Monday, March 19, 2007

Barna Report on "Unchurched Population"

The Barna Group has a new report on the "unchurched population" of America which he estimates at 100 million people. Blogger is having difficulty accepting links for posts so the interested reader will find the report here:

I will copy some excerpts and then conclude with a few comments of my own:

March 19, 2007

(Ventura, CA) - Life in America has changed greatly since 1994, with massive changes in technology, global politics, lifestyle choices and family dynamics. But one constant has been the proportion of adults in the population who are unchurched. During that period there have been noteworthy shifts in religious behavior, but the percentage of adults who have steered clear of churches for at least the past six months has remained stable since 1994.

A new survey released by The Barna Group, which has been tracking America’s religious behavior and beliefs since 1984, reveals that one out of every three adults (33%) is classified as unchurched - meaning they have not attended a religious service of any type during the past six months. While that figure is considerably higher than the one out of five who qualified as unchurched in the early Nineties, it is statistically unchanged since 36% were recorded as having avoided religious services in the company’s 1994 study.


Residents of the West (42%) and Northeast (39%) remain the most church resistant, while those in the South are the least prone to avoid religious services (26%).


When these statistics are projected across the aggregate adult population, the numbers are staggering. An estimated 73 million adults are presently unchurched. When teens and children are added, the total swells to roughly 100 million Americans.

To put that figure in context, if the unchurched population of the United States were a nation of its own, that group would be the eleventh most populated nation on earth (trailing only China, India, the churched portion of the United States, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia, Japan and Mexico).

Included among the unchurched is an estimated 13 to 15 million born again adults and children.


Many of the insights drawn from the experiences of "Jim and Casper" [in the book Jim and Casper Go to Church (Tyndale House Publishers, 2007)] parallel the findings of Barna Group studies among the unchurched. Some of the critical discoveries were the relative indifference of most churched Christians to unchurched people; the overt emphasis upon a personal rather than communal faith journey; the tendency of congregations to perform rituals and exercise talents rather than invite and experience the presence of God; the absence of a compelling call to action given to those who attend; and the failure to listen to dissident voices and spiritual guidance to dig deeper in one’s faith.


And now for a few reflections of my own:

First, it may be a minor point, but I have a strong distaste for Christian terminology that defines and refers to others based upon what we think they should be or where they should be rather than what they are. Our use of "unchurched" is the case in point.

Second, Barna's definition of "unchurched" seems rather wide in its timeframe of six months for no church attendance. If this definition were revised the numbers would be larger than his estimate.

Third, Barna does not appear to consider the implications of the "never-been-churched" (to continue this use of terminology) who will be far less likely to come to church to encounter the story and spiritual pathway of Jesus than those who were there at some point in the past.

Fourth, Barna might give more consideration to those Christians who maintain a deep faith and yet find the church rife with shortcomings in maintaining that faith. These "church exiles" have been discussed by researchers such as Alan Jaimieson.

Fifth, pastors, church planters, and Christian leaders "doing church" in the Western part of the United States should note that this area has the largest concentration of the "unchurched." Will programmatic adjustments be enough to connect with these people in these regions?

Sixth and finally, given the vast size of the "unchurched," the statistical stability in the size of this group over a decade, and the apparent inability of church's to connect with such people, might this serve as a signal for church leaders that it is time to move beyond cosmetic changes in programs, music, and worship in order to engage people outside the institutional church where people live their lives and seek meaning and fulfillment?


kim said...

Thanks for a clear summing up of barna's report, most appreciated!

Ross Anderson said...

John, you mention that "Barna might give more consideration to those Christians who maintain a deep faith and yet find the church rife with shortcomings in maintaining that faith." But isn't that exactly what his most recent book, "Revolution" is all about?

I'm curious about what terminology you would suggest instead of "unchurched".

Finally, I agree 100% with your sixth point, and the need for deeper kinds of changes, in light of millions of people untouched by the gospel. What I wonder is whether its even legitimate to measure the effectiveness of the church by numbers at all- either numbers of "unchurched" or of churched or percentages of the population, etc. It seems that historically and cross-culturally, the church (biblically conceived) has never been in the majority and has most often been a small minority but a potent force. I'd rather see the argument framed in terms of impact rather than purely numbers.

John W. Morehead said...

Ross, thanks for these comments and questions.

Yes, Barna's book on the so-called Revolutionaries does touch on this. The point I was trying to make in my comments related to this was that I would liked to have seen Barna comment on this and figure it into his report on the "unchurched." This is a multi-faceted challenge and I think this is an important segment. Not only are churches having troubles getting new folks in the front door, we're also having trouble with committed people inside going out the back door at the same time.

As to terminology, while I appreciate the tendency to refer to things in terms of their relationship to us I think this can be problematic. Imagine how evangelicals would feel if they read a report on a Neo-Pagan website that referred to evangelicals as "un-covened" or as "un-" or "non-Pagan" rather than as Christians or evangelicals. I understand the need for a general and all-encompassing term, but I prefer terminology that refers to a people group's self-identity. As to what term this might be I'm not sure, but I hope my response helps flesh out the reasoning behind the comment on terminology.

