This year, here at the start of a new decade—the 2020 decade!—Barna Group is returning to one of its foundational projects: the State of the Church.
In this pivotal moment, our aim is to help Christian leaders gain a realistic-and-hopeful context and discern a faithful direction forward in our chaotic, disruptive culture. Or, as we’ll say a lot this year: to see clearly, lead confidently and engage effectively.
Assisting pastors and Christian leaders as they build thriving churches and organizations is urgent today. The challenges of leading the people of God are formidable and still the opportunities for community transformation and personal flourishing are surprisingly bright. I’ll say more about that in a bit.
First, some background. Serving the Church through research and insights wove itself into the original vision of George and Nancy Barna when they started their market research company in 1984 in their garage in Los Angeles. In those years, there wasn’t much in the way of social research on faith or religion. Gallup tracked a few things like weekly church attendance and sociologists labored in their fields. But research-derived insights were, for the most part, few and far between.
Barna quickly became one of the most quoted sources in the Church by making religion research clear, compelling, bite-sized and affordable. George’s efforts to assess the Church in America took shape in must-read books and detailed data reports (such as Vital Signs, The Frog in the Kettle and What Americans Believe) as well as seminars in which George and his family crisscrossed the country in an RV, waking up pastors to the dawn of new trends.
Making Sense of the Cultural Swirl
When I started working with George Barna in 1995—after a decade or so into his prodigious output—he was already a household name among pastors. During my interview for an internship, his fifth annual Barna Report, Virtual America, rested on the coffee table in the lobby. In that book, and others, he predicted the coming wave of cultural, spiritual and technological disruption. After getting the job, I worked alongside George and got to see first-hand how the annual State of the Church research catalyzed pastors toward greater awareness of the cultural swirl.
After working alongside George for 15 years, I decided to try my hand at leading the company he founded. And, so, we agreed that I would purchase the business, which I did in 2009. For a number of reasons, I felt the company should “go dark” on most of our State of the Church work. Mostly, I was concerned that we did not have the capability to do the full project in a way consistent with my vision for leading Barna Group. To be clear, we would still research and track the usual state of the Church metrics; we just wouldn’t release it in the typical way we had done in the past.
Things were different in 2009 than they had been in the early years of the company: the field of religion research was as crowded as a community pool in July; innovations in data collection and methodologies were affecting the entire survey industry (e.g., the shift from telephone interviews to online surveys); technologies like Survey Monkey were democratizing and changing the research landscape; and a new generation of pastors and leaders were emerging on the scene, with different expectations of research-driven insights.
Those are a few of the factors I was considering, yet all of that led to the decision that we’d get back to the State of the Church when we were ready.
We believe that time is now.
First, we’ve got a decade’s worth of tracking research—built on the foundation of the previous 25 years—that is ready to be unveiled. That’s another reason we’re ready to re-launch State of the Church: the team here at Barna. Our research team, led by Brooke Hempell, is deeper than it’s ever been, talented and committed to serving Christian leaders.
Speaking of stats, more than analyzing the past tracking questions, we’ve been working to expand how we measure the State of the Church. We’re going to introduce you to research that measures how people are flourishing and how churches are thriving. Christian leaders need even better tools and insights to see clearly, and we’ve been working hard on that.
Third, we have better tools today to inform Christian leaders than we did a decade ago. Some of those things include our growing specialty at data journalism, our creative proficiency in design and infographics and our free webcasts that train more than 50,000 leaders every year.
Fourth, Barna is prepared to bring you the State of the Church because we’ve spent the last decade honing the art of partnerships. We’ve partnered with other organizations, leaders, researchers and outside voices—enabling us to help pastors even better understand the insights and implications of our findings. We want State of the Church 2020 to not just describe reality, but also point toward solutions, and Barna accomplishes that through partnerships.
Barna’s partnerships the last five years have covered a variety of topics, including The State of Discipleship, two studies addressing the state of evangelism—Reviving Evangelism and Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age—as well as The State of Youth Ministry and The State of Pastors.
Partnerships weave another essential thread of the State of the Church 2020: the ability to partner with those who serve pastors and churches. The Church is much more than simply local congregations. So we are also building the State of the Church to serve network leaders (denominations, associations, city networks and so on). We want this project to represent the state of the whole Church.
Finally, technology is going to power Barna’s State of the Church 2020 initiative in ways that were beyond imagination back in 1984. We’ve been working on digital tools—in partnership with an innovative company called Gloo, led by Scott Beck—that will provide interactive access to the research and insights. This year, we will also enable pastors to understand the state of their church through a secure tool called the Barna ChurchPulse. In other words, you’ll receive greater insights into your context compared to national norms. We can’t wait to show you these innovations throughout 2020.
Measure What Matters
Mostly, though, we are re-launching State of the Church as a result of a prayerful season for Barna’s leadership. Our team has increasingly felt the urgency to help prepare the Church for its collective future. We are pouring everything we’ve learned into this—our most comprehensive effort yet. We hope that our State of the Church project can provide you with essential insights and lead to data-informed actions.
The disruption George Barna predicted has come on like a tsunami. Pastors are much older as a cohort than they were in the early 1990s. In other words, the clergy are “graying,” which reflects a crisis of enrolling, equipping and elevating younger leaders. Partly as a result, but for a wide range of other reasons, churches are struggling to connect with and retain Millennials and Gen Zers. Pastors feel intense pressure to lead faithfully in a challenging, contentious, divisive time. Technology, social media and what we call “digital Babylon” are fundamentally changing the rules of leadership. The credibility of the Church is waning.
So how will pastors respond? The disruption goes deeper than we imagine, but that also means the opportunities for ministry are richer and more unexpected than many perceive.
We firmly believe in the work of the local church and we want to see people and pastors flourishing and their churches thrive. We want to help you better understand and measure what matters for the sake of Gospel transformation.
What You Can Expect
So, over the course of 2020, Barna will be releasing reports each month examining the State of the Church. You can sign up for updates here.
We will be hosting a number of free, major webcasts, enabling you to watch and learn alongside your whole team. The first one is taking place on March 10, for network leaders (that includes denomination, association, parachurch, city network, or other network leaders). We will show you how the State of the Church works for networks.
The big launch webcast for church leaders will happen on April 28. Trusted pastor and leader Carey Nieuwhof will be co-hosting these events. We hope you hold the date now for your team to gather together and learn.
We have many exciting announcements coming this year and many solutions yet to come, so, stay tuned.
We want to serve you with humility, so you can see clearly, lead confidently and engage the changing culture effectively.
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, 2020