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A better grasp from Barna on why people aren’t come to church

A better grasp from Barna on why people aren’t come to church

The Barna Group has a new report that plumbs the question of why fewer and fewer Americans are attending church.

The document names five trends:

1. Secularization is on the rise, especially among young adults. The authors write: “Nearly half of Millennials (48%) qualify as post-Christian compared to two-fifths of Gen X-ers (40%), one-third of Boomers (35%) and one-quarter of Elders (28%).”

2. People are less open to the idea of church. “Twenty years ago, two-thirds of churchless Americans (65%) were open to being invited to church by a friend. Today, that percentage has slipped to less than half (47%).”

3. Churchgoing Is No Longer Mainstream. “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.”

4. There Are Different Expectations of Church Involvement. “Today’s unchurched are more likely to say they are simply not sure [whether they would be interested in attending a Sunday service], 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. “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.”

Do you agree with these conclusions? If so, how should the Episcopal Church act on these insights? Do bishops, clergy and lay leaders seem prepared for the task?


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David Stump

Christianity, like any major religion, is large collection of beliefs, attitudes, texts, and rituals. Among others things these are used to:

  1. suggest norms and enforce social control;
  2. support the desire of the human mind to create a sense of order, meaning, purpose, or control (either you/you community can influence events through an agent like God or at least believe there is some such agent in control and surrender to it) to our experiences and models of reality (i.e. “the world”, “the universe”);
  3. spark or nourish a sense of creativity and comfort with the unknown and unknowable/answer unknowable existential questions raised by the human mind;
  4. offer codes of conduct and ways of living with revered exemplars, both living/dead and mythical/historical; to provide a portrait of a “good life” with guides and support to achieving it (including rituals for major transitions);
  5. provide space and rituals to promote social cohesion and to enact conflict resolution;
  6. affirm and reinforce the social hierarchy and the values supporting it;
  7. permit a communal experience in a timeless ceremony that relives a shared narrative that teaches and reinforces the other aforementioned elements and tie them to that narrative and its major elements (in this case to the Christian God/Jesus/The Bible).

You can basically find the overwhelming majority of Christian religious activities, debates, histories, and texts in that description of what religion does. And like any social institution, it is what its members believe it is, which is revealed by what its members do.

Is it a place to find answers to the big questions? An extended family? A social club? A place to get married and buried? A social justice machine? A place to humble yourself or to be uplifted in a sense of timeless tradition? Something else?

Even belief is hard to pin down. Some believe in God like they believe in rain. Others believe in God like they believe in the ideal of justice. For some it’s more like belief in a comforting figure from their favorite story.

Sure, ignorance and lack of nuance about religion, religious history (within the Church and without) and the meanings of concepts/experiences such as faith, simplistic false dichotomies of reason/materialism vs faith/supernatural “woo”, etc are hurting Western churches. As is Christianity’s association with the harshest/most out of step elements of contemporary social conservatism.

But look at my list of religious “stuff”. Which of those social goods do people in post-modern industrial societies want or need from “the Church” or “your church”? You may find such an external perspective on social markets distasteful, but it can offer more clarity than a vague, unpacked statement that church is about honoring or worshiping God.

The first and sixth are part of the culture wars, whichever side you are on, but the public image is still muted, ineffectual liberalism vs. “real Christianity”. And every day fewer people see any need or perhaps any desire to appeal to religion on such matters.

The fifth is essentially an obsolete function of religion in the West.

The third is either ignored/viewed as irrelevant/takes too much time or has ample competition from other sacred traditions or the DIY spirituality/self-help industry. This view largely applies to the second as well, which is increasingly seen as more or less an individual, not a communal, project.

The fourth and seventh are really two sides of the same coin, and in some ways these are the heart of major religions, allowing the other elements to function. But there is plenty of competition from other religion, spiritual DYI projects, and secular views. Even many who profess any of these (Christianity included) are really absorbed in politico-economic culture of capitalism/consumerism, in which marketers, social and political trend setters, and others of power and influence co-opt images and story elements from other sources to get people to buy into their system. By controlling numbers four and seven, they can either emphasize or de-emphasize the other elements and modify them to suit their purposes.

For better or worse, people like to emulate those whom they respect and admire, who possess and act on values they see as worthy or noble. If worth is money or fame, then they will follow the rich and famous. Those who are inspired by saints and holy people will want to learn more about their religion and faith. The same goes for others who capture the hearts and imaginations of the people.

Who will the jaded, skeptical, or disillusioned follow?

If you try to make your religion all about a single unchanging interpretation of its central narrative and its associated rituals, it will fade. Christianity hasn’t faded yet which means (as the history of the religion confirms) that it has evolved. So what message/interpretation will Christianity bring now that is current and relevant? Not as a gimmick, per se, but as a response to the current situation? To the current popular formats of the “fourth” and “seventh” elements of religious/communal experience and their connection to issues of discrimination, disenfranchisement, poverty, and ecological destruction?

A clear, steady, and forceful articulation of the faith to such challenges won’t necessarily make people more likely to believe in (a particular version of) God or the Passion story on its own, but it would certainly change the frame in which Christianity is perceived in terms of being connected to some greater truth and having relevance for this life rather than focusing on some kind of post-death prize (which is a common perception inside and outside of the religion).


Of the five reasons, the author simply fails to ID what I think is the #1 reason: “they don’t attend because they don’t believe.”

I don’t care what your age or background is, if you really believe, you’re going to seek out like-minded people. Authentic faith creates, even demands, community.

We need to articulate our faith better, and we need to do that by understanding our faith better.

Kevin McGrane


A church.

Individual congregations.

That’s the problem. It’s the same model as everything else in this world: Mine works. We do okay.

That is why churches are emptying. No one cares because they are just like everything else, and all the “just human” excuses in the world don’t work when you are trying to sell it as the Body of Christ!

Why are you having so much trouble grasping this. In one breath you’ll say “All the church is one!” then turn around and say “Well, maybe some churches are like that, but mine . . . !” This is inconsistency, public relations manipulation, self-justification. People are savvy enough now to know that.

Now, you can ignore this, say it “ignores the complexities . . . ” blah, blah, blah, but it isn’t complex. You promise transformation of the entire world and do nothing to deliver, people tend to call you on that. Don’t hand me stuff about this life changed, that life changed. It’s been close on 2,000 years. The Church has changed things, has made the world better, and much, much worse, but it’s stopped being anything. Now, the Church is just church.

Stop pretending it isn’t entirely our fault.


This story tells at tale of the church serving as something more than a club for those for whom its rites, rituals and worldview already work.

Jan Adams

What would it look like if we sought to so resolutely place this Church of “ours” on the side of those who need to God’s love and human succor most?

Marshall Scott

I find I’m interested in question 5, too; but I wonder about the question itself. I wonder whether there would have been different response if the question had been whether if they could identify positive or negative contributions of any individual congregations in their town/neighborhood. “Christianity” per se seems too broad and vague a category to be meaningful, whether in the research itself or in reporting results.

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