At the beginning of this year, Barna began analyzing decades’ worth of research for the State of the Church project, part of a year-long effort to see the past, present and future of the U.S. Church with greater clarity. Just a couple months later, however, 2020 took a dramatic turn and defied any expectations we might have brought into a new decade. As the world dealt with a global pandemic, and the U.S. suffered increased division over racial tension and a polarized election year, Barna continued conducting surveys—including 44,661 interviews—to study the intersection of faith and culture in our nation.
Throughout the year, Barna—like so many others—has been forced to pivot numerous times, reevaluating how our team can best serve the Church in the midst of uncertainty. This realignment, however, resulted in the creation of valuable and timely resources, including the Church Pulse Weekly podcast and accompanying tool kit and a collection of new reports.
To close out 2020, we’ll recap Barna’s 10 most-read online releases from this year. The stories below are a reflection of what our nation and the Church has walked through over the past 365 days, covering somber findings, stark divides, moments of healing and glimmers of hope for the coming year.
1. One in Three Practicing Christians Has Stopped Attending Church During COVID-19
As initial safe-at-home ordinances were lifting across the country (April–May 2020), Barna surveyed thousands of Americans to see what their new Sunday morning routines looked like during the COVID-19 response. At that time, data showed that, among practicing Christians—those who identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and attend church at least monthly (prior to COVID-19)—over half (53%) had streamed their regular church online within the past four weeks. Another 34 percent admitted to streaming a different church service online other than their own, essentially “church hopping” digitally.
Finally, about one-third of practicing Christians (32%) said they had done neither of these things. Though some of these churchgoers may have been part of the minority of congregations that were still gathering for physical worship during those weeks, we can, for the most part, confidently interpret this group as those who dropped out of church for the time being.
2. White Christians Have Become Even Less Motivated to Address Racial Injustice
In Race Today, a 2020 Barna briefing that studied perceptions of race in America following the surge of racial justice protests and activism, analysts found that Americans have moved toward being less motivated. In 2019, one in five U.S. adults was “unmotivated” (11%) or “not at all motivated” (9%); just a year later, in the summer of 2020, that percentage increased to 28 percent (12% unmotivated, 16% not at all motivated). Meanwhile, the number of those who were “somewhat motivated” shrunk and the number of those who were “motivated” held fairly steady over the year, indicating some of those who might have previously been on the fence about addressing racial injustice moved toward being firmly opposed to engaging.
The unmotivated segment saw growth among both practicing and self-identified Christians. Among self-identified Christians, the unmotivated group shifted from 19 percent in 2019 (10% unmotivated, 9% not at all motivated) to 30 percent (12% unmotivated, 18% not at all motivated) in 2020. For practicing Christians, those who were unmotivated in 2019 (9% unmotivated, 8% not at all motivated) increased to 30 percent (12% unmotivated, 18% not at all motivated) in 2020. In one year, that’s more than an 11 percentage point increase overall in Christians uninspired to address racial injustice, including a doubling of those who were “not at all motivated” in both the practicing and self-identified groups.
Visit Barna Access to read the full briefing, Race Today: How the Summer of 2020 Changed Perceptions of Racial Justice—and What It Means for Christian Leaders.
3. Signs of Decline & Hope Among Key Metrics of Faith
The first and perhaps most significant change we explored as part of the State of the Church project is that practicing Christians are now a much smaller segment of the entire population. In 2000, 45 percent of all those sampled qualified as practicing Christians. That share has consistently declined over the last 19 years. As of early 2020, just one in four Americans (25%) qualified as a practicing Christian. In essence, the share of practicing Christians has nearly dropped in half since 2000.
Where did these practicing Christians go? The data indicate that their shift was evenly split. Half of them fell away from consistent faith engagement, essentially becoming non-practicing Christians (2000: 35% vs. 2020: 43%), while the other half moved into the non-Christian segment (2000: 20% vs. 2019: 30%). This shift also contributed to the growth of the atheist / agnostic / none segment, which nearly doubled in size during the same amount of time (2003: 11% vs. 2018: 21%).
4. What Research Has Revealed About the New Sunday Morning
What does the new Sunday morning look like for Christian households who continued to tune in to virtual worship services throughout the pandemic?
Practicing and non-practicing Christians have different routines during online services. For example, while three in five practicing Christians (64%) pray along with prayers, only two in five non-practicing Christians (41%) do the same. This trend is similar for other practices, such as households watching services together at the same time (42% practicing Christians vs. 21% non-practicing Christians) or singing along with worship (40% vs. 23%).
A number of churchgoers also admitted that attending online services offer opportunity for them to multitask while the service is streaming (15% practicing Christians vs. 30% non-practicing Christians). Although, as Barna has previously noted, distraction is reportedly a common part of in-person attendance too, regardless of age and device usage.
