Mar 20, 2006

From the Archives

Spirituality May Be Hot in America, But 76 Million Adults Never Attend Church

Marketers devote billions of dollars to penetrating the Baby Boomer market – the generation of 77 million individuals that populate the nation. There is another market segment equally as large that is of interest to the faith community: the 76 million adults who regularly avoid going to church.

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A new report based on its annual tracking survey by The Barna Group reveals that one-third of the adult population (34%) has not attended any type of church service or activity, other than a special event such as a funeral or wedding, during the past six months.

The Barna report described this “unchurched” population in relation to its spiritual and demographic background.

The Religious Profile of the Unchurched

Citing past research that discovered most unchurched adults were formerly churched, the new study indicates that six out of ten unchurched people (62%) consider themselves to be Christian, 4% say they are Jewish, 4% are associated with an eastern religion, and 24% say they are atheist. Denominationally, the largest share of unchurched adults is made up of lapsed Catholics: almost three out of every ten unchurched people (29%) associate with Catholicism. One out of every five (18%) say they are Baptist.

In the eyes of these individuals, absence from church life does not indicate a lack of commitment to the Christian faith. Three out of four unchurched adults who consider themselves to be Christian (77%) contend that they are either absolutely or moderately committed to the Christian faith.

Millions of unchurched adults engage in spiritual activity during a typical week. For instance, nearly two-thirds (62%) pray to God, one-fifth (20%) read from the Bible, and 5% participate in a small group that meets in someone’s home for Bible study, prayer or Christian fellowship.

The aggregate numbers of the unchurched are not as clean-cut as they used to be, however, one out of every eight unchurched adults (13%) is involved in a house church at least once a month, with another 15% involved in a house church less frequently. In the survey, these house church participants stated that they had not attended a “Christian church service or event” during the past six months, despite having attended numerous house church meetings during that period.

Unchurched Possess A Variety of Beliefs

Adults disassociated with a conventional church have a wide range of beliefs, some of which are biblical in nature. Some of the perspectives held by half or more of the unchurched population, either strongly or moderately, include the following:

  • 50% agree that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches.
  • 66% agree that their religious faith is very important in their life today.
  • 64% contend that Satan is not a living being but is just a symbol of evil.
  • 62% believe that a good person can earn eternal salvation
  • 51% believe that Jesus Christ sinned while He lived on earth.
  • 61% say their single, most important purpose in life is to love God with all their heart, mind, strength and soul.
  • 55% argue that they are totally committed to having a deeper relationship with God and will do whatever it takes to get and maintain that relationship.
  • 66% say they are completely committed to making the world, and other people’s lives, better.

The Barna Group survey noted that one out of every five unchurched adults (21%) is born again Christians. However, only 4% of unchurched adults possess a biblical worldview.

George Barna, who directed the study, also pointed out that a minority of unchurched adults has a biblical view of God. In addition, less than one out of five say that involvement in a community of faith is necessary to become a mature and complete person. Interestingly, nearly one-quarter of the unchurched (23%) say that a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed mainly through involvement in a local church.

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Demographic Profile

As has been the pattern throughout the two decades that Barna has been tracking religious belief and behavior in the U.S., men represent the majority of unchurched adults (55%). However, during the past decade there has been a significant increase in the percentage of women who avoid church activity.

The unchurched rate is highest in the Northeast (40%) and West (43%). It is also more common among single adults (43%) than married adults (28%). People groups with abnormally high levels of church avoidance include Asians (56%) and those who consider themselves to be “mostly liberal” on social and political issues (51%).

Connecting With the Unchurched

Having studied the growing numbers of unchurched adults in America for more than two decades, George Barna indicated that we are approaching one of the two times of year when massive numbers of the unchurched alter their pattern and attend a church service. “Every year, many previously unchurched people return to a church for one or more Easter season services. More often than not, this is the result of one of two motivations: the compelling invitation of a close friend who accompanies them to the service, or a personal crisis that compels them to seek God more fervently. Impersonal marketing efforts generally have limited impact in persuading the unchurched to break their normal Sunday morning habits.”

Barna also cited earlier research he had described in his book, Grow Your Church From the Outside In,   which showed the unchurched have a different set of objectives when they return to a church than many church leaders might expect. “These people tend to be less turned on by the music or preaching than by a sense of God’s presence – even though they don’t quite know how to explain or understand it – and by the feeling that they are visiting a group of people who are a genuine community of loving and accepting individuals. We found that the sermon has less to do with their return to a church than their emotional experience with God and the people gathered.”

Research Description and Definitions

The data in this report are based on interviews with 1003 adults from across the nation. These telephone surveys were conducted by The Barna Group, during January 2006, based upon a random sample of people 18 years of age and older living within the 48 continental states. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. In the research, the distribution of survey respondents corresponded to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

“Born again Christians” are defined 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.”

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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