5 trends defining Americans’ relationship to churches

Churchgoing is a dynamic part of U.S. society. New research from Barna Group shows the ways in which Americans are maintaining – and renegotiating – their connections with the churches that they attend. 

In their new study, The State of the Church 2020  Barna will spend a year examining the spiritual and religious trends that define American life these days and analyzing the trends affecting pastors and Christian leaders. They’ll explore two primary categories of adults who have relatively recent experience in a Christian church.

  • Practicing Christians – A subset of all churched adults are those who attend at least monthly and who say their faith is very important in their life today. This more committed group comprises about 25 percent and 63.5 million adults.
  • Churched adults – Those Americans who have attended a Christian church at least once in the last six months. This represents the broadest group of adults who have experienced a church service in recent months, representing about 49 percent or 124.4 million adults.

“In the first case, we’re talking about those who are the most church savvy adults,” says David Kinnaman, Barna’s president. “In the second, we’re looking at all of those adults who are reasonably familiar with the experience of churchgoing. To use a comparison from the world of sports, it’d be the difference between looking at the ardent supporters and the entire fan base, including the raving fans.”

Understanding five trends is essential to properly comprehending the Church’s place in the U.S. today.

1. Nearly two in five churchgoers report regularly attending multiple churches.

Declining church loyalty – or what is sometimes referred to as “church hopping” – is becoming a common feature of churchgoing. Just because somebody might attend church doesn’t mean they attend the same church every time. While a majority of churchgoers does tend to stick with a single congregation (63 percent of churched adults, 72 percent of practicing Christians), a sizable minority is at least occasionally attending other churches, including nearly two in five churched adults (38 percent) and one-quarter of practicing Christians (27 percent).

Interestingly, church hoppers are just as likely as more loyal attenders to report weekly attendance. In other words, 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.

Also, those who “hop around” don’t do so as a routine part of their churchgoing in a given month, but typically attend another church occasionally.

2. Churchgoers are divided on the value of church.

Another element of the churchgoing landscape is the paradoxical perceptions that churchgoers hold of church itself. Kinnaman observes, “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.”

On the positive side of the ledger, two-thirds of churched adults say they attend church because they “enjoy doing it” (65 percent); the same is true for four in five practicing Christians (82 percent). Still, it’s worth noting that one in six churchgoers (17 percent) says they attend because they “have to” and one in seven (15 percent) says they do so “out of habit.”

While most churchgoers attribute positive feelings to their participation in church, half of Christians agree that “church as usual” is declining in popularity. Or, at least, churchgoers perceive that other people feel this way.

About half of Christians (48 percent self-identified Christians, 45 percent practicing Christians) and more than half of churched adults overall (57 percent 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. 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.

3. Churchgoers largely experience – and have come to expect – positive emotions and outcomes by going to church.

Overall, churched adults say they leave worship services feeling inspired (37 percent), encouraged (37 percent), forgiven (34 percent), as though they have connected with God or experienced his presence (33 percent) and challenged to change something in their life (26 percent), every time. A plurality of churched adults also express always feeling like attending service was the most important experience they had all week (29 percent) and that they learned something new (28 percent).

32 percent of churched adults say they feel disappointed by the experience at least half of the time and another 40 percent leave feeling guilty.

“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,” Kinnaman says.

These findings ultimately reveal that attendees encounter, and even anticipate, a range of emotional connectivity during worship services – which can further complicate the job of those in the pulpit. Kinnaman states, “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.”

4. Church membership is still a common practice and is correlated with positive outcomes – but its importance is declining among younger churchgoers.

Church commitment extends beyond just finding your pew (or cushioned seat or folding chair). Further, plenty of congregations measure commitment beyond just a willingness to dress in Sunday best and greet the pastor outside the doors each week. A common and more formal next step is church membership – and this new Barna study shows that many Christians are reluctant to embrace it. To what extent is membership relevant today?

Of those who attend church at least every six months, a little over half (54 percent) report being an official member at their place of worship, with just above one in three (37 percent) reporting they regularly attend but are not members. Practicing Christians, expectedly, show deeper commitment, with seven in 10 (71 percent) noting they are members and one in four (26 percent) claiming regular attendance without membership.

Surprisingly, no significant differences emerged in membership rates between denominations – whether mainline or non-mainline, Protestant or Catholic. However, a different story emerges when looking across the generations. 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 percent vs. 48 percent churched Millennials and 51 percent churched Gen X) confirming membership. Younger generations of churchgoers were also more likely to mention “not applicable,” which suggests that the category of membership isn’t even part of their church’s nomenclature.

Where membership is embraced, however, Barna researchers observe strong correlations with positive feelings associated with attendance. Members are more likely to say they connect with God or personally experience his presence during worship services (most of the time: 72 percent of members vs. 52 percent of non-members) and that they are challenged to change something in their life during worship services (every time: 31 percent vs. 22 percent).

Members are more likely than non-members to attend worship services (75 percent vs. 52 percent) or read their Bible (71 percent vs. 53 percent) out of enjoyment. Further, members also report feeling more inspired (73 percent vs. 57 percent) and encouraged (74 percent vs. 59 percent) by their church services.

Kinnaman comments, “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. 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. The perception of the Church’s relevance to the community is under question – especially among non-Christians.

While sliding church attendance rates and commitment levels might speak to an individual’s characteristics and priorities, Barna wanted to know how adults perceive the “Big C” Church’s relevance, as well as the local church’s influence on society.

While practicing Christians firmly believe that Christian churches have a strong community impact … the rest of the U.S. population is not as quick to sing their praises. 

Only about a quarter agrees that churches have a very positive impact – the same percentage (27 percent) say it has no effect at all. The plurality of U.S. adults (38 percent) says it has just a somewhat positive impact. Non-Christians, meanwhile, are inclined toward indifference (39 percent no impact) or more willing to see harm in churches’ local contributions (30 percent very negative, 10 percent somewhat negative).

These numbers challenge the Church’s place in society, as does further research. Barna found that, while the general population, and practicing Christians especially, have a largely positive impression of the Christian faith – regardless of generation, race or denomination – the Church itself is regarded as irrelevant by about one in 10 Americans. Even some who are committed members of the Church feel it is falling out of style, and the percentage of practicing Christian Millennials who agree the Church is irrelevant today is the same as non-Christians who hold this view.

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.

Throughout the State of the Church 2020 project, we’ll provide new research, historic overviews and helpful tools to encourage local churches to better understand – and, where possible, improve or mend – their reputations.

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