More than any time in our nation’s history, Americans are skipping church on Sunday. Identifying exactly who those people are — from a demographic and psychographic perspective — the latest research shines some light on what groups of people the Church are failing to evangelize.
Collecting data from tens of thousands of unchurched Americans over the past three decades, The Barna Group set out on a quest to determine what attitudes and behaviors instigate a removal from the Church culture into secular society. Also discovered from the numerous interviews is interesting information giving believers a different take on what their unchurched counterparts are really all about.
To fit all this data into one package, Barna researchers recently produced a list of the 10-most-intriguing insights they gleaned from their exhaustive 30 year study, and here they are …
No. 1: Men make up the highest percentage of unchurched, but women are catching up
Even though, regardless of the denomination, senior pastors are predominantly men, women constitute the majority in the churches they attend.
“It remains true that churchless people are somewhat more likely to be men than women (54 percent of the churched are men, compared to 46 percent of the churched), but the gap is not huge and has been steadily closing,” Barna asserts. “For instance, in 1994, 58 percent of the unchurched were men … That percentage reached 60 percent in 2003, before it began consistently declining, until stabilizing the last few years around the current level.”
Surprising to many, when broken down another way, we find that unchurched women have closed in on men by 12 points over the past 11 years (20 points behind in 2003, to just trailing men by 8 points today).
No. 2: Whites constitute most unchurched Americans
Even though whites still comprise a majority of the United States’ population of 315 million — 63 percent of all Americans today, compared to 69 percent 14 years ago in 2000 — they make up a larger percentage of the unchurched than their overall numbers should dictate.
“The ethnic and racial distinctions that once separated the churched and the unchurched are less substantial than they once were,” Barna researchers point out. “However, it is still true that the unchurched are more likely to be white than are the churched.”
When comparing Americans of European dissent with Americans whose backgrounds derive from other parts of the world, Barna finds that the percentage of unchurched white Americans exceeds all others.
Crunching the numbers, whites make up 70 percent of America’s unchurched and only 65 percent of the churched. Hispanics comprise 12 percent of the unchurched and 14 percent of the churched in the U.S. Ten percent the unchurched in America are blacks, while they compile a higher 16 percent of this country’s churched. Asians constitute 6 percent of the unchurched and just 4 percent of America’s churched population.
No. 3: Unmarrieds make up a majority of the unchurched
Fact is, if you are married as an adult, you are more likely to attend church, and Barna has the numbers to prove it.
“Among the unchurched, less than half (44 percent) are married, while the number is closer to six out of 10 among the churched,” the Barna study divulged. “A greater proportion of the unchurched (29 percent) than the churched (22 percent) has never been married.”
Barna went a step further to determine if attending church plays a factor in Americans’ lifestyle choices and marital status.
“Unchurched adults are also about four times more likely to be cohabiting than the churched (11 percent and 3 percent, respectively),” researchers say. “Both groups are equally likely to be divorced, separated or widowed.”
No. 4: Young Americans are less likely to attend church than older generations
According to the research, the Church is losing its hold on younger generations.
While 15 percent of the unchurched in America are Millennials (born 1984─2002), they make up only 11 percent of the churched. Gen X-ers (born 1965─1983) comprise 36 percent of the unchurched and only 33 percent of the churched. Thirty-three percent of unchurched are Boomers (born 1946─1964), which make up 35 percent of the churched. On te other hand, elders (born before 1946) constitute 16 percent of the unchurched and22 percent of the churched in America.
But even though the numbers tend to point toward a preponderance of youth congregating anywhere but church, come Sunday, the difference between this younger segment of American society and older generations is not as disparate as one might think.
“However, the actual gap is only a few years (a median of 47 years among the unchurched, compared to 51 among the churched),” Barna notes.
No. 5: Lower levels of education mark the unchurched
Despite many stereotypes flying around that church is for the less educated and that academic elites stay away from organized religion, statistics in America over the past 30 years prove otherwise.
“While it may seem counterintuitive to some, the unchurched tend to have completed fewer years of formal education,” Barna asserts. “But again, the gap is not huge: 50 percent of the unchurched have gone no further than high school graduation, compared to 45 percent of the churched. Overall, 22 percent of the churchless have completed a four-year college degree — only slightly less than the 26 percent among the churched.”
No. 6: Surf’s up on the West Coast, number of churchgoers down
The gap between the churched and unchurched in all of the U.S.’s geographical regions is nowhere more accentuated than on the Pacific Coast. Even though Barna found that most of America’s regions had a separation of just a few percentage points between the two, it was a different story out West.
