As part of their State of the Church 2020, Barna calls out five statistical trends that are vital for church leaders to recognize moving into the future.
The report primarily explored two different categories of adults who have relatively recent experience in a Christian church.
- Churched adults – Those Americans who’ve attended a Christian church at least once in the last six months, representing about 124.4 million adults.
- Practicing Christians – A subset of churched adults, practicing Christians attend church at least monthly and say their faith is very important in their life today. This more committed group comprises about 63.5 million adults.
David Kinnaman, president of Barna, evoked a sports analogy to compare the two groups, describing churched adults as a team’s entire fan base, while practicing Christians are the most ardent supporters.
Examining the habits and attitudes of these two groups reveals important information about the way modern Americans are relating to church.
1. Nearly 2 in 5 churchgoers attend multiple churches at least occasionally.
A majority of churchgoers stick with a single congregation (63% churched adults, 72% practicing Christians), but nearly 2 in 5 churched adults (38%) and 27% of practicing Christians attend other churches at least occasionally.
Also, those who do attend multiple churches are just as likely as those more committed to one church to report weekly attendance.
And even for most church hoppers they typically attend one church during a given month, while attending other churches occasionally.
2. Churchgoers enjoy church, but don’t think others do.
Two-thirds of churched adults (65%) and 82% of practicing Christians say they attend church because they “enjoy doing it.”
One in 6 churchgoers (17%) says they attend because they “have to,” and 1 in 7 (15%) says they do so “out of habit.”
Still, about half of Christians (48% self-identified Christians, 45% practicing Christians) and more than half of churched adults overall (57%) admit they know people who are tired of the usual type of church experience.
3. Churchgoers experience a range of emotions—mostly positive—after worship services.
Overall, churched adults say they leave worship services feeling inspired (37%), encouraged (37%), forgiven (34%), as though they have connected with God or experienced His presence (33%), and challenged to change something in their life (26%), every time. A plurality of churched adults also express always feeling like attending service was the most important experience they had all week (29%) and that they learned something new (28%).
Even so, 32% of churched adults say they feel disappointed by the experience at least half of the time and another 40% leave feeling guilty.
4. Church membership is declining among younger churchgoers.
Of those who attend church at least every six months, a little over half (54%) report being an official member at their place of worship, with just above 1 in 3 (37%) reporting they regularly attend but are not members. Practicing Christians, expectedly, show deeper commitment, with 7 in 10 (71%) noting they are members, and 1 in 4 (26%) claiming regular attendance without membership.
There are, however, significant differences in membership rates between generations. Boomers are more likely than both Gen X and Millennials to be formal members of their congregation, with nearly 7 in 10 churched Boomers (68% vs. 48% churched Millennials and 51% churched Gen X) confirming membership.
Younger generations of churchgoers were also more likely to mention “not applicable,” which suggests the category of membership isn’t even part of their church’s nomenclature.
However, church members are more likely to say they connect with God or personally experience His presence during worship services (most of the time: 72% members vs. 52% non-members) and that they’re challenged to change something in their life during worship services (every time: 31% vs. 22%).
Members are more likely than non-members to attend worship services (75% vs. 52%) or read their Bible (71% vs. 53%) out of enjoyment. Further, members also report feeling more inspired (73% vs. 57%) and encouraged (74% vs. 59%) by their church services.
5. Non-Christians are questioning the Church’s relevance.
While practicing Christians firmly believe Christian churches have a strong community impact (66% very positive, 28% somewhat positive), the rest of the U.S. population is not as quick to sing their praises.
About a quarter (27%) say churches have a very positive impact—the same percentage (27