Jun 28, 2010

From the Archives

Who is Active in “Group” Expressions of Faith? Barna Study Examines Small Groups, Sunday School, and House Churches

With the increase in megachurches, the prominence of “parachurch” leaders and organizations, and the presence of hundreds of thousands of Americans who serve as clergy and church staff, one often overlooked group is the laity – or the unpaid, unheralded people who comprise the Christian community in America.

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A new study from the Barna Group explores the profile of Americans who actively participate in faith. The study examined various expressions of “group” faith, such as: church attendance, small groups, adult Sunday school programs, church volunteering, and house churches. (Definitions of each type of activity, including how the researchers distinguished between small groups and home / house churches, can be found below in the research notes.)

The Barna study uncovered nine insights:

1.      Women drive most faith participation, with the exception of home churches or house churches. A majority of weekly churchgoers are women (53%). Small groups that meet for prayer or Bible study (60%) and Sunday school programs for adults (59%) are also more likely to be attended by women. Similarly, a majority of church volunteers (57%) are females. Home churches are the only type of participatory religious involvement in which most attenders are men (56%).

2.      Religious activities are typically missing single adults, especially those who have never been married. Just less than half of Americans are unmarried; however, the Barna study found that two-thirds of those who attend church, go to small groups, and participate in Sunday school are married; and 69% of church volunteers are married. Furthermore, single adults who have never experienced matrimony – that is, they are not currently divorced, separated or widowed – represent fewer than one-fifth of the adults involved, with worship attendance and volunteerism the least likely to attract these never-attached adults. House churches fared better in this regard, reflecting a 50-50 split of married and unmarried participants.

3.      Older adults also dominate faith involvement. Conventional wisdom suggests that older adults are more likely to participate spiritually, and the Barna research confirmed such thinking. Two-thirds of small group attenders as well as house church participants and three-fifths of church volunteers and Sunday school goers were ages 45 older. The most age-balanced activity was church attendance, with 56% of the spiritually active population being age 45 or older and 44% being ages 18 to 44. (Nationally, 52% of the population is 45-plus.) One of the challenges for churches that rely on small group strategies is that they are the “oldest” form of participatory faith expression (median age of 56) and they are least likely to include parents of young children.

4.      Regionally, Americans’ faith involvement falls along stereotypical lines. Residents of the South make up half of the nation’s small group attenders as well as a majority of its Sunday school attenders. Still, Southerners were among the least common house church participants. Those hailing from the Northeast were unlikely to be active in terms of small groups, Sunday school or volunteerism, while those in the West were among the largest share of house church participants. Sunday school was also comparatively uncommon in the West. Midwestern residents were about “average” on each of the five activities.

5.      Catholics are not particularly active beyond worship attendance, while evangelicals participate in many different forms of “group faith.” While Catholics make up one-quarter of all the nation’s worshippers each week, they are only one-tenth of small group attenders, Sunday School participants, and church volunteers. An even smaller proportion of house church attenders (6%) are Catholic. Protestants associated with an evangelical denomination are the largest share of involved believers, including activity in small groups, volunteering, and Sunday school. Interestingly, those associated with a mainline denomination represented an above-average percentage of church volunteers and house church participants.

6.      Attenders of larger churches involve themselves in the broadest spectrum of faith activities.  Americans who typically attend a church of at least 500 adults were among the most likely to also attend small groups, and house churches, and to volunteer. Those attending a medium-sized congregation (101 to 499 adults) were among the most likely to attend small groups and Sunday school classes. No notable patterns emerged among smaller churches.

7.      African-Americans represent a significant share of those involved in participatory faith. True to their community-oriented religious heritage and experience, blacks help to power the group religious expressions of the nation. While blacks are 13% of the nation’s adult population, the segment accounts for one-quarter of America’s small group participants (27%) and three-tenths (30%) of its house church attenders. They also comprise a healthy slice of Sunday school attenders and church volunteers. Whites were comparatively less engaged in small groups and house churches, while Hispanics tend to abstain from small group involvement.

8.      Personal Bible reading is most common among small group attenders. In comparing a personal spiritual activity with participatory involvement, the study showed that two-thirds of church attenders (67%) said they had read the Bible outside of church in the last week – whether their church was a conventional or house church. Small group attenders were more likely to read the Bible personally (84%). Bible reading levels among church volunteers (77%) and Sunday school attenders (77%) were sandwiched between the other forms of group engagement.

9.      Many religiously active Americans lean toward conservative political views, though there is more diversity than expected – especially among house church attenders. Churchgoers, small group attenders, and church volunteers are likely to be either politically conservative or moderate. House church attenders are unique in that one-quarter of such participants describe themselves as political liberals and nearly half are registered Democrats – uncharacteristically high levels compared with other faith activities, perhaps connected with the above-average proportion of black adults who report house church attendance. Further demonstrating their non-conventional and independent inclinations, one-quarter of house church attenders said they are not registered to vote, twice the national average.

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“There certainly is a dominant demographic faith profile of Christians in the nation,” commented David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. “The typical profile of an involved Christian is a married woman in her early fifties.”

“Still, the one-size-fits-all maxim does not adequately describe Americans’ religious participation. Significant diversity exists within the ‘group’ involvement of the American Christian community. And while there are many people who are engaged in various activities, the study shows that specific types of group participation attract particular types of people. This was especially true of the demographics and psychographics of house church attenders, who are younger, less predominantly female, and also more independent in terms of political views and affiliations.”

Kinnaman pointed to one of the implications, which is “recognizing that not everyone is spiritually nurtured in the same spiritual environments. What it means to be involved as a Christian is highly dependent on region, demographics, and other background factors. At the same time, because there are so many needs and preferences, faith leaders must acknowledge that their churches and faith communities cannot be ‘all things to all people.’ Clarity in vision and purpose is crucial to providing relevant and transformational settings where people can grow spiritually.”

About the Research
This Barna Update article is based upon nationwide tracking studies, called OmniPollSM, conducted by the Barna Group.  To facilitate a larger sample of Americans active in various forms of faith, the research combined ten recent nationwide studies, each with at least 1,000 interviews. The total sample used for this report is 10,232 interviews, conducted during the last 24 months (from the summer of 2008 through February 2010). This includes a sample of 4,965 Americans who had attended church within the seven days prior to the interview (sampling error of +1.4 percentage point); 536 church volunteers (+4.2 percentage points); 671 adult Sunday school attenders (+3.8 percentage points); 672 attenders of small groups (+3.8 percentage points); and 218 attenders of house churches (+6.6 percentage points).

The telephone interviews were derived from a random sample of residents of the continental United States, age 18 and older. Interviews were conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±1.4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

Small group attenders were defined as those who “participate in a small group that meets regularly for Bible study, prayer or Christian fellowship, not including a Sunday school or 12-step group.”

House church attenders were defined as those who “meet regularly in a home or place other than church building” as part of “groups that are not part of a typical church, meet independently, are self-governed and consider themselves to be a complete church on their own.” The survey question further clarifies by asking if they person is a participant in such a group, sometimes known as a house church or simple church, which is not associated in any way with a local, congregational type of church.”

Mainline attenders are those who affiliate with these denominations: American Baptist Churches U.S.A., Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Methodist Church, and Presbyterian Church, USA.

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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