Oct 24, 2005

From the Archives

Rapid Increase in Alternative Forms of The Church Are Changing the Religious Landscape

For a rapidly growing number of Americans, a local church is no longer the place to go as their primary religious meeting place. A new study by The Barna Group shows that new forms of religious experience and expression are growing in popularity, drawing millions of people closer to God but farther from involvement in a congregational church. New ways of experiencing and expressing faith, such as through house churches, marketplace ministries, and cyberchurches, are becoming the norm for millions of people.

Barna Access Plus

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

The Growth of New Models

For most of the past century, the local congregational church was the go-to place for people interested in experiencing God and being part of a community of faith. The United States has more than 300,000 Protestant congregations and some 20,000 Catholic parishes that have been the primary gathering place for Americans. During the past decades, about two-thirds of the nation’s adults have been attached to one of those congregations, with roughly 40% of adults showing up for religious services and programs in any given week.

The new research shows that more than fifty million adults now practice their faith through a variety of divergent faith models.

A new book by George Barna, entitled Revolution, indicates that since the turn of the millennium there have been major changes occurring in how people experience and express their faith. Based on a regular series of national surveys conducted by his company during the past quarter century, Barna discovered that discontent with congregational churches, changes in lifestyles, and a burgeoning desire to get closer to God, have caused many people to seek new ways of being in relationship with God and other God-seeking people.

In 2000, most of the nation’s organized religious activity took place at or through local churches. Today, Barna’s research points out, the action is shifting to newer forms of corporate religious commitment. In a typical week, 9% of all adults participate in a house church. An even greater proportion – 22% – engages in spiritual encounters that take place in the marketplace (e.g., with groups of people while they are at their place of work or play, or in other typical daily contexts). The Internet serves as the foundation for interactive faith experiences for more than one out of every ten adults, although most of them currently use it in tandem with another form of corporate religious experience.

Juggling Multiple Faith Contexts

The survey data suggest that millions of Americans keep a foot in several doors for an extended period of time. “It is not uncommon to find people who attend an alternative church gathering regularly but maintain some loose connection with a congregational church,” Barna explained. “Often, that connection is retained to satisfy the needs or expectations of a family member. Sometimes it is a reflection of interest in a special event held by the congregation, or the desire to stay connected to some of the people who make the congregational church their primary spiritual home. In their minds, though, and certainly in terms of where they invest their mind, heart and resources, it is the alternative church that emerges as their dominant form of church.”

The research also confirmed that a substantial portion of those who turn to alternative forms of church participate in two or more of those alternative forms. Barna indicated that it has only been in the past two or three years that there has been significant growth in these less prolific church models.

The Profile of Alternative Churchgoers

The findings from several Barna Group surveys conducted during the past twelve months reveal the characteristics of this emerging population of people who want more of God in their life and have had to leave a congregational form of the local church to satisfy that need. Terming these individuals “Revolutionaries” who are intent upon “being the Church rather than merely going to church,” the California-based researcher stated that the magnitude of this movement into new forms of religious community will reshape the religious world within the next two decades.

Some of the more intriguing attributes of these Revolutionaries who seek to experience and express their faith in alternative ways are:

  • Although the youngest two generations (Baby Busters and Mosaics) are widely involved, it is the Baby Boomers, who are largely responsible for megachurches redefining the church environment during the past quarter century, who are the most numerous in this shift.
  • Adults involved in a marketplace ministry are more than twice as likely as those connected only to a congregational church to have a biblical worldview and more than twice as likely to identify the Bible as the source of truth in life. They are also one-third more likely to contend that absolute moral truth exists.
  • About two-thirds of all adults engaged in a house church attend in any given week, with the remaining segment attending at least once a month. That is nearly identical to the attendance profile of people for whom a congregational church is their church home.
  • Men and women are equally likely to participate in marketplace-based ministry activity, while men are slightly more likely to engage in house church options.
  • The Midwest is the stronghold for congregational church connections, while the southern states have become the most fertile spawning grounds for marketplace ministry involvement, and participation in a house church is equally common everywhere outside of the Midwest.
  • Evangelical Christians are those most likely to get involved in an alternative form of the Christian church – and also the group most likely to participate in both a traditional and alternative church form. More than four out of ten evangelical adults are involved in an alternative form of church on a regular basis.
  • While whites dominate the national population, it is people of color who are leading the way in the alternative church world. Blacks, in particular, are drawn to house churches and marketplace gatherings. Compared to white adults, black adults are roughly twice as likely to be active in a house church (12% versus 6%) and are nearly twice as likely to engage in a marketplace-based ministry (36% compared to 19%). Hispanics adults are the ethnic group most likely to meet in a house church (16%). Asians are three times as likely to be involved in a marketplace gathering as a house church during a typical week, and are the least consistent in their participation in a house church.
  • Downscale adults (i.e., those with below-average levels of education and household income) are almost twice as likely as upscale individuals (i.e., those with above-average levels of education and income) to be active in an alternative form of church.
  • Many parents are involved in both a congregational and alternative church form – presumably to address the diverse interests of both the adults and children.
  • One-third of the alternative church crowd engages God and other believers in a church form other than a house church -that is, they are involved in a marketplace ministry, the cyberchurch, or a series of faith-focused events that connect them with God and other Christ-followers.

Barna also pointed out that surveys of people’s religious activity often blur our understanding of church behavior because many people immersed in alternative church experiences are not sure whether to describe themselves to survey interviewers as “attending a church service” or not. “Some of these individuals are so comfortable with their alternative forms of church that they do not hesitate to say they ‘attend church.’ Others, however, have been so conditioned to think of ‘church’ as the activities taking place on the campus of a religious congregation that they are more likely to describe themselves as unchurched, even though they engage in worship, service, prayer, financial sharing, and discipleship activities through their alternative faith community.”

Barna Access Plus

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

Source of This Material

The data reported in this summary are based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1002 adults conducted in July 2005; another survey of 1008 randomly sampled adults conducted in May of 2005; and 1003 adults randomly sampled by The Barna Group in January 2005. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample in each of these surveys is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All non-institutionalized adults in the 48 contiguous states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents in the survey sample corresponds to 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 demographic proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative distribution of adults.

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, in which people say 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, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; contending that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; stating that Satan exists; maintaining that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; asserting that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; saying that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Further, respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.” Being classified as “evangelical” is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement. Evangelicals represent 7% of the adult population.

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.

Get Barna in your inbox

Subscribe to Barna’s free newsletters for the latest data and insights to navigate today’s most complex issues.