What Americans think of church

Country church

The Barna Group has recently released results of research into church attendance in USA, including information on “millennials” (under-30s). While this will have little relevance to other countries, there may be some similarities and thus things we may all learn

Data on church attendance

  • 36% attend church on a given weekend, down from 43% a decade ago. Just over a quarter of millennials attend on a given weekend.
  • Regular attendance used to mean attending 3 weekends out of four, but now many consider one out of four to be regular.
  • There has been a surge of Americans who haven’t attend a church event in the last 6 months, to about 40% overall and more than half of millennials.

Adults overall

People attend church for a range of reasons, but as often as not these are not satisfied:

  • Most common was to connect to God or feel close to him, though less than 20% feel this happens in any given month. (These figures have become worse since the last survey only a couple of years ago.)
  • Others attend to learn about God, yet about 60% don’t feel that they gained any new insights the last time they attended church and only 6% felt that they did.
  • 70% say they feel cared for at their church.
  • About a quarter feel their lives have been significantly changed by attending church, but about half felt there had been no change.

Many non-attenders say they find God elsewhere, or they don’t think church is relevant to them personally.

Millennials

Dissatisfaction

On many of these measures, millennials are less satisfied than adults generally. As a result, many are dropping out of church, either temporarily or more permanently – about 60% of millennials who grew up in the church have dropped out at some stage. Reasons include:

  • Church is irrelevant (35%)
  • Hypocrisy (35%)
  • Moral failures of leaders (35%)/li>
  • God is missing (20%)
  • Doubt is not allowed (10%)

Three years ago a study gave a slightly different mix of reasons:

  1. Churches seem overprotective.
  2. Their experience of Christianity is shallow (God is missing or church is irrelevant or boring).
  3. Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
  4. Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
  5. They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
  6. The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

Three spiritual journeys

The 60% of millennials who drop out of church tend to follow one of three different journeys.

  • One in six becomes a prodigal – they effectively drop right out of christian faith and church.
  • About two thirds are nomads – they retain faith and attend church occasionally but are not actively involved and are effectively lost to church.
  • One in six is an exile – they retain faith and some church involvement, but feel alienated from church and struggle to integrate their faith with their culture, and to use their gifts and passions in christian service.

Reasons to stay

Most millennials don’t rate church attendance as a significant source of faith – prayer, friends and family, the Bible and a relationship with Jesus matter far more. But those who stay, or return (about half) continue to attend church for a number of positive reasons:

  • They had a close adult friend or mentor.
  • Church helped them to serve God in the world – by helping them find purpose, motivation or avenues to serve, or see their career as a calling.
  • Jesus or the Bible spoke to them personally.

So what needs to be done?

The Barna group suggests that its research also points to ways forward for churches who want to reverse some of these trends.

“Be extraordinarily loving”

In The Shaping of Things to Come, Frost & Hirsch suggest christians need to “be extraordinarily loving”. As Mike Pilavachi has said many times, christians are known for what we are against, but we need to show what we are for, and that is love. Church leader Jon Tyson says:

“The early church leaders didn’t have the things we now consider essential for our faith. They didn’t have official church buildings, vision statements or core values. They had no social media, radio broadcasts or celebrity pastors. They didn’t even have the completed New Testament. Christ-followers were often deeply misunderstood, persecuted and some gave their lives for their faith. Yet they loved and they served and they prayed and they blessed—and slowly, over hundreds of years, they brought the empire to its knees. They did it through love.”

If what we are doing isn’t working, change

The Barna Group concludes: “Adults are aware of their very real spiritual needs, yet they are increasingly dissatisfied with the church’s attempt to meet those spiritual needs and are turning elsewhere.” They are not getting closer to God or learning much. Millennials, particularly, are finding church unhelpful.

Sermons are not teaching or changing people as much as minsters would like to think. Many of the old battle grounds and traditions are not relevant to life, and some traditions we have ‘lost’ may be helpful to recover.

People need to be inspired and equipped to ‘follow Jesus into the world’.

Disorganised religion?

Eight years ago, George Barna predicted increasing losses to the organised church, and a growth in the numbers of people attending alternative christian meetings – house church or simple church, workplace or family groups, or online ‘meetings’. This move would be led, he predicted, by “Revolutionaries, who live ‘a first-century lifestyle based on faith, goodness, love, generosity, kindness, and simplicity’ and who ‘zealously pursue an intimate relationship with God.'”