5. Why Millennials Aren’t Watching Your Streamed Worship Services
2020 wasn’t the first year that church leaders have expressed to Barna that they are struggling in their ministry to younger adult generations—but the strain and distance of the year intensified some of those challenges. For instance, Barna data gathered in late May 2020 showed that as one in three practicing Christians stopped streaming church during the early months of the pandemic, the digital dropout was led by practicing Christian Millennials; fully half (50%) were not tuning in to online worship services at the time.
In light of this, Barna president David Kinnaman and Director of Insights Mark Matlock sat down to review what research tells us about these age groups. The five-day video series, Five Essential Conversations About Ministry to the Next Generation, began with an exploration of some of the reasons Millennials may have stopped streaming digital church during the pandemic and offered three frameworks leaders can use to think through how they invite younger generations to engage in online worship.
Get all five extended videos in a Barna Access Plus subscription, which gives you unlimited access to Barna Next Gen content, including Barna courses, labs and emerging data on younger generations to fuel your next gen ministry strategy.
6. Five Trends Defining Americans’ Relationship to Churches
Churchgoers are divided on the value of church. David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, observes, “Those who frequent worship services do so largely because of personal enjoyment, but many churchgoers also readily admit that they believe people are tired of church as usual.”
On the positive side of the ledger, as of late 2019, two-thirds of churched adults said they attended church because they “enjoy doing it” (65%); the same was true for four in five practicing Christians (82%). Still, it’s worth noting that one in six churchgoers (17%) said they attend because they “have to” and one in seven (15%) does o so “out of habit.”
While most churchgoers attributed positive feelings to their participation in church, half of Christians agreed that “church as usual” is declining in popularity. Or, at least, churchgoers perceived that other people feel this way.
7. Introducing the State of the Church 2020
In a letter from Barna Group president David Kinnaman on why Barna re-launched the State of the Church project in 2020, he stated, “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.
“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.”
After a tumultuous 2020, Barna’s sense of urgency to help the Church navigate the current moment and prepare for the future is even more heightened. In light of this, the State of the Church has expanded into a larger, multimedia series that includes research on the state of digital church, the next generation and leadership, among other core concerns. Continued coverage will be released here and on Barna Access throughout the coming year.
8. 5 Trends Shaping the Next Season of Next Gen Discipleship
The outlook for young adults and teens—which, data show, was already starkly different than that of generations past—was reshaped yet again in the shadow of the pandemic. Further, half of pastors told Barna they were struggling in their ministry to kids and youth in this time.
Among the most dire concerns this year was loneliness and anxiety in young adults. According to data from a global study of more than 15,000 18–35-year-olds, despite being part of the most digitally connected generation, young adults and teens are prone to feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Concerns around the mental health of both old and young generations only grew once the pandemic’s disruptions began, whether due to financial stress, ongoing social distancing, physical well-being or the loss of loved ones.
Barna observes that young adults long for meaningful connection—and hope this is something the Church will offer.
9. What’s on the Minds of America’s Pastors
Barna has long reported on Christians’ responses to cultural trends, shifts and movements in the U.S. and beyond, and in early 2020, we examined some of their most pressing problems in a new light. In a Barna pastor poll from late 2019, concerns around discipleship, vapid teachings and cultural shifts were top of mind. Additionally, pastors listed “addressing complex social issues with biblical integrity” (58%) as another top concern facing the U.S. Christian Church today. This sentiment echoes findings in Faith Leadership in a Divided Culture, when Christian clergy spoke up about the discomfort that often accompanies addressing social issues from the pulpit. Exactly half of clergy reported frequently (11%) and occasionally (39%) feeling limited in their ability to speak out on moral issues because people will take offense. Another 40 percent said they frequently (6%) or occasionally (34%) felt pressure to speak out on moral and social issues that they’re not comfortable discussing.
10. Christian Millennials Are Most Likely Generation to Lean Toward Charismatic Worship
One aspect of the pandemic-era church that was largely impacted by social distancing guidelines was group expressions of worship, like corporate singing or taking communion. Pre-COVID data helps to illuminate the worship styles and preferences of believers across generational, denominational and ethnic lines. Worship through song and praying aloud are seen as the central practices. Elders consistently ranked the importance of a range of weekly worship expressions more highly, except when it comes to the Pentecostal or charismatic act of “glossolalia,” or what is more commonly referred to as praying in tongues or prayer language. Meanwhile, over one-third of Millennials (36%) believes this is an important expression that should be a weekly part of their worship experience. Only one in five Gen X (20%), 14 percent of Boomers and 6 percent of Elders say the same. These generational findings fall in line with Barna’s past reporting on charismatic Christianity. Across all other options, Millennials follow a pattern of preference similar to that of older believers, but are less likely to rank each specific worship practice as important.
About the Research
The statistics and data throughout these studies have been drawn from a series of national public opinion surveys conducted by Barna Group. All of the studies were conducted by Barna Group, unless otherwise noted, among a nationally representative sample of the population identified. For a more detailed methodology for each study, see the research methodology in the “About the Research” section in the footer of each respective article.
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