May 4, 2004

From the Archives

Number of Unchurched Adults Has Nearly Doubled Since 1991

Since 1991, the adult population in the United States has grown by 15%. During that same period the number of adults who do not attend church has nearly doubled, rising from 39 million to 75 million – a 92% increase!

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These startling statistics come from the most recent tracking study of religious behavior conducted by The Barna Group, a company that follows trends related to faith, culture and leadership in America. The latest study shows that the percentage of adults that is unchurched – defined as not having attended a Christian church service, other than for a holiday service, such as Christmas or Easter, or for special events such as a wedding or funeral, at any time in the past six months – has risen from 21% in 1991 to 34% today.

Demographic Distinctions

An examination of a dozen demographic attributes showed that unchurched adults differ from the churched population in at least four dimensions.

As might be expected, men dominate the ranks of the unchurched. Although they comprise slightly less than half of the national population, men constitute 55% of the unchurched. They represent only 38% of the born again public, indicating an even wider disparity between those who are most devoted to their faith and those who are least interested in such matters.

The unchurched are also younger than the norm. The median age of U.S. adults is 43, but it is just 38 among the unchurched. Born again adults are substantially older than either group (median: 46).

Corresponding to their younger age, the survey also found that unchurched people are more likely than other to be single and to never have been married. Whereas one-quarter of American adults (26%) are single-never-married, nearly two-fifths of the unchurched fit that definition (37%).

The unchurched are also attracted to the coastal regions of the nation. Although just four out of ten adults (42%) live in the Northeast or West, more than half of the unchurched (51%) live there. In fact, the two largest states in the nation – California and New York – contain 18% of the nation’s residents, but one-quarter of its unchurched adults (23%).

Religious Differences

A study of 18 different religious factors – nine behaviors and nine beliefs – found that the unchurched are different from the national average on every one. The gap is even bigger on 16 of the 18 factors between the unchurched and the born again public.

In a typical week, unchurched people are less likely than all adults to read the Bible (19% compared to 44%) and to pray (63% versus 83%), and they are less likely to have embraced Jesus Christ as their savior. One of the more surprising outcomes, however, is that while about half of the churched population has accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, one out of every six unchurched adults (17%) has done so, as well.

Interestingly, if the minority of unchurched adults who are born again were connected to a church, the resulting increase would be nearly 13 million new people – more than have joined the nation’s churches in the past decade combined.

Among the theological differences uncovered were that unchurched adults are less likely than others to believe the Bible is accurate, that Jesus was sinless, that Satan is real, that salvation is through the grace of God, and that God is the creator and present-day ruler of the universe.

Patterns Identified

Upon examining the data, the director of the study, author and researcher George Barna, concluded that unchurched adults are notable for three unique behavioral patterns.

“The unchurched are more likely than others to be somewhat isolated from the mainstream activities of the society in which they live,” he explained. “They see themselves as outsiders and often take refuge in that status. Evidence of this arms-length approach to life, beyond their refusal to participate in church life, includes lower levels of voter registration, less money donated to non-profit organizations, fewer non-profits supported, lower levels of media usage, and less engagement in community service activities.”

The second distinguishing characteristic was what Barna called their non-committal nature. “You can see this emotional and intellectual distancing of themselves through their more moderate ideology, their more ambiguous theological perspectives, a lower likelihood of embracing terms used to describe oneself (such as “generous,” “friendly” and “deeply spiritual”), a substantially lower level of self-professed commitment to their faith of choice, and their rejection of the idea of responsibility for nurturing other people’s faith.” Barna also noted that the high proportion of atheists and agnostics among the unchurched fits this pattern of distaste for finite or irrevocable choices.

The final attribute is the independence of the unchurched. In addition to having the highest likelihood of registering to vote but refusing to align with a political party, the data show the unchurched to be less likely to marry, less likely to have children (even when married) and being less loyal to organizations and products.

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Challenges for the Faithful

Barna noted that to unchurched people embracing church life is “both counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.” Reaching out to unchurched people is difficult for born again Christians because the two groups have such different viewpoints and lifestyles. “Born again adults are more excited about a church’s strengths and more forgiving of its weaknesses, more disposed to spiritual growth, and less skeptical of theological and biblical claims. They neither see nor understand the obstacles that impede the unchurched. Addressing the reticence of the unchurched takes more than prayer and hard work: it requires a lot of deep reflection to see the world and the local church from a completely different angle.

“Unchurched people are not just lazy or uniformed,” the researcher continued. “They are wholly disinterested in church life – often passionately so. Stirring worship music won’t attract them because worship isn’t even on their radar screen. More comfortable pews cannot compete with the easy chair or the bed that already serve the unchurched person well. Church events cannot effectively compete with what the world has to offer. The only thing the Church can provide that no one else has is a life-changing, practical encounter – and on-going relationship – with the living God and with people transformed by similar encounters. Until such a connection is made, focusing on features, programs and benefits other than such a life-shaping encounter is more likely to lose ground than to gain it.”

Barna noted that the millions of young unchurched have no understanding of or interest in a church, even if it is “contemporary” in style. “Millions of young adults are more interested in truth, authenticity, experiences, relationships and spirituality than they are in laws, traditions, events, disciplines, institutions and religion. The confluence of preconceived notions, past experiences and evolving lifestyles and values means that existing churches simply cannot reach millions of today’s unchurched people. The rapidly swelling numbers of unchurched people may be forcing existing churches to reinvent their core spiritual practices while holding tightly to their core spiritual beliefs. It will take radically new settings and experiences to effectively introduce unchurched individuals to biblical principles and practices.”

Research Methodology

The data for the annual tracking survey on church attendance by The Barna Group is based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1014 adults conducted in late January and early February of 2004. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All non-institutionalized adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. The data were subjected to slight statistical weighting procedures to calibrate the survey base to national ethnic and gender proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative distribution of adults.

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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