With Americans pursuing a growing number of “church” options, some of the traditional measures of church health are being redefined. According to a new study released by The Barna Group, which has been studying church participation patterns since 1984, popular measures such as the percentage of people who are “unchurched” – based on attendance at a conventional church service – are out of date. Various new forms of faith community and experience, such as house churches, marketplace ministries and cyberchurches, must be figured into the mix – and make calculating the percentage of Americans who can be counted as “unchurched” more complicated. The fact that millions of people are now involved in multiple faith communities – for instance, attending a conventional church one week, a house church the next, and interacting with an online faith community in-between – has rendered the standard measures of “churched” and “unchurched” much less precise.
The latest national surveys by The Barna Group address these new behavioral patterns and provide a different approach to evaluating church participation.
According to Barna, one way of examining people’s participation in faith communities is by exploring how they practice their corporate faith engagement. Unveiling a new measurement model, Barna identified the following five segments:
- Unattached– people who had attended neither a conventional church nor an organic faith community (e.g., house church, simple church, intentional community) during the past year. Some of these people use religious media, but they have had no personal interaction with a regularly-convened faith community. This segment represents one out of every four adults (23%) in America. About one-third of the segment was people who have never attended a church at any time in their life.
- Intermittents– these adults are essentially “under-churched” – i.e., people who have participated in either a conventional church or an organic faith community within the past year, but not during the past month. Such people constitute about one out of every seven adults (15%). About two-thirds of this group had attended at least one church event at some time within the past six months.
- Homebodies– people who had not attended a conventional church during the past month, but had attended a meeting of a house church (3%).
- Blenders– adults who had attended both a conventional church and a house church during the past month. Most of these people attend a conventional church as their primary church, but many are experimenting with new forms of faith community. In total, Blenders represent 3% of the adult population.
- Conventionals– adults who had attended a conventional church (i.e., a congregational-style, local church) during the past month but had not attended a house church. Almost three out of every five adults (56%) fit this description. This participation includes attending any of a wide variety of conventional-church events, such as weekend services, mid-week services, special events, or church-based classes.
Cross-Pollinating the Church
In addition to those five segments, the Barna report revealed that there is a growing degree of ministry crossover in America. When examining the spiritual participation of adults during the past month, the Barna team discovered that more than one out of every five adults had been involved in two or more types of churches: a conventional church, a house church, a marketplace church, a real-time ministry event on the Internet, or a live ministry event in the community.
Demonstrating the complexity of measuring people’s faith commitments, the Barna study identified the nature of people’s overlapping faith practices.
Among adults who were churched (either conventionally or alternatively) 15% had experienced the presence of God or expressed their faith in God through a faith-oriented website within the past month. Half as many (7%) said they had such an experience through a real-time event on the Internet.
One out of every eight churched adults (13%) said they had experienced the presence of God or expressed their faith in God through a ministry that met in the marketplace (e.g., their workplace, athletic event, etc.) during the past month.
Twice as many churched people (28%) said they had experienced the presence of God or expressed their faith in God through their involvement with a special ministry event (such as a worship concert or community service activity).
A majority of the public claimed to have experienced the presence of God or expressed their faith in God through some form of interaction with religious television or radio programs.
Reaching the Unattached
With the final weeks of the Easter season rapidly approaching, the Barna study also identified some of the characteristics of the Unattached that might enable conventional churches or other ministries to more adeptly connect with those people.
Compared to regular churchgoers, the Unattached are:
- more likely to feel stressed out
- less likely to be concerned about the moral condition of the nation
- much less likely to believe that they are making a positive difference in the world
- less optimistic about the future
- far less likely to believe that the Bible is totally accurate in its principles
- substantially more likely to believe that Satan and the Holy Spirit are symbolic figures, but are not real
- more likely to believe that Jesus Christ sinned while He was on earth
- much more likely to believe that the holy literature of the major faiths all teach the same principles even though they use different stories
- less likely to believe that a person can be under demonic influence
- more likely to describe their sociopolitical views as “mostly liberal” than “mostly conservative”
A Unique Profile
Six out of ten adults in the Unattached category (59%) consider themselves to be Christian. Even more surprising was the revelation that 17% of the Unattached are born again Christians – defined as people who have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that they consider to be very important in their life, and who believe that they will experience Heaven after they die because they have confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior.
A significant proportion of the Unattached engages in traditional faith activities during a typical week. For instance, one-fifth (19%) read the Bible and three out of every five (62%) pray to God during a typical week.
The Unattached distinguished themselves from the churched population demographically, too. They are more likely to be single, male, and to have been divorced at some point. They are also less likely to be registered to vote, which is often a sign of people who feel less connected to or influential in society.
Insights into the Unchurched
George Barna, whose book Grow Your Church from the Outside In describes people who are not connected to a church, discussed the larger context of the unchurched.
“The numbers consistently point out that those who live without a regular face-to-face faith connection tend to be relatively isolated from the mainstream of society, tend to be non-committal in institutional and personal relationships, and typically revel in their independence. Attempting to get them involved in the life of a church is a real challenge. The best chance of getting them to a church is when someone they know and trust invites them, offers to accompany them, and there is reason to believe that the church event will address one of the issues or needs they are struggling with at that moment.”
Barna indicated that if past years are any indication, comparatively few of the Unattached are likely to visit a church during this Easter season, but that a significant number of the Intermittents are likely to return at least once.
About the Research
This report is based upon two nationwide telephone surveys conducted by The Barna Group. One survey was a sample of 1003 adults, age 18 and older, conducted in December 2007 randomly selected from across the continental United States. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The other survey was based on a national random sample of 1006 adults interviewed in January 2008, also with a maximum margin of sampling error of ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. In situations in which the identical question was asked in each survey, and the data were combined, the maximum margin of sampling error for the aggregate sample of 2009 adults is ±2.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables. All interviews in both surveys were conducted via telephone, and multiple callbacks were made to each telephone number to provide a representative sample.
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website www.barna.org.
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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