Oct 19, 2022

Does a Divided Public Look to Pastors for Guidance?

Who do Americans believe is responsible for creating meaningful change in our country?

Recent Barna data offer insight into who Americans look to in these times of tension and how many Americans trust pastors to help them navigate sensitive conversations.

Ahead of a midterm election, pastors may wonder how to best disciple and serve their community—especially when disagreement and division are prominent. These findings—plus even more on U.S. policy, polarization and beliefs about morality and legality—are explored in depth in Barna’s latest release, The Things that Divide Americans: An overview of social concerns, difficult conversations and the Church’s ability to address them, available exclusively on Barna Access Plus.

The Things that Divide Americans

An overview of social concerns, difficult conversations and the Church’s ability to address them

U.S. Adults Largely Point to the Government to Make Things Right
When asked which institutions can help create meaningful change in a divided nation, Americans overwhelmingly believe the government (at the national, state and local levels) is responsible for curing the ills of the United States.

Half of Americans see the federal government as responsible for making things better—that’s twice the number that hold religious organizations or Christians churches responsible for making real change possible.

Practicing Christians (from a variety of backgrounds) notably do believe the Church can create meaningful change, a view that is not shared by the American public at large. Forty-eight percent of practicing Christians believe Christian churches are change-makers, while just one-quarter of U.S. adults (25%) says the same.

When thinking specifically about who can enact change, Americans are most likely to say this is up to individuals (48%) or raise their own hands (46%). Closely following this, they look to the president of the United States (44%) and politicians (42%). Religious leaders, on the other hand, fall into the same category as those on social media, with one-quarter of Americans seeing these groups as responsible for creating meaningful change.

Compared to all U.S. adults, practicing Christians are much more likely to say that Christian leaders (49%) and religious leaders (44%) should bring about meaningful change.

Overall, in a world with increasing polarization and distrust, Americans believe that the most likely way to achieve meaningful change in the world is at the individual level. Half of Americans favor individuals as change-makers, compared to only 38 percent who believe that institutions can make the world a better place.

Practicing Christians hold similar views as the general population, with just over half (58%) believing individuals are change-makers and just over one-third (33%) pointing to institutions.

The Things that Divide Americans

An overview of social concerns, difficult conversations and the Church’s ability to address them

Most U.S. Adults Believe Christian Pastors Can Offer Wisdom on Tough Conversations
Despite most U.S. adults not seeing the Church, religious institutions, religious leaders or Christian pastors as those who are responsible for enacting meaningful change in America, a sizable portion still agrees pastors are a helpful resource to consult on sensitive topics.

In fact, the majority of U.S. adults (70%) says yes, Christian pastors are still seen—either somewhat or entirely—as a good resource to consult when thinking about the topics that matter most to them. With one in five Americans reporting a relationship that was negatively impacted by the 2020 election, it’s encouraging to know that, when thinking on future conversations U.S. adults might have with loved ones, they consider pastors to be a reliable source of wisdom.

Even split by key demographics, this same view is shared by 84 percent of Republicans and over two-thirds of Democrats (68%), emphasizing that Christian leaders are still held in high regard and are seen as safe partners for discussion and dialogue by the majority in today’s polarized world.

Similarly, research by Paul Djupe and Ryan Burge found that 70 percent of Christian pastors indicate that they have been contacted by members of their congregation with a political concern. Another 40 percent of pastors consider themselves a political representative of their congregation.

While pastors have named political division as a main stressor over the past year—even leading some pastors to consider quitting full-time ministry—those in the pews are looking to their church leaders right now, not only to help them learn how to better dialogue about political issues, but also to advocate for those same issues to elected officials.

Additional reading and resources:

  • For more on Americans’ current views on U.S. policy, morality, polarization in American and how pastors can lead their congregants well in this moment, check out The Things that Divide Americans, exclusively on Barna Access Plus.
  • Political division is one of the main reasons pastors say they’ve considered quitting ministry in the past year. Learn more here.
  • One in five U.S. adults says the 2020 election had a negative impact on a close relationship.
  • Polarization is on the rise. Recent data from Barna Group compare key statements from 2017 and 2022 to analyze how willing—or unwilling—Americans are to change their view of the issues that matter most to them.

The Things that Divide Americans

An overview of social concerns, difficult conversations and the Church’s ability to address them

About the Research

June 2022 data: Barna Group conducted this online survey among 2,001 U.S. adults from June 1­–10, 2022. The sample error for this study is ±2.3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Photo by Samuel Branch from Unsplash

© Barna Group, 2022.

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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