A new Barna study highlights the current attitudes Americans have toward attending church services. Notable trends found by Barna Group’s “State of the Church” project include that church hopping is increasing, church membership is declining among younger attendees, and people’s mixed perceptions of the church are calling its relevance into question. Among the study’s encouraging findings were that there are multiple spiritual benefits of church membership and that many churchgoers said they enjoyed attending church.
Barna Study Spotlights American Attitudes Toward Church
The Barna study is the “first of its kind” for the company and the “most comprehensive look” at the church that the organization has conducted in its 35-year history. The project divided American churchgoers into two categories, “practicing Christians” and “churched adults.” The first group of 63.5 million is comprised of people who are the most committed to their faith. As defined by Barna, practicing Christians attend church a minimum of once per month and say their faith is “very important” to them. This group is a subset of the broader category of churched adults, who number 124.4 million and have attended church at least once in the past six months.
Church Hopping and Church Membership
The first trend Barna highlighted from its research is that church hopping is becoming more normal. Most churchgoers (63 percent of churched adults and 72 percent of practicing Christians) still attend one church. However, a “sizable minority” attends a different church “at least occasionally” (38 percent of churched adults and 27 percent of practicing Christians).
Something noteworthy about this trend is that even if people attend more than one church, this does not mean their average attendance is lower than it would have been otherwise. “In other words,” says Barna, “just because they select from a handful of different churches to attend doesn’t make them any less likely to actually attend church on any given weekend.”
Another trend Barna found was that it is becoming less common for younger people to be members of a church, even though church membership in general is “still a common practice.” Younger church attendees were much more likely to see church membership as irrelevant. However, Barna president David Kinnaman says that church membership is still “highly relevant” because of the positive outcomes researchers found associated with it. Being a member of a church correlated with it being more likely for attendees to feel they had connected with God at church services, as well as more likely that they would feel that worship services had challenged them to change something in their lives. Membership also made it more likely that people would attend church, feel encouraged by the service, and read their Bibles because they enjoyed doing so.
The Emotions of Church Attendance
Another trend the Barna study highlighted pertained to how people perceive church. The company described its findings on this topic as “paradoxical.” While a majority of churchgoers said that enjoying church was a motivation for them to attend (65 percent of churched adults and 82 percent of practicing Christians), around half (57 percent of churched adults and 45 percent of practicing Christians) said people they know are tired of the typical church experience. Regarding dissatisfaction with church, Barna said, “While you might think that some groups of Christians are more likely than others to feel this way, data show no significant difference across denomination, generation or faith segment.”
A related trend arose from the emotions people expect to have after attending a church service. Says Kinnaman, “We must emphasize the reality that, week in and week out, today’s church leaders are tasked with meeting a diverse set of emotional expectations.” On the one hand, churched adults reported feeling a variety of positive emotions every time they leave a worship service. Thirty-seven percent said they feel encouraged, 33 percent said they feel like they have experienced God, and 29 percent said attending church was “the most important experience” of their week.
Yet at the same time, 40 percent of churched adults also said they leave church feeling guilty, and 32 percent reported being disappointed “at least half of the time.” This mix of expectations likely makes the task of pastors more difficult. Kinnaman also observes, “In survey research, people tend to under-report negative experiences. As researchers, we have to amplify the times when they have the courage to report these kinds of disappointing experiences, and acknowledge there may be other ways a worship community has let them down, beyond those listed here.”
Christians, Non-Christians, and the Church
The final trend the Barna study singled out was the different perceptions that American Christians and non-Christians, respectively, have of the church. Practicing Christians have a much more positive view of church than the general non-Christian population. Sixty-six percent of practicing Christians said the church has a “very positive” impact on their communities, but only 27 percent of non-Christians agreed. Non-Christians mostly perceive the church as either not having any impact or as having a harmful impact on their communities.
While Barna found that the majority of practicing Christians and non-Christians view the Christian faith in a positive light, 10 percent of all Americans, no matter their age, race or denomination, see the church as irrelevant. “Even some who are committed members of the Church feel it is falling out of style,” Barna reports. “The percentage of practicing Christian Millennials who agree the Church is irrelevant today is the same as non-Christians who hold this view (25 percent each definitely agree).”
While it’s true that many churchgoers enjoy gathering with others to worship and are even open to official congregational membership, the reputation of the Church (locally and universally) is in question. This fact is crystallizing as Barna listens to more people from the younger generation entering adulthood, perhaps most represented among those who are “tired” of church as they know it.
Barna will be releasing monthly findings throughout 2020 about the state of the church. Church leaders who wish to be updated as the project progresses can sign up for those reports here.