Apr 12, 2010

From the Archives

Millions of Unchurched Adults Are Christians Hurt by Churches But Can Be Healed of the Pain

One of the objectives of many churches is to attract people who do not participate in the life of a church. New research from The Barna Group, however, points out that most of the unchurched in America may be different than expected.

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A Large Group

The Barna data indicate that 28% of the adult population has not attended any church activities, including services, in the past six months. That translates to nearly 65 million adults. When their children under the age of 18 who live with them are added to the picture, the number swells to more than 100 million people.

While the aggregate proportion of unchurched adults is down from its high point of the past quarter century (32%), it remains within sight of that high water mark. Consequently, due to the continued expansion of the nation’s population, the total numbers of unchurched people has remained relatively steady in recent years despite the minor proportional fluctuations.

Mostly Self-Identified Christians

One of the biggest surprises to some people, however, is that a large majority of the nation’s unchurched population is drawn from the sector comprised of people who consider themselves to be Christian. In the United States, 83% of all adults label themselves “Christian.” The percentage is lower among the unchurched, but such self-identified Christians still outnumber those who do not embrace Christianity by a three-to-two margin (61% vs. 39%).

However, several interesting insights define the self-identified Christians among the unchurched. A majority of them (53%) have distanced themselves from being either Protestant (30%) or Catholic (17%), although almost all of them had at one time been associated with one of those groups. Also, close to one out of every five (18%) can be considered to be “born again” – not based on self-description, but upon saying they have “made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and that when they die they believe they will have eternal life with God only because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.

Other interesting insights into the self-identified Christians who have distanced themselves from a conventional church relate to their beliefs. Two-thirds (68%) hold a biblical view of God – that is, He is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe and He still rules that universe today. However, only one-third (35%) agree to any extent that the Bible is totally accurate in all the principles it teaches. Only one in seven (15%) claim that their religious faith is very important in their life. One out of five (22%) contends that the ultimate purpose of life is to love God with all their heart, mind, strength and soul. A mere one in seven (14%) claims to have a clear sense of the meaning and purpose of their life. And minorities of the group, ranging from one-quarter to one-third, support the notions of salvation by grace alone, Jesus Christ living a holy and sinless life on earth, and Satan existing today.

Demographically, the self-identified Christians among the unchurched stray from common assumptions. Within this group, women outnumber men; Boomers and their elders outnumber the young; downscale adults double the number of upscale unchurched; conservatives are more common than liberals; and whites outnumber minorities by nearly a three-to-one margin.

Reasons for Avoiding Church

Based on past studies of those who avoid Christian churches, one of the driving forces behind such behavior is the painful experiences endured within the local church context. In fact, one Barna study among unchurched adults shows that nearly four out of every ten non-churchgoing Americans (37%) said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people.

Bestselling author Stephen Mansfield has written a new book (ReChurch) that digs into those experiences. As one who has been wounded by past church behavior, Mansfield encourages those who have been hurt by the local church to overcome that pain and suffering – if not in response to a biblical command or for the benefit of the church, then for their own healing and maturation.

Citing numerous examples, Mansfield notes that God uses people’s pain – and their own immaturity, in some cases – to reshape us. There is no denying that many churchgoers get wounded by the insensitive or ignorant actions of others in the church. Mansfield points out, though, that those instances are opportunities for us to love others who, like ourselves, are simply “flawed sinners.” Fleeing from the source of pain and suffering, rather than addressing and overcoming it, leaves us wounded and bitter, and does nothing to enhance our lives or those of the people responsible for that suffering.

The solution, according to Mansfield, is forgiveness – the same forgiveness that Jesus offers to each of us who have wounded Him. Christianity, after all, is about receiving freedom through God’s forgiveness extended to us. Offering that same forgiveness to others is the only means to us becoming healthy and whole again.

Mansfield’s new book, released is April, is entitled ReChurch. That title reflects the research showing that most unchurched people – more than four out of five – were formerly regular participants in church life, many of whom departed after an ugly incident that hurt them deeply. A former megachurch pastor who personally experienced the pain of a church disruption, Mansfield writes about his own experience of leaving and then returning to congregational life, as well as exploring the stories of others who have walked that road and the biblical support for such restoration.

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About the Research

This Barna Update is based upon nationwide surveys among random samples of 4,020 adults conducted by The Barna Group from August 2009 through February 2010. Of those adults, 1,144 were unchurched and 703 were self-identified Christians. Interviews were conducted with respondents based upon samples of both landline telephones and cellular phones. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of unchurched adults is ±3.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the subsample of self-identified Christians who are unchurched is ±3.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

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

The survey defined “downscale” individuals as those who do not have any college education and whose total annual household income is less than $20,000. Upscale individuals were defined as having completed at least a Bachelor’s degree and living in households with an annual income of $75,000 or more.

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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