders (31%)—though, as we’ll explore below, younger generations’ familiarity is likely a product of curiosity rather than practice or affiliation.

Most practicing Christians are aware of the concept of liturgy. One-fifth has never heard of it. Click To Tweet


Liturgy Connects Christians to Culture, Tradition and History
Familiarity with liturgical styles of Christian worship is one thing; personal experience is another. More than one-third of practicing Christians (35%) says liturgy is an important part of their culture and tradition, a sentiment much more common among older generations (43% Elders, 39%Boomers) than younger ones (29% Millennials, 27% Gen X). The same proportion appreciates it as a practice alongside other forms and styles of worship (34%), and a little more than three in 10 (31%) say it helps them feel connected to church history. Again, these attitudes are all more common among older generations, who are more acquainted with traditional forms of worship. Small proportions of those who have some experience with liturgy say it’s always been part of their life (13%) or that they prefer it (17%). Meanwhile, others prefer contemporary forms of worship (22%) or say liturgy has nothing to do with their faith (12%).

Though Millennials (14%) and Gen X (11%), more so than Boomers (5%) and Elders (1%), feel that liturgical styles of worship are outdated, they are also more likely to be curious about it (12% Millennials, 13% Gen X) than the older generations (5% Boomers, 3% Elders). Millennials are actually the most likely to make a shift from a non-liturgical church to a liturgical one—but they are also most likely to make the opposite move as well. More than one in five (22%) has moved to a liturgical tradition (compared to 16% of Gen X, 11% of Boomers and 12% of Elders), while 44 percent have shifted away from it. Gen X (40%) are close behind in leaving liturgical churches, followed by Boomers (23%) and Elders (14%). Older practicing Christians are less likely to shift, and they are most likely to attend a liturgical church.

Millennials are the most likely to change from liturgical to non-liturgical styles, and vice-versa. Click To Tweet

Barna Trends 2018: Your comprehensive guide to the latest cultural, religious and political trends

The Liturgical Calendar Is Still Popular
One of the most common forms of Christian liturgy is following the church calendar, a cycle of seasons, feasts and celebrations that include Advent, Eastertide and Lent. A plurality of practicing Christians says their church follows a liturgical year or church calendar very closely throughout the year (41%), and one in six (17%) follows along only for key dates and seasons. About one-fifth (22%) does not follow a liturgical year or church calendar at all. More than half of Elders (53%) say their church follows a liturgical calendar very closely throughout the year. This percentage is significantly higher than Boomers and Gen X (both at 41%) and Millennials (34%). Large percentages of white (46%) and Hispanic practicing Christians (51%) also follow very closely throughout the year, particularly compared to the much lower percentage of black practicing Christians who do the same (17%). As we’ve seen above, Catholic practice is high among the Hispanic community, and mainline Protestants (more liturgical traditions) are made up mostly of white Christians. Catholics are the most committed to the practice, with almost three quarters (73%) following a liturgical year or church calendar very closely throughout the year, followed by almost half of Protestant mainliners (47%), and only one-fifth of non-mainline Protestants (19%)


The (Not So) Common Book of Prayer
The Book of Common Prayer is an Anglican prayer book that contains liturgical services of worship and other rites. Though common in mainline circles, few practicing Christians overall incorporate it into their daily personal spiritual practice or discipline. The most common responses among practicing Christians is that they have either never participated in this (26%) or have never heard of it (27%). This is particularly true for evangelicals (44%), almost half of which have never even heard of the Book of Common Prayer, double the amount of non-evangelicals (22%). In fact, only one in 10 practicing Christians use it daily (10%). A higher percentage have used it within the past seven days (14%), but it drops from there: 8 percent within the past month, 5 percent within the past 6 months, and only 4 percent within the past year.

44% of evangelicals have never heard of the Book of Common Prayer. Click To Tweet


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About the Research
Interviews with U.S. practicing Christian adults included 1,020 web-based surveys conducted among a representative sample of practicing Christian adults over the age of 18 in each of the 50 United States. The survey was conducted in April 2017. The sampling error for this study is plus or minus 3 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

Millennials: Born between 1984 and 1999
Gen X: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964
Elders: Born between 1945 or earlier

Mainline: includes American Baptist Churches, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, and Presbyterian Church, USA

Non-mainline: includes Protestant churches not included in mainline denominations

Evangelical: Meet the born again criteria plus seven other conditions. These conditions 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 Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; 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.”

Practicing Christian: Those who attend a religious service at least once a month, who say their faith is very important in their lives and self-identify as a Christian.

Image by Jennifer Balaska

About Barna Group
Barna Group 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, 2018

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