What People Experience in Churches

January 9, 2012
Most Americans have first-hand experiences in churches or parishes. What happens, if anything, in the hearts and minds of those who attend? To explore this matter, Barna Group surveyed Americans who have attended a Christian church sometime in the past and discovered what they say about their experiences in these congregations.

Connecting with God Connecting with God is perhaps the most important outcome facilitated by churches. Most people (66%) feel they have had “a real and personal connection” with God while attending church. However, that means one-third of those who have attended a church in the past have never felt God’s presence while in a congregational setting. Also, when asked about frequency, most of those who have attended church describe these encounters as rare. One-third of all adults in the country report connecting with God at least monthly (35%) via a congregational setting. Among those who attend church every week, 44% said they experience God’s presence every week and 18% do so on a monthly basis.

Experiencing Transformation The survey also probed the degree to which people say their lives had been changed by attending church. Overall, one-quarter of Americans (26%) who had been to a church before said that their life had been changed or affected “greatly” by attending church. Another one-fourth (25%) described it as “somewhat” influential. Nearly half said their life had not changed at all as a result of churchgoing (46%).

Gaining New Insights One of the most significant gaps uncovered by the research was the fact that most people cannot recall gaining any new spiritual insights the last time they attended church. Asked to think about their last church visit, three out of five church attenders (61%) said they could not remember a significant or important new insight or understanding related to faith. Even among those who attended church in the last week, half admitted they could not recall a significant insight they had gained.

Feeling Cared For Another aspect of the research was to explore whether people feel connected with other human beings at church. The study revealed that nearly seven out of 10 respondents (68%) said when they attend church they feel “part of a group of people who are united in their beliefs and who take care of each other in practical ways.”

On the other hand, one-quarter (23%) of those with church experience selected the description that church feels “like a group sharing the same space in a public event but who were not connected in a real way.” One in 11 (9%) said they were simply “not sure.”

Helping the Poor Finally, the study examined whether people believe their church prioritizes caring for the poor outside of the congregation. The survey asked respondents to consider the budget, activities, and encouragement of the church they usually attend and to rate how much of an emphasis is placed on serving the poor. In total, 40% of adults with church experience said caring for the poor was emphasized “a lot,” while 33% indicated it was “somewhat” of a priority.

Does Church Size Matter? Many heated discussions occur about the optimal size for a church, but this data suggests that church experiences do not differ all that much based on the size of the church. For the most part, attenders of small, medium and larger churches described similar outcomes from their church engagement. Looking at moderate differences, attenders of mid-sized churches (defined as those with 100-299 adult attenders) were slightly less likely to report positive outcomes from church than were those attending larger and smaller congregations. Also, those attending larger churches (300+ attenders) were more likely than average to say they had gained new spiritual insight and understanding and that their church clearly prioritizes serving the poor.

Generational Experiences Another noteworthy research finding is that older adults generally report the most favorable experiences at churches. This is not altogether surprising, but the level of disaffection of young adults is striking. The youngest generation—a segment Barna Group labels Mosaics, ages 18 to 27—is significantly less likely to describe positive outcomes while attending congregations. In particular, there were significant gaps between young adults and older adults when it came to feeling part of a group that cares for each other, experiencing God’s presence, knowing the church prioritizes assisting the poor, and being personally transformed.

Denominational Experiences Barna also compared the experiences of Catholics, mainliners and non-mainline attenders. To control for differences in participation, the analysis of these data was limited to those who are “practicing Christians” —that is, those who go to church at least monthly and who say their religious faith is very important in their life. The research revealed that practicing Catholics generally had less positive outcomes in their congregational experiences than did Protestant attenders. Statistically speaking, non-mainline Protestants were only distinct from mainline Protestants in their likelihood of gaining a new spiritual insight at church.

Perspective on the Findings David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, commented on the findings. “This research points to both good news and causes for concern. On the positive side, many churchgoers receive a diverse and rich set of inputs by being involved in a church or parish, most notably connecting with God and others.

“Yet, the research results are also a reminder that faith leaders cannot take these things for granted. Millions of active participants find their church experiences to be lacking. Entering the New Year, consider spending time thinking and praying how your faith community can identify, plan, and measure a deeper, more holistic set of experiences and outcomes so that people are not mere observers of ministry but genuine participants.”

About the Research This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted in the OmniPoll℠ (part of Barna Group’s Barna Poll series). This study consisted of a random sample of 1,022 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older. The research included 150 interviews conducted among people using cell phones. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

Elders are those born before 1946; Boomers are the generation born from 1946 to 1964; Busters are individuals born between 1965 and 1983; and Mosaics are adults born between 1984 and 1993.

“Practicing Christians” are adults who describe themselves as Christians, attend a worship service at least once a month, and say their religious faith is very important in their life.

Mainline denominations include American Baptist Churches in the USA; the Episcopal Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Presbyterian Church (USA); the United Church of Christ; and the United Methodist Church. Non-mainline denominations are Protestant churches other than those included in the mainline category described above.

About Barna Group Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. It conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries.

Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each update on the latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources are also available through this website.

© Barna Group 2012.


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