Research shows that only about 5% of Americans regularly attend a house church, but 10% have participated in a home-based “worship” service in the past month, and about 23% in a home-based “religious” service. And about a third claim to have “experienced God or expressed their faith” in some sort of house church or simple church – presumably almost anything but a conventional Sunday service.

Simple church members are more satisfied than conventional church attenders, and simpler forms of christian meetings seem to overcome some of the problems of conventional church.

Ministering to the millennials

Barna suggests a number of measures conventional church can take to better minister to the needs of millennials:

  1. Make room for meaningful relationships.
  2. Teach cultural discernment. Do this positively, and don’t overprotect.
  3. Make reverse mentoring a priority. Listen to them!
  4. Embrace the potency of vocational discipleship. People can serve God in their careers and with their natural gifts, not just in “full time ministry”.
  5. Facilitate connection with Jesus.

Applying this outside USA

I don’t live in USA, so how do these insights apply in Australia, or UK, New Zealand or elsewhere?

The percentages will be different (none of these countries has nearly as high church attendance), but I can’t help feeling that the aspirations of millennials will be similar. And in larger churches with a strong youth ministry (such as the one I attend), the lessons may be even more relevant.

This is an opportunity and a challenge!

In several of these references, the Barna group sees the changes in how millennials respond to church as an exciting opportunity. Of particular importance may be better discipling of exiles, who long to use their gifts in God’s service in the world, but find the conservative church doesn’t see this as important, and sometimes actively opposes it.

I’d be interested in hearing what readers are experiencing and observing.

Photo Credit: PhillipC via Compfight cc

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3 thoughts on “What Americans think of church

  1. Kent says:

    As a ‘murican myself, and gratefully attending a church that is thriving despite the chaos, one thing that I think is making a ton of difference is that our church is a ‘disciple-based’ church…meaning our whole make-up revolves around creating disciples of Jesus in a relational environment. This is something I picked up on within the statistics you sited; that a key dynamic for growth is relationship. Relationship with God, and relationship with one another. I suppose another way of putting it is loving God and loving others…which, I think I’ve read somewhere…

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  2. One Skeptic says:

    It is one step away form church control.
    Bereft of continual reinforcement of the indoctrination that most Christians received as children should see a move away from god belief in general.
    And as more political leaders feel confident to announce their lack of religious belief then such examples will no doubt be acknowledged & to a degree, taken up by the next generation of voters.
    This will not be immediately apparent – especially in a country with such entrenched and diverse forms of Christianity as the USA – but it might well be noticeable in a generation or three.
    Of course, overall stats will still show gains in countries like China and continents like Africa.
    But a lot of this can be attributed to other factors ( economics and repression for example)
    Such countries will move toward secularism a lot faster once the ‘parent country shows greater signs of indifference to god belief.
    In traditional Christian countries religion is not making any serious headway or overall gains ( though current stats might suggest there is a status quo) .
    In more enlightened, secular countries Christianity is slowly but surely taking a back seat and while a lot of fruitless noise is made to deny it is losing ground it must be conceded that Christianity is on the wane, otherwise there would be little need of concern by Christian hierarchy or for posts such as this.

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  3. Ryan Robinson says:

    The concepts are similar in Canada, but with significantly less overall church attendance and probably a bit less antagonism, too. Most white people here are Christian in name but indifferent, then our more-open immigration policies also gives us much more of other religions. I think last I saw a stat, 8% of Canadians attended a Christian Church at least once a month and 20% at least once a year (Christmas or Easter probably).

    Most of the perceptions of what Christians are like is the same, though, other than being dulled. Most non-Christians and even many Christians would call Christians hypocritical, sexually-repressive, judgemental, etc. The main reason is probably that we get a lot of American media which loves to give voice to the most extreme angry Christians they can find. We have those people in Canada, but we tend to ignore them.

    I work for the Canadian Bible Society and they recently were part of a group researching Bible engagement in Canada. Unsurprisingly, it was very low. Also unsurprisingly to me but maybe not for everyone was the three main characteristics they found were good for Bible engagement: confidence, community, and conversation. You could say the same for general Christian engagement, not just the Bible.

    I attend The Meeting House, which is I think Canada’s largest church or is at least the fastest-growing church. Probably 1/3 of us are Millenials, with a good dose of people in their 30’s and 40’s but relatively few beyond that. The main reason is that is Home Church based. It isn’t about listening to the authority speak. It is about journeying together following Jesus with a small group of people on a regular basis.

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