Believing there was a growing group that identified as Christian but didn’t attend religious gatherings, Barna went looking for those who say their Christian faith is very important to their day-to-day lives but have not attended church in over six months. What Barna found is this group has increased from 7 percent in 2004 to 10 percent today and is particularly common among Gen-Xers and Boomers.
THE (SOMETIMES) ORTHODOX THEOLOGY OF NON-CHURCHGOING CHRISTIANS
Though the group has exited the traditional church, their theological views are similar to that of churchgoers. According to Barna’s report, non-churchgoing Christians “strongly believe there is only one God (93 percent compared to U.S. adults: 59 percent, and practicing Christians: 90 percent); affirm that ‘God is the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today’ (94 percent compared to U.S. adults: 57 percent and practicing Christians: 85 percent); and strongly agree that God is everywhere (95 percent compared to U.S. adults: 65 percent and practicing Christians: 92 percent).”
Where non-churchgoing Christians differ is in the exclusivity of Christianity’s claims. They are far more likely to agree all religions teach largely the same thing (45 percent disagree as opposed to 86 percent of churchgoers), and are far less likely to share their faith with others (18 percent as opposed to 67 percent of churchgoers).
THEY LOVE JESUS, BUT NOT THE CHURCH…BUT WHY?
In the blog post mentioned previously, Miller explains he rarely attends church because he experiences no connection to God through music and sermons. For him, reading the Bible, praying and living in Christian community are all important, but the way these disciplines are collectively carried out can happen outside of a traditional church. Miller says he has actively worked to form his own Christian community, one that looks far different than most weekly church gatherings.
“I’d argue that by making the church smaller, less formal, less organized, less institutionalized and more like the chaos of a family structure, the church would be moving MORE toward the historical church in Acts and less like a culture-formed institution,” Miller said. “I believe we can make [the structure of church] what we want (within God-given parameters) and share agency with God in positively impacting the world.”
Miller’s point, which Barna’s research appears to confirm, is not that these Christians have been hurt by the church or object to its institutionalized existence, but that it feels increasingly irrelevant to their spiritual development.
Responding to critics, Miller says, “It was as though people thought because I hadn’t been to church in years, I had no community, that I lived in isolation. This is untrue. My community is rich, deep, spiritually sound, gracious, sacrificial and at times (because I’m an introvert) exhausting. Community is everywhere, and every church you’ve attended was a community that somebody sat down and created.”
AUTHORITY ISN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE
It’s possible Miller’s view reflects a deeper, cultural shift that no longer sees external authority structures—be it the church, the government or anything else—as the place where truth can be found. The influential philosopher Charles Taylor highlights this in his concept of “the buffered self.” Taylor said that culturally we have moved away from defining our identity from an external source of truth (the porous self) and toward finding a “true us” that exists internally (the buffered self). Whereas for most of Christian history the institutional church was where one would go to understand what was true of God and humans, now people find a truth inside themselves and search for validation of that truth externally.
This isn’t to say that “truth is relative,” but that institutions are not the place absolute truth can be found. For many committed followers of Jesus, this leads to a growing acceptance of finding a rhythm to their spiritual journey that doesn’t involve darkening the doors of a church building. A failure to understand this can create poor communication between unchurched Christians and those advocating for the traditional church model.
Jonathan Leeman responded to Donald Miller on The Gospel Coalition’s blog. In defending the importance of the institutional church, Leeman writes, “Your idea of community, to my ears, honestly, sounds more American and Romantic (as in the -ism of the 19th century) than biblical. All authority remains with the individual to pick and choose, come and go, owing some of the obligations of love, perhaps, but always on one’s own terms, happy to stay as long as the experience ‘completes me’ and my sense of self.”
The response of the unchurched Christian to this would probably be “What makes your institutionalized version of church any less this way?”
PASTORS NOW HAVE TO “PROVE IT”
What’s important to understand about the non-churched Christian audience is that they are not saying theology, community, discipleship and accountability don’t matter (though their definitions of what those are may make some uncomfortable). It’s that they don’t perceive the institutional church to be a place where they’ll effectively experience these things. Whether it’s because they don’t respond to sermons (Miller, for instance, says this isn’t his learning style) or don’t find the church Sunday school/small group model to be an effective container for community, non-churched Christians aren’t angry at the church…they’re just not certain it is relevant to their lives.
“This group represents an important and growing avenue of ministry for churches,” says Roxanne Stone, editor in chief of Barna Group. “These disaffected Christians…still love Jesus, still believe in Scripture and most of the tenets of their Christian faith. But they have lost faith in the church. The critical message that churches need to offer this group is a reason for churches to exist at all. What is it that the church can offer their faith that they can’t get on their own?”