After a tumultuous 2020, Americans were hopeful for a more peaceful 2021. While this year has been marked by the impact of COVID-19, continued political polarization and resounding cries for racial justice, the Church has remained a steady source of comfort and hope for many.
In an effort to help church leaders better serve their people and their cities, much of Barna’s reporting this year focused on the well-being of U.S. adults and pastors, understanding and engaging with Gen Z, the importance of pursuing racial justice and upholding the legacy of the Black Church.
Today’s article offers a recap of Barna’s top 10 releases of 2021, along with commentary on a handful of the findings from some of our very own Barna voices.
1. 38% of Pastors Have Thought About Quitting Full-Time Ministry
Data collected from Barna’s pastor poll throughout 2021 indicate that U.S. pastors are currently in crisis and at risk of burnout. Notably, in 2021 alone, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of pastors who are thinking about quitting ministry entirely.
With pastors’ well-being on the line, and many on the brink of burnout, 38 percent indicate they have considered quitting full-time ministry within the past year. This percentage rose 9 full points (from 29%) since Barna asked church leaders this same question at the beginning of 2021.
“The change that has been accelerating in the last 18 months has left a lot of pastors with their heads spinning and their hearts spinning as well,” says Joe Jensen, Barna’s vice president of church engagement. “All the chaos, all the pressure, the magnifying glass of social media, the pandemic, the politics, the hyperdigital context, it makes sense that you have a lot of pastors saying, ‘Is this really what I signed up for? Is this what I was called into?’
“Figures like king David, Moses, other biblical figures—they had questions, they had doubts about their calling. Now’s a great opportunity to lean into the tension, to go deeper into their relationship with Jesus, and to come out more resilient, more sure of who they actually are, whether that’s being a vocational minister or not.”
Alyce Youngblood, Barna's vice president of editorial, notes, "Looking at the rest of our top 10 headlines of the year, it's no surprise to me that our biggest story was about the growing number of pastors who are open to a future other than full-time ministry as they’ve known it. They are shouldering so much. It doesn’t necessarily have to be bad news for those leaders or their churches, though. I’m curious to see how some pastors in that group might reframe or reimagine how they show up in the pulpit, in their vocation and in their community in a way that is ultimately positive and sustainable."
2. State of the Bible 2021: Five Key Findings
Since 2011, our team at Barna has worked alongside our friends at American Bible Society to track the State of the Bible, representing one of the largest data sets on how the population perceives and engages the Bible. This year, American Bible Society collected and analyzed the State of the Bible data, collaborating with Barna to highlight the connections between the Bible and the broader story of faith in America.
One of the five key findings noted from this year’s State of the Bible research shows that Bible users increased in 2021. The ABS team notes, “As of January 2021, the proportion of American adults who never use the Bible has fallen to 29 percent, its lowest point since 2016. Along with the drop in ‘nevers,’ we observed a modest rise in Bible Users.”
3. The U.S. Cities Most Committed to Weekly Prayer & Bible Reading
Periodically, Barna zooms in from nationally representative data on the Church to focus specifically on U.S. cities, equipping pastors to lead better in their context with reporting on topics like habits of generosity, post-Christian environments, relationship status trends and more.
This year’s findings focused on weekly prayer and Bible reading, highlighting 50 cities in America that rank highest for these specific faith practices.
4. A Year Out: How COVID-19 Has Impacted Practicing Christians
In March of 2021, a year into America’s COVID-19 response, Barna released findings related to the pandemic in an effort to help pastors think through how to best respond to their congregants’ needs. These data explored U.S. adults’ satisfaction with their social life, the rise in anxiety among Americans and which groups were more likely to be impacted by job loss.
"I look at our reporting released over the past year and see the continued aftershocks of 2020," Youngblood shares. "Churches in the U.S. are wondering what kind of space they are supposed to take up—in a digital environment, in the work of racial justice, in a contentious political climate.
"It’s been enlightening and challenging to see these data snapshots from such a turbulent time in our country and in the Church. It feels like our earlier hopes for whatever the ‘new normal’ is have dissipated, or perhaps that there is some acceptance that the ‘new normal’ will simply involve more unpredictability and adaptability."
5. Encouraged, Disappointed, Connected—How Churchgoers Feel After Worship
Most practicing Christians and churched adults agree attending church is one of the most important experiences of their week. Even so, participating in a worship service can elicit a range of emotions from U.S. adults, from inspired and encouraged to guilty and disappointed.
Largely, among both practicing Christians and churchgoing U.S. adults, data show that attending church prompts positive feelings. Over four in five practicing Christians (82%) and roughly two-thirds of churchgoers (67%)—U.S. adults who have been to church in the past six months—say they leave worship services feeling encouraged at least “most of the time.”
