How committed to God are Americans? It depends who you ask. Two new national surveys conducted by The Barna Group provide a glimpse into the contradictory views of church pastors and the people who attend churches, suggesting that the optimistic views of pastors are not justified. There is a huge gap between the perception of pastors and the reality of people’s devotion to God.
Pastors Believe That All Is Well Spiritually
Based on interviews with a representative national sample of 627 Protestant pastors, the Barna study discovered that pastors believe a large majority of their congregants deem their faith in God to be the highest priority in their life. On average, pastors contend that 70% of the adults in their church consider their personal faith in God to transcend all other priorities. Amazingly, as many as one out of every six pastors (16%) contends that 90% or more of the adults in their church hold their relationship with God as their top life priority!
Adults Are Lukewarm About God
In contrast to the upbeat pastoral view of people’s faith, a nationally representative sample of 1002 adults was asked the same question – i.e., to identify their top priority in life – and a very different perspective emerged. Only one out of every seven adults (15%) placed their faith in God at the top of their priority list. To make an apples-to-apples comparison, the survey isolated those who attend Protestant churches and found that even among that segment of adults, not quite one out of every four (23%) named their faith in God as their top priority in life.
Some population niches were more likely than others to make God their number one focus. Among those were evangelicals (51% of whom said their faith in God was their highest priority), African-Americans (38%) and adults who attend a house church (34%). The people groups least likely to put God first were adults under 30 years of age, residents of the Northeast and West, and those who describe themselves as “mostly liberal” on political and social matters.
Regardless of how the population was evaluated, though, there was no segment of the adult population that came close to the level of commitment that Protestant pastors claimed for churchgoers.
Misunderstanding Based on Poor Assessment
In trying to understand how pastors could have such a positive notion of the faith commitment of their people at the same time that the people themselves deny making God their top priority, the survey of Protestant pastors sheds light on the issue. A question asking pastors to identify the specific standards they use to evaluate the spiritual commitment of congregants showed that few pastors rely upon criteria that reflect genuine devotion to God.
Overall, only one measure – how many people are involved in some form of church-related volunteer activity or ministry effort – was listed by at least half of all pastors (54%) as a measure of the spiritual health of their congregation. Only two other criteria – church attendance and some type of life change experience (usually meaning that a person has made a first-time commitment to Jesus Christ as their savior) were named as important criteria by more than one out of every seven pastors. (Each of these criteria was listed by 45% of all pastors.) Other top-rated standards were whether congregants were involved in evangelism (13%), how much new information or knowledge about Christianity the people received (10%), how much money was donated to the church (10%), and the comments made by congregants to the pastor (10%).
The unifying thread running through pastors’ responses to an open-ended survey question regarding how congregational health is assessed was that the most common measures do not assess much beyond the superficial participation of people in church or faith-related activity. On average, a pastor might seek information as to attendance relative to previous years; how many people, if any, had accepted Christ as their savior; and whether there were enough people involved in the church’s ministry to keep existing programs going. In other words, the typical pastor measures the spiritual health of congregants by considering one or two numbers (e.g. church and Sunday school attendance) and a handful of vague impressions (what did exit comments suggest about people’s reaction to the sermon, how widespread was people’s participation in the singing, were there enough people who were sufficiently trained to enable the services and programs to operate smoothly).
Perhaps the most telling information relates to the measures that are not widely used by pastors to assess people’s spiritual health. Less than one out of every ten pastors mentioned indicators such as the maturity of a person’s faith in God, the intensity of the commitment to loving and serving God and people, the nature of each congregant’s personal ministry, the breadth of congregational involvement in community service, the extent to which believers have some forms of accountability for their spiritual development and lifestyle, the manner in which believers use their resources to advance the kingdom of God, how often people worship God during the week or feel as if they have experienced the presence of God, or how faith is integrated into the family experience of those who are connected with the church.
Activity That Does Not Concern Churches
In fact, the survey found some disturbing results concerning the priorities of pastors in how they measure spiritual health.
- Stewardship is rarely deemed a meaningful measure of church vitality. Church budgets are typically set based on the assumption that the average congregant will give 2% to 3% of their income to the ministry. Consequently, the fact that only 6% of born again adults tithe is not seen as an indicator of lukewarm commitment.
- Evangelism is not a priority in most churches, so the fact that most churched adults do not verbally share the gospel in a given year is not deemed problematic. Only one out of every eight churches bother to evaluate how many of their congregants are sharing their faith in Christ with non-believers.
- When pastors described their notion of significant, faith-driven life change, the vast majority (more than four out five) focused on salvation but ignored issues related to lifestyle or spiritual maturity. The fact that the lifestyle of most churched adults is essentially indistinguishable from that of unchurched people is not a concern for most churches; whether or not people have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior is the sole or primary indicator of “life transformation,” regardless of whether their life after such a decision produces spiritual fruit.
- Churches are prone to looking for indicators of serving people within the church more often than seeking signs that needy people outside the church are being cared for. In fact, for every two churches that consider the congregation’s breadth of ministry to people not connected to the church to be an indicator of spiritual health, there are five churches that focus on the amount of “in-reach” activity undertaken.
- Pastors are nine times more likely to seek reactions to their sermon than they are to assess the congregation’s reactions to visitors.
- Perhaps most alarming of all, pastors were 21 times more likely to evaluate whether people showed up (i.e., attendance) than to determine whether people experienced the presence of God during their time at the church.The Measures Dictate the OutcomesAccording to George Barna, the best-selling author of books such as Revolution, The Habits of Highly Effective Churches, and The Second Coming of the Church , two well-known adages summarize the situation. “It has been said that ‘you get what you measure’ and that ‘you see what you want to see.’ Both of those sayings go a long way toward describing the assessment problem that plagues churches today,” he stated. “The only way to explain the enormous gap between the perceptions of pastors and the reality of people’s lives is to understand that pastors evaluate spiritual health from an institutional perspective – that is, are people involved in keeping the system going – while people are aware of their unmet need to have a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God.”Barna, whose firm conducted both national surveys, felt that the information could help churches reconsider how they evaluate their ministry. “The nation’s adults deserve some credit for recognizing and acknowledging that God is not a top priority in their life. The challenge to church leaders is to stop pandering for popularity and to set the bar higher. People only live up to the expectations set for them. When the dominant expectations are that people show up, play nicely together and keep the system going, the potential for having the kinds of life-changing experiences that characterized the early Church are limited, at best. If churches believe in the life-changing power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit, they must hold people to a higher and more challenging standard.””There has never been a time,” the researcher continued, “when American society was in more dire need of the Christian Church to provide a pathway to a better future. Given the voluminous stream of moral challenges, and the rampant spiritual hunger that defines our culture today, this should be the heyday for biblical ministry. As things stand now, we have become content with placating sinners and filling auditoriums as the marks of spiritual health.”
Source of This Information
The data reported in this summary are based upon two telephone surveys conducted in October and November 2005. One survey included interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1002 adults, 18 years of age or older. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample in this survey 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.
The other survey was conducted among 627 Senior Pastors of Protestant churches across the nation, distributed proportionally among denominations. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample in this survey is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Churches included in the survey sample were located within the 48 continental states and received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative distribution of pastors and churches.
The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984, it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. If you would like to receive regular e-mailings of a brief overview of each new bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna Research web site (www.barna.org).
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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