A majority of unchurched Americans are turned off by the institutional church and don’t have a biblical understanding about God and Jesus, yet they believe Jesus makes a positive difference in a person’s life and would enjoy an honest discussion with a friend about spiritual matters.
Those are just a few of the findings from a new study of unchurched Americans conducted by Lifeway Research in partnership with the North American Mission Board’s Center for Missional Research. Lifeway Research, the research arm of Lifeway Christian Resources, and the North American Mission Board are both entities of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The results of the study, which polled 1,402 adults who had not attended a religious service at a church, synagogue or mosque in the previous six months, are available at LifewayResearch.com.
The findings have important implications for Christian churches and individuals who want to effectively reach unchurched people with the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, said Lifeway Research President Ed Stetzer.
“A full 72 percent of the people interviewed said they think the church ‘is full of hypocrites,'” Stetzer said. “At the same time, however, 71 percent of the respondents said they believe Jesus ‘makes a positive difference in a person’s life’ and 78 percent said they would ‘be willing to listen’ to someone who wanted to share what they believed about Christianity.”
Lack of understanding
Many unchurched people don’t have a biblical understanding about God and Jesus, the survey found.
“While 72 percent of those surveyed said they believe God – a higher or supreme being – actually exists, only 48 percent agree there is only one God as described in the Bible, and 61 percent believe ‘the God of the Bible is no different from the gods or spiritual beings depicted by world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.,'” said Scott McConnell, director of Lifeway Research. “At the same time, 66 percent of adults ages 18-29 agree that Jesus died and came back to life, compared to 54 percent of adults 30 years and older.”
It’s not surprising that people who don’t attend church don’t understand what the Bible teaches, McConnell added.
“If you aren’t going to church, you don’t have an opportunity to be informed about what the Bible teaches or what other faiths teach,” he said. “It’s not surprising then that unchurched people lump world religions all together and consider the gods described in them as being the same.”
The problem is compounded by a widespread notion of religious tolerance that says religious and spiritual truth is a matter of personal opinion, Stetzer said.
“We found a real openness to hearing about matters of faith, but the study also clearly documents what I call the Oprah-ization of American Christianity,” he said. “It’s very much a generic ‘big guy in the sky’ view of God and a ‘you believe what you believe, I believe what I believe’ viewpoint on theology. People say, ‘Who am I to judge?’
“We have seen this in the current political campaigns, in regard to Mormonism,” Stetzer added. “Recently a Christian leader was asked whether Mormons are Christians, and he replied that no, Mormons are outside the standard definition of what an orthodox Christian is. The host was shocked somebody would say that. How dare we say someone else is or is not a Christian?
“Christians begin with a faith system that teaches who God is, but the people in our culture not only don’t believe that, but often consider us intolerant because we dare to believe it,” he said.
‘Tripping over the church’
The negative perception for many people, however, seems to be the church, not Jesus himself, according to the study.
While 64 percent of the respondents think “the Christian religion is a relevant and viable religion for today,” 79 percent think Christianity “is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people.” Seventy-two percent said they think the church ‘is full of hypocrites, people who criticize others for doing the same things they do themselves,” and 86 percent believe they “can have a good relationship with God without being involved in church.”
The belief that church attendance isn’t necessary for spiritual well-being is just as common among adults who grew up in church as it is among those who attended church less often as children, McConnell said.
“Unchurched people do not understand the connection between having a relationship with God and being with other believers in church,” he said. “In the Christian faith, these are inseparable. Jesus’ last prayer before being arrested, as recorded in John 17, was that everyone who believes in Him would be unified and work together to let the world know that God loves them and sent Jesus.
“People on the outside see the church as candles, pews and flowers, rather than people living out their love for God by loving others,” he added. “Such skepticism can only be overcome by churches and believers who demonstrate the unity and love for which Jesus prayed.”
Stetzer explained, “There will always be the stumbling block of the cross. Yet our study shows that many are tripping over the church before they hear the message of the cross.”
Open to friends
Despite their negative opinions about the institutional church, most unchurched people are open to discussing spiritual matters with a friend. The research showed that:
- 78 percent of those surveyed said they would be willing to listen to someone who wanted to talk about their Christian beliefs. The number rose to 89 percent among adults 18-29 years of age.
- Only 28 percent of adults 30 years and older said they think Christians they know talk to them too much about their beliefs.
- 78 percent of adults 30 years and older said they would enjoy an honest conversation with a friend about religious and spiritual beliefs, even if they disagreed with the friend.
“Even though the unchurched have a confused view of God and a negative view of the church, they are overwhelmingly open to someone sharing about their Christian faith,” Stetzer said. “We think religion is a topic that is off-limits in polite conversation, but unchurched people say they would enjoy conversations about spiritual matters.”
Rebuke and challenge
Stetzer added that, “Increasingly, the God Americans believe in looks less like the God described in the Bible. They are a long way from where people were 100 years ago, when there was more of a consensus about who God is. That is a rebuke to us as Christians and, at the same time, a challenge. What is it about the faith we live that causes our culture to like Jesus but reject the church?”
One of the most important insights of the study is that the vast majority of unchurched people are not only open to spiritual conversations but already know someone who is a Christian, McConnell said.
“Eighty-nine percent of these unchurched people say they have close friends who are Christians,” he said. “We don’t have to search for the unchurched folks around us; we actually know them. It’s really a matter of starting conversations about spiritual matters with the unchurched people we know.
“Although we may not have the home field advantage we once did, people are open to spiritual conversations, open to hearing about a genuine faith, and God is still at work, using people and churches to share the Good News in an increasingly confused world,” McConnell said. “That should propel us to action and help us move beyond fear to share our faith.”
Methodology: This survey was conducted through two telephone surveys, one of 900 adults ages 18-29 in early 2007 and the other of 502 adults ages 30 and over during the summer of 2007. The samples were merged with statistical weighting to produce a combined sample of 1,402 adults with a margin of error not exceeding 2.5 percent. Respondents were qualified as unchurched by asking whether they had attended a religious service in a church, synagogue or mosque at any time in the past six months. The agree category is a combination of “somewhat agree” and “strongly agree.”