6. Do Multiracial Churches Offer Healthy Community for Non-White Attendees?
As racial justice in the U.S. becomes an increasingly polarized topic, the majority of practicing Christians (80%) believes the Church can improve race dynamics by welcoming people of all ethnicities into congregations. Are multiracial churches part of the answer to race problems?
Perhaps you’d assume that a congregation that succeeds in drawing attendees of multiple races would be truly welcoming. The challenge depicted in the following chart, however, is profound: Almost three in 10 Black practicing Christians in a multiracial church (29%) say they have experienced racial prejudice on some level.
7. For Black Americans, the Black Church Counters Feelings of Political Powerlessness
One of the most significant findings in the Barna’s Trend in the Black Church study—created alongside partners including Rev. Dr. Brianna K. Parker (of Black Millennial Cafe), Gloo, Urban Ministries, Inc., Lead.NYC, American Bible Society and Compassion—was the fact that Black adults are actually more likely to express a sense of political disempowerment than they did as recently as the mid-1990s.
In 1996, Barna discovered that 61 percent of Black adults agreed that Black people generally feel powerless when it comes to politics. Now, the level of total agreement with that same sentiment has increased to nearly three-quarters of Black adults (73%) and Black churchgoers (75%).
The increased perception of Black powerlessness explains the efforts of Black churches and parachurch organizations to promote policies and candidates, fight voter suppression and increase voter turnout.
8. Actions, Invitations, Storytelling—How Gen Z Approaches Evangelism
When compared to older generations, Gen Z teens—ages 13–18—in both the U.S. and Canada think about and approach spiritual conversations in their own unique way.
How do U.S. Christian Gen Z define acts of evangelism? Half believe “letting your actions speak rather than using words to explain your faith” and “inviting someone to attend a church service with you” (50% each) are acts of evangelism. Other actions they largely view as evangelism include “telling your personal story about how you came to be a Christian” (48%), “telling someone about benefits / changes experienced when following Jesus” (48%) and “praying with someone” (47%). Despite being the most digital-savvy generation, just under three in 10 Christian Gen Z (28%) say sharing digital / online content with someone is a form of evangelism.
9. 41% of Black Churchgoers Favor a Hybrid Church Future
COVID-19 gravely impacted convening and delivery methods for Black churches. Many leaders found themselves thrust into digital ministry for the first time following mandates and calls for social distancing and pandemic precautions. At the same time, as the Black population in the U.S. was hit harder by the virus, many Black churches adapted to offer support or share grief, even from a distance. As such, in the midst of the pandemic response, Barna data revealed more than one-third of Black Church churchgoers felt great concern about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on their church (35% strongly agree).
The following infographic offers a glimpse into what members and leaders in the Black Church say has and hasn’t changed—for better or for worse—since the pandemic arrived.
10. What Makes an Engaging Witness, as Defined by Gen Z
What characteristics do Gen Z name when thinking of someone who is an engaging witness? The majority of teens (especially non-Christians) says someone who listens without judgment (66% Christian, 72% non-Christian) seems like a person who’s comfortable sharing their faith. This is telling in light of past Barna findings which showed that a number of Gen Z who had interacted with church or Christianity said church was not a safe space to express doubt. Gen Z teens desire conversation partners who are open to difficult topics.
"The themes of hope in the midst of adversity stand out to me as I look at the body of work Barna has contributed over the past year," reflects Dr. Charlotte Marshall Powell, Barna's vice president of research. "Our metrics show that people are continuing to wrestle with age old topics of community, diversity, ministry burnout, and spiritual disciplines. Yet, despite life’s complexities, both churched adults and practicing Christians continue to find hope in gathering together in worship. I am curious to see how these behaviors will continue to shift in the coming years."
Jensen adds, "I can't help but think that God is up to something when I look back at 2021 through the lens of Barna’s data. I see so much continued disruption, uncertainty and confusion as I see pastors questioning their calling and people navigating anxiety, loneliness, and racial and political division. Yet, I also see the next generation’s voice emerging with such passion and clarity, the legacy of the Black Church elevating in a hopeful and inspiring way, and an opportunity for pastors to be refined toward resilience as they go through the challenging yet fruitful journey of questioning their calling and purpose.
"Yes, in a way that's true to His nature and goodness, God is up to something," he concludes. "He is moving in mysterious and powerful ways. As we head into 2022, the question is: will we dig our heels into the way we've always done things or will we move with him and follow him into the future, full of faith, wonder and renewed purpose and hope?
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, 2021