Since 1990, the percentage of unchurched adults in America has risen from 30% to 43% of the population. With the aid of more than two decades of tracking research—a sort of cultural time-lapse photography—Barna Group* has discovered real and significant shifts in unchurched attitudes, assumptions, allegiances and behaviors. They’ve identified five trends in their research that are contributing to this increase in the churchless of America.
1. Secularization Is on the Rise
Nearly two-fifths of the nation’s adult population (38%) now qualifies as post-Christian (measured by 15 different variables related to people’s identity, beliefs and behaviors. That includes 10% of Americans who qualify as highly post-Christian. Another one-quarter is moderately post-Christian (28%). Examined over time, our research shows that the proportion of highly secularized individuals is growing slowly but steadily.
2. People Are Less Open to the Idea of Church
Barna research shows that the unchurched are becoming less responsive to churches’ efforts to connect with them. For example, conventional wisdom says the best way to get people to visit a church is to have friends invite them—and the conventional wisdom is right. The churchless we interviewed were most open to “a friend of yours inviting you to attend a local church,” with one-fifth expressing strong interest and nearly half willing to consider a church based on this factor. An invitation from a friend is the top-rated way churches can establish connections with the unchurched.
3. Church-going Is No Longer Mainstream
Churchgoing is slowly but incontrovertibly losing its role as a normative part of American life. In the 1990s, roughly one out of every seven unchurched adults had never experienced regular church attendance. Today, that percentage has increased to nearly one-quarter. Buried within these numbers are at least two important conclusions: 1) Church is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to millions of Americans, and yet 2) the churchless are still largely comprised of de-churched adults.
4. There Are Different Expectations of Church Involvement
Another intriguing shift among the churchless has to do with their expectations of church involvement. In the early 1990s, our research showed that nearly seven out of 10 adults, if they were to visit a church, would be most interested in attending the Sunday service. Today, weekend worship services remain the most common entry experience, but only slightly; now, only 57% of churchless adults say they would be interested in Sunday worship as their starting point. Today’s unchurched are more likely to say they are simply not sure, reflecting their disinterest in churches generally, or are more likely to say they would prefer attending some activity other than the Sunday service.
5. There Is Skepticism about Churches’ Contributions to Society
Although many of the churchless hold positive views of churches, a substantial number also have no idea what Christians have accomplished in the nation, either for the better or for the worse. When the unchurched were asked to describe what they believe are the positive and negative contributions of Christianity in America, almost half (49%) could not identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community, while nearly two-fifths (37%) were unable to identify a negative impact. Of those who could identify one way Christians contribute to the common good, the unchurched appreciate their influence when it comes to serving the poor and disadvantaged (22%), bolstering morals and values (10%) and helping people believe in God (8%). Among those who had a complaint about Christians in society, the unchurched were least favorably disposed toward violence in the name of Christ (18%), the church’s stand against gay marriage (15%), sexual abuse scandals (13%) and involvement in politics (10%).
Arthur Farnsley, administrator of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, interprets it this way, “Is there a workshop for churches in being less annoying, less hypocritical?”
Key thought: The number one core value of our church is “To be more and more like Jesus.” So, if the “unchurched” are not seeing that core value played out, how can the church become more and more like Jesus?
Hint: It begins with you and me.