2008 promises to be a year of significant change for Americans. The presidential election already has introduced significant transitions into the political process and conversation. The sagging economy is altering many people’s financial behavior and lifestyles. New technology is transforming perceptions of the world and how we connect with people. And a new study from The Barna Group suggests that a major shift in people’s spirituality is now well under way.
Change of Heart
For decades, American Christians, who comprise more than four of our every five adults, assumed they had one legitimate way to practice their faith: through involvement in a conventional church. New research shows this mind set is no longer prevalent in America. The latest Barna study shows a majority of adults now believe there are various biblically legitimate alternatives to participation in a conventional church.
Each of six alternatives was deemed by most adults to be “a complete and biblically valid way for someone who does not participate in the services or activities of a conventional church to experience and express their faith in God.” Those alternatives include engaging in faith activities at home, with one’s family (considered acceptable by 89% of adults); being active in a house church (75%); watching a religious television program (69%); listening to a religious radio broadcast (68%); attending a special ministry event, such as a concert or community service activity (68%); and participating in a marketplace ministry (54%).
Smaller proportions of the public consider other alternatives to be complete and biblically valid ways of experiencing and expressing their faith in God. Those include interacting with a faith-oriented website (45%) and participating in live events via the Internet (42%).
Activity Outside the Conventional Church
The Barna study also found that tens of millions of people are experiencing and expressing their faith in God independent of any connection to a conventional church. In the past month, 55% of adults had attended a conventional church service. During that same month, 28% of all adults who did not attend a conventional church activity did, however, participate in an alternative means of experiencing and expressing their faith in God.
Looking at some of the newer and more controversial methods of spiritual engagement, the survey found that 4% had participated in a house church or simple church; 9% had been involved in a ministry that met in the marketplace; and 12% had engaged in spiritual activity on the Internet.
Pastors Accept House Churches
In a companion study conducted by The Barna Group among senior pastors of Protestant churches, two out of three pastors agreed “house churches are legitimate Christian churches.” Surprisingly, pastors from mainline churches were more likely than pastors from other Protestant congregations to consider house churches to be biblically defensible forms of church experience. Among the pastors least likely to support the legitimacy of house churches were pastors who earn more than $75,000 annually, African-American pastors, and pastors of charismatic or Pentecostal churches.
The views of Protestant pastors regarding house churches show they assign strengths and weaknesses to house churches. For instance, more than three-quarters of conventional church pastors (77%) contend that “house churches genuinely worship God.” Two-thirds (66%) said “a house church might be a better spiritual fit for someone than a conventional local church.” And three out of every five (60%) noted that “house churches produce genuine disciples of Christ.”
However, less than half of all pastors of conventional churches said they would ever recommend a house church to someone (40%). Also, only one out of three conventional church pastors (31%) believes “house churches have sufficient spiritual accountability.”
Paradoxically, only half (54%) of the senior pastors of conventional churches who believe house churches are biblically legitimate forms of church said they might ever recommend a house church to someone.
About the Research
This report is based on two nationwide telephone surveys conducted by The Barna Group. One survey was a sample of 1005 adults, age 18 and older, conducted in December 2007 randomly selected from across the continental United States. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The other survey included interviews with 615 senior pastors of Protestant churches, randomly sampled from all Protestant churches in the continental states during December 2007. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables. All interviews in both surveys were conducted via telephone, and multiple callbacks were made to each telephone number to provide a representative sample.
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) 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 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 new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (http://www.barna.org)/.