Barna: 5 things you want to know about the Church in America

Thursday, February 27, 2020
Michael F. Haverluck (

megachurchTo better understand Americans’ relationship with their churches, the latest research by the Barna Group revealed a number of key trends among practicing Christians and churched adults.

It was discovered that "practicing Christians" – those who attend church at least once a month – constitute a quarter (25%) of Americans adults (63.5 million), whereas "churched adults" – who attended church at least once in the last six months – represent nearly half (49%) of American adults (124 million).

Barna Group president David Kinnaman stressed the significance of each group of Americans.

“In the first case, we’re talking about those who are the most church savvy adults, [while] in the second, we’re looking at all of those adults who are reasonably familiar with the experience of churchgoing,” Kinnaman noted in the Barna study.

Five major trends were discovered when examining the church in America.

1. Spreading it thin

Today, a large percentage (nearly two in five) of churchgoers indicate that they regularly attend multiple churches.

“Declining church loyalty – or what is sometimes referred to as ‘church hopping’ – is becoming a common feature of churchgoing,” Barna researchers revealed. “While a majority of churchgoers tends to stick with a single congregation (63% churched adults, 72% practicing Christians), a sizable minority is at least occasionally attending other churches, including nearly two in five churched adults (38%) and one-quarter of practicing Christians (27%).”

2. Value of church not consistent among churchgoers

Churchgoers are divided when it comes to placing a value on attending church.

“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,” Kinnaman pointed out.

pastor in the pulpitReasons for going span from pleasure to duty.

“[Two-thirds of churched adults say they attend church because they ‘enjoy doing it’ (65%); the same is true for four in five practicing Christians (82%),” the survey revealed. “Still, it’s worth noting that one in six churchgoers (17%) says they attend because they ‘have to’ and one in seven (15%) says they do so ‘out of habit. Currently, about half of Christians (48% self-identified Christians, 45% practicing Christians) and more than half of churched adults overall (57% of U.S. adults who have attended in the last six months) admit that people they know are tired of the usual type of church experience.”

3. Feel-good experience

Positive emotions and good experiences mark church attendance in America.

“Overall, churched adults say they leave worship services feeling inspired (37%), encouraged (37%), forgiven (34%), as though they have connected with God or experienced his presence (33%) and challenged to change something in their life (26%), every time,” the results indicate. “A plurality of churched adults also express always feeling like attending service was the most important experience they had all week (29%) and that they learned something new (28%). Even so, 32% of churched adults say they feel disappointed by the experience at least half of the time and another 40% leave feeling guilty.”

Kinnaman shed some light on this.

“In survey research, people tend to under-report negative experiences,” he emphasized. “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.”

4. Attending church still seen as good, but less so by youth

“Of those who attend church at least every six months, 54% report being an official member at their place of worship, with 37% reporting they regularly attend but are not members,” the researchers informed. “Practicing Christians, expectedly, show deeper commitment, with 71% noting they are members and 26% claiming regular attendance without membership.”

youth worshipDistinguishing characteristics are seen between denominations and demographic groups.

“Boomers are more likely than both Gen X and Millennials to be formal members of their congregation, with nearly seven in 10 churched Boomers (68% vs. 48% churched Millennials and 51% churched Gen X) confirming membership,” the survey showed. “Members are more likely to say they connect with God or personally experience his presence during worship services (most of the time: 72% members vs. 52% non-members) and that they are challenged to change something in their life during worship services (every time: 31% vs. 22%). Members are more likely than non-members to attend worship services (75% vs. 52%) or read their Bible (71% vs. 53%) out of enjoyment. Further, members also report feeling more inspired (73% vs. 57%) and encouraged (74% vs. 59%) by their church services.”

Church attendance used to be held in higher regard than it is today.

“Americans aren’t joining much of anything these days and church membership is not as compelling as it once was. In a world of untethered commitments and free-for-all content, the positive correlations of church membership should not be overlooked,” Kinnaman observed. “The form of membership may be undergoing change, but the function of generating a mutually committed group of people is still highly relevant to today’s Americans.”

5. Church not as relevant to Americans today

Church today is not considered a major influence outside church doors.

“While practicing Christians firmly believe that Christian churches have a strong community impact (66% very positive, 28% somewhat positive), the rest of the U.S. population is not as quick to sing their praises,” Barna explained.

children praying in church“Only 27% agrees that churches have a very positive impact – the same percentage (27%) who say it has no affect at all," Barna continued. "The plurality of U.S. adults (38%) says it has just a somewhat positive impact. Non-Christians, meanwhile, are inclined toward indifference (39% no impact) or more willing to see harm in churches’ local contributions (8% very negative, 10% somewhat negative).”

In fact, many consider the church obsolete.

“While the general population, and practicing Christians especially, have a largely positive impression of the Christian faith (75% U.S. adults, 100% practicing Christians, 91% self-identified Christians, 49% non-Christians) – regardless of generation, race or denomination – the Church itself is regarded as irrelevant by about one in 10 Americans (15% U.S. adults, 10% practicing Christians definitely agree),” researchers divulged. “Even some who are committed members of the Church feel it is falling out of style; the percentage of practicing Christian Millennials who agree the Church is irrelevant today is the same as non-Christians who hold this view (25% each definitely agree).”


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