As to your final comment, I'm glad we're on the same page here. I think we have a tendency to gauge effectiveness in ministry in pragmatic terms that often boils down to numbers and statistics. While statistics are *a* consideration, I'd rather see us define success in terms of the utilization of an appropriate methodology, if you will, as my theology believes that the Spirit is responsible for the impact and the numbers.

Matt Stone said...

John, thanks for the clarification. I initially had some of the same queries as Ross but you've answered them. As a committed Christian but fringe churchgoer I know what you mean.

I think part of the problem is a deep myopia affects many pastors. It seems they focus on their own church, which after all is what funds their ministry, and largely ignore the big picture. O they may angst about it on occasion but it doesn't motivate them to change tack. Why should they, experimental approaches have a higher risk of failure and when support of your family comes into the equation, well, isn't being a pastor risky enough?

It seems to me that the initiative will not come from local pastors. Where they do change, it will be because it is forced on them and even there they will keep innovation to a minimum. It seems to me that what is needed is a reassessment of the early history of Christian missions, of Carey and others and how their approach may be applicable here. I have gnawing doubts about the capacity of the ec community approach to cross extreme cultural distance. Most ec people tend to be recovering fundamentalists not new converts from alternate religions and secular spiritualities.

Steve Hayes said...

Concerning "unchurched": do the "unchurched" have a self-identity?

I suppose one could also cavil at "atheist" -- without god(s) -- yet some atheists are happy to adopt that as a term of self-identity.

Or one could revert to the early Christians' use of the term "pagan" for those who had not, by baptism, enlisted in the army of Christ in the heavenly battle that coloured the Christians' view of life. It was actually revived in the mid-20th century, and I used to have a work of apologetics called The good pagan's failure. It was used as a self-description by many of the "cultured despiders" of Christianity.

I suppose it all comes down to mathematical set theory. When you describe a group of people who are not members of another group, then you will find it hard to come up with a term that they would all use to describe themselves. I have no objection to being described as non-Muslim, non-pagan, non-golfer or non-American. I don't see why others should object to being described as "unchurched".

John W. Morehead said...

Interesting perspective, Steve, and not one I would have thought that you might have. I believe that people do have a self-identity (indeed, multiple social identities), and usually have terms that they prefer to use along with this/these. While some may not have a problem being labeled with reference to their stance to Christianity and the church, I believe the vast majority do, and this should be a great concern in light of the post-Christian West where we speak with little credibility. This was evidenced by the Pagan blog Wildhunt picking up on this topic and quoting my discussion of labels with reference to Christians as "un-covened."

I suppose my main point is that we live in a different environment now and it would serve us well to speak of others as they do self-referentially rather than continuing to use language that smacks of Christendom culture and colonialism, in my view.

Steve Hayes said...


I'm slightly puzzled by this hangup with terminology, and I'm also not sure what it has to do with "Christendom" or colonialism. I suspect that that is a read herring, but perhaps it is a topic for another discussion, and perhaps a discussion that needs to take place.

I don't think the "uncovened" comparison works too well. It is not a matter of referring to Christians as "uncovened", because the term "uncovened" could also refer to Muslims, atheists, the irreligious and pagans themselves, because not all pagans, and not even all neopagans, belong to covens. Same describe themselves as solitary, but just because they are solitary does not make them Christians. Coven, sangha, church and Ummah, though they may be comparable in some ways, are not interchangeable concepts.

I believe (though I'm open to being shown that I am wrong) that you may be confusing two kinds of group. There are groups that people see as part of their identity, and others that are not. And different people may have different takes on this. A group may be defined by the presence or absence of a single characteristic -- having Rhesus-negative blood, for example, or having HIV or not, bbut that does not nexessarily make such people a community. Non-golfers do not usually think that their identity is defined by being non-golfers. One could refer to "the golfing fraternity", but one could not refer to "the non-golfing community" -- at least not without being silly. But to list all the possible self-referential terms used by non-golfers in order to refer to them would take a book every time you wanted to refer to them, quite apart from the difficulty of finding out. Non-golfers, like the unchurched, could be tall, ham-fisted, pompous, good-looking, black, Polish-speaking, bankers, footballers, HIV positive, Jewish, fairhaired, lefthanded, citizens of Uruguay... where do you stop?

And while some of these characteristics might be self-referential, others are not, and most have very little to do with whether the person plays golf or not.

John W. Morehead said...

Maybe it's just a "pet peeve" for me, Steve. But I think there's something here beyond a red herring.

I believe that in the postmodern West we are seeing an important shift in how people see themselves. Rather than self-identity coming through birth and family connection it often now comes through a variety of sources and chosen affiliations, so much so that people inhabit multiple self-identities. This then forms their social identity/ies. This is discussed in the work of Manuel Castells, for example, and I believe there are great missional implications.

As to how all of this relates to my point in the post, Wiccans and other Pagans do indeed take exception to being labeled "unchurched," and I would take exception to being labeled "uncovened." Perhaps you and others would disagree, but I believe more would agree with this concern than not.

And perhaps we do need to have this conversation in the missiological community, because not only is it significant, but I believe it is tied to Christendom culture and colonialism.