Mar 28, 2005

From the Archives

One in Three Adults Is Unchurched

Despite widespread efforts to increase church attendance across the nation, the annual survey of church attendance conducted by The Barna Group shows that one-third of all adults (34%) remain “unchurched.” That proportion has changed little during the past five years. However, because of the nation’s population continuing growth, the number of unchurched adults continues to grow by nearly a million people annually.

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Religious Activity

The research confirms that millions of unchurched people are spiritually active. For instance, one out of every five reads the Bible in a typical week; six out of ten pray to God each week; and during the past year 5% have shared their faith in Jesus Christ with people who are not professing Christians. In fact, nearly one million unchurched adults tithe their income – that is, donate at least 10% of their annual household revenue to non-profit entities. While these tithers are not giving their money to a church, they are giving to a variety of parachurch ministries that serve people throughout the world.

During a typical month, six out of ten unchurched adults worship God (but not via church services); three out of ten study the Bible; and one out of every seven has times of prayer and Bible reading with family members. The religious media play a part in their spiritual life, too, with four out of ten absorbing Christian content through television, radio, magazines or faith-based websites during a typical month. In addition, one-quarter of them have conversations with one or more friends who held them accountable for carrying out their faith principles.

One explanation for this significant degree of religious involvement is that only one-quarter of this group (24%) are atheists and agnostics. One-fifth (20%) are adults who are aligned with a non-Christian faith. The remaining 56% are people who consider themselves to be Christian. In fact, 15% of the unchurched are born again Christians: they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that they deem important in their life, and believe they will go to Heaven after death because of their confession of sin and acceptance of Jesus Christ as their savior.

Religious Beliefs

The belief profile of unchurched Americans veers from mirroring the beliefs of most Americans to differing substantially. The unchurched are similar regarding their contention that Satan is a symbol of evil but not a living entity (67% believe this); that if people are good enough they can earn their way into Heaven (61%); and that Jesus committed sins during His time on earth (51%).

However, the unchurched adults significantly stray from the national norm on other questions. They are only half as likely to firmly believe that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches (25% agree with that notion); are less likely to possess a biblical view of God (only 46% see Him as the “perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the universe” who still rules His creation today); and are less likely to believe that the most important purpose of life is to “love God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul” (63% agree).

When compared to past studies in which the unchurched were asked identical questions about their beliefs, the current research shows that there has been little change in the spiritual perspectives of the unchurched in the past decade.

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Emerging Patterns

There have been some discernible shifts in the characteristics of the unchurched population over the past decade. The church dropout rate among people who define themselves as being somewhere middle-of-the-road on political issues is escalating faster than among those who are either conservative or liberal. And the Northeast continues to harbor the largest percentage of unchurched adults of any other region in the country. Currently, 42% of adults in the Northeast have no church involvement.

Another surprise is that Catholics, whose doctrine defines absence from weekly church services to be a sin, are more likely than Protestants to stray from church events. Some of that gap is attributable to the above average percentage of Hispanics who have dropped out of the local church (41% of them are unchurched).

Young adults are more resistant to church life than are people from older generations. In fact, an analysis of church attendance data covering the past two decades indicates that the two younger generations are more resistant to church life than the Baby Boomers were at a similar point in their development.

Surprisingly, “downscale” individuals (i.e., no college degree, below average household income) also are much more likely than their “upscale” counterparts (i.e., college graduates with above-average household income levels) to stay away from local churches.

A Perspective On The Unchurched

Having studied church attendance patterns for more than twenty years, researcher George Barna suggested that the consistent resistance to church life in recent years is indicative of a historic shift in the nation’s spiritual vision. “To view the plateaued level of the unchurched population as simply an indication of stagnation in religious behavior is naive. There are, indeed, millions of unchurched people who want nothing to do with organized religion or spiritual development. The more important trend, however, is that a large and growing number of Americans who avoid congregational contact are not rejecting Christianity as much as they are shifting how they interact with God and people in a strategic effort to have a more fulfilling spiritual life. This data, combined with other studies we have recently been conducting, suggests that we are on the precipice of a new era of spiritual experience and expression.”

Barna expects the percentage of adults who are unchurched to grow during the coming decade. “For the past few years the percentage has leveled off,” he explained. “However, the emergence of a national body of spiritual leaders who are assisting unchurched people in their quest for spiritual depth through means and relationships that are outside the usual institutional vehicles is significant. We anticipate substantial growth in the number of people who are not connected to a congregational church but who are committed to growing spiritually. It would not be surprising to witness a larger slice of the born again population shift from the ‘churched’ to ‘unchurched’ column of the ledger over the next ten years. What’s amazing about the coming transition is that it is likely to occur without any real decline in activities such as Bible reading, prayer, tithing, family faith activity or service to the needy. The people involved will be altering the locus of their activity without diminishing the intensity of their commitment to God and to their faith.”

Research Source and Methodology

The data reported in this summary are based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1003 adults conducted in January 2005 by The Barna Group. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the sample of parents is ±3.2 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. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative distribution of adults. The data cited from studies in prior years are based on national surveys of random samples of 1000 or more adults conducted during the same time period of the respective years described, using the same survey questions to measure the items addressed in this report.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys 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 were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

Generations identified in this report include the Mosaics, born from 1984-2002; Baby Busters, born 1965-1983; Baby Boomers, born 1946-1964; and Builders, born from 1927-1945.

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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