“The biggest gap is found in the Pacific Coast states, where residents comprise 20 percent of the nation’s unchurched and 14 percent of the churched,” Barna found, noting the 6-percent difference. “The average gap between the churched and unchurched in all nine U.S. Census regions is only 2.5 percentage points.”
No. 7: Most churchless Americans claim to be Christian
Even though they stay away from churches and tend to separate their lives from organized religion, churchless Americans predominantly proclaim Christianity to be their faith.
“When asked to identify their faith beliefs, 62 percent of unchurched adults consider themselves Christians,” Barna reported.
And those not showing up to worship at their local churches are not hostile toward those who do.
“Most of the churchless in America — contrary to what one might believe — do not disdain Christianity nor desire to belittle it or tear it down,” researchers explained. “Many of them remain culturally tied to Christianity and are significantly interested in it.”
The statistics speak for themselves.
“More than one-third (34 percent), for example, would describe themselves as ‘deeply spiritual,’” the research states. “Four in 10 (41 percent) ‘strongly agree’ that their religious faith is very important in their life today.”
Despite being outside of the Body of Christ attending church, many unchurched members’ flame for God is still burning.
“More than half (51 percent) are actively seeking something better spiritually than they have experienced to date,” the research continues. “One-third (33 percent) say they have an active relationship with God that influences their life and are most likely to describe that relationship as ‘important to me’ (95 percent), ‘satisfying’ (90 percent) and ‘growing deeper’ (73 percent) — only one in six (16 percent) would describe it as ‘shallow.’”
No. 8: Most unchurched Americans have gone to church
Even though they haven’t made a habit of going back, most Americans in the “unchurched” category have attended church in the past in some way, shape or form.
“Very few of America’s unchurched adults are purely unchurched — most of them, rather, are de-churched,” the research finds. “Only about one-quarter of unchurched adults (23 percent) has never attended a Christian church at any time in his or her life, other than for a special service such as a wedding or funeral ceremony (though this number is on the rise; in 1993, only 15 percent of unchurched adults had never been connected to a church).”
Turns out, many churches across the nation didn’t make a very good impression to new attendees or reach out to first-timers when they ventured through church doors in a rare attempt to give Christianity a chance.
“The majority of unchurched individuals (76 percent) have first-hand experience with one or more Christian churches and, based on that sampling, have decided they can better use their time in other ways,” Barna explained.
No. 9: Number of Americans becoming unchurched over past decade more than all the people in Canada or Australia
According to recent data, secular society is doing a better job of evangelizing Americans than their local church.
“Barna tracking research has seen significant shifts in church involvement over the past decade,” the Ventura, California-based research organization proclaimed. “During that time, the number of adults who are unchurched has increased by more than 30 percent. This is an increase of 38 million individuals — that’s more people than live in Canada or Australia.”
No. 10: Adding up all unchurched Americans could create the world’s 8thmost populous nation
After tallying everything up, just under half (156 million) of all 315 million Americans are unchurched — an even bigger number when Barna puts it into perspective.
“As of 2014, the estimated number of people in the U.S. who Barna Group would define as ‘churchless — meaning they have not attended a Christian church service, other than a special event such as a wedding or a funeral, at any time during the past six months — stands at 114 million,” Barna reports. “Add to that the roughly 42 million children and teenagers who are unchurched and you have 156 million U.S. residents who are not engaged with a Christian church. To put that in context, if all those unchurched people were a separate nation, it would be the eighth most populous country in the world, trailing only China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the remaining churched public of the United States (159 million).”
According Barna Group President David Kinnaman, differences between the churched and unchurched aren’t as glaring as we’ve been told. In fact, he argues the two groups are quite similar.
“Unchurched adults are very much like churched adults … except they don’t attend church,” asserts Kinnaman, the general editor of Churchless — written by George Barna. “While a few of the demographic differences between churched and unchurched are statistically significant, there is no such thing as a can’t-miss strategy for appealing to them. In fact, the data uncover so many similarities between churched and unchurched people that we have to conclude that a number of the stereotypes about both groups are not valid.”
Kinnaman contends that the latest data should serve to inspire pastors and congregations to think of ways they can draw lone-ranger Christians into the fold of fellowship.
“The fact remains, though, that more Americans than ever are not attending church,” Kinnaman continues. “Most of them did at some point and, for one reason or another, decided not to continue. This fact should motivate church leaders and attenders to examine how to make appropriate changes — not for the sake of enhancing attendance numbers, but to address the lack of life transformation that would attract more people to remain an active part.”
This kind of transformation is spoken about by the apostle Luke in the Book of Acts.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer … All the believers were together and had everything in common … Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their numbers daily those who were being saved.” — Acts 2: 42, 44, 46─47 (NiV)