What does unity really mean for Christians in today’s divided world?
In the summer of 2022, Barna Group conducted a study with The Genius of One to explore Christian opinion on major faith topics, a key one being unity. In an election year and with holiday gatherings (and their related tensions) approaching, it may feel like unity is a hard thing to come by, even among Christians. This article explores recent data on both Christians’ and pastors’ perspectives of the subject.
Nearly Half of Pastors & Christians View Unity as “Agreement”
When asking Christians which terms they associate with experiences of unity, the definitions vary. Further, pastors and Christians differ in their opinions about the term as well. For pastors, words like “harmony” (70%), “reconciliation” (52%) and “sacrifice” (41%) come to mind, while Christians tend to say “alliance” (39%) or “sameness” (31%).
Pastors and Christians most align when they describe unity as “agreement.” Forty-seven percent of both pastors and Christians associate unity with this term.
Practicing Christians are more likely than nonpracticing Christians to associate unity with “harmony," and nonpracticing Christians cite “sameness” (31%) more so than practicing Christians (29%). Regular church attendance and faith engagement may provide unique opportunities to learn about and practice unity frequently, affecting the way practicing Christians view its role in their lives.
62% of Pastors Say They Often Preach About Unity Between Church Members
When it comes to preaching on the topic of unity, two in three pastors (62%) report preaching often about unity between members of their church. However, only 48 percent of Christians affirm that their pastors speak on this specific type of unity often.
Beyond inter-congregation unity, pastors don't often bring up the topic of unity when it involves bridging actual differences or distances. This suggests there might be limits to the types of unity pastors feel compelled or qualified to address.
Under one-third of pastors (30%) reports often speaking on unity between people of different political beliefs; only 23 percent of Christians report hearing this. Furthermore, 28 percent of Christians report hearing their pastors speak on unity between congregants and people of other religious beliefs, yet only 12 percent of pastors say this is true.
Why the discrepancies? The lack of clarity around the definition of unity may be a contributing factor. Perhaps pastors think they speak more on a topic than they actually do, or maybe Christians have diminished interest or recall for sermons on forms of unity that don’t resonate with them.
Christians Find More Unity at Home & with Friends Than in Church
Where are Christians experiencing unity, however they choose to define it?
About three in five Christians (61%) report experiencing unity most often in their homes, while 48 percent say they experience this in their friendships. Just over one in three (35%) says unity is found in their church.
Looking at pastors' and Christians' favored definitions for unity, it makes sense that households and friend groups may provide more opportunities for things like harmony, agreement or sameness. Meanwhile, unity in a church or in other spheres of community may require more effort or perhaps isn’t immediately apparent.
Nonpracticing Christians are also represented in this data, and as they don't regularly attend church, they may have more opportunities to experience unity in the non-church environments they frequent.
It's important for churches—those who lead them and those who attend them—to be attuned to some of the ambiguity and even disunity around the concept of unity.
In the same survey, Barna asked Christians about other elements of healthy community, such as spiritual gifts, boundaries, conflict and forgiveness—many of which also produce stark differences in opinion between pastors and Christians. Interested in learning more about how Christians and pastors view unity and other faith topics? Download this brief report from Barna Access to review the data.
About the Research
For this study, we conducted a quantitative survey of 1,223 U.S. Christian adults and 426 U.S. pastors. The online survey for U.S. Christians was conducted from June 1–10, 2022. The online survey for U.S. pastors was conducted from July 7–18, 2022. The margin of error for the sample is +/- 2.2 percent for U.S. Christians and +/- 2.5 percent for U.S. pastors at the 95 percent confidence level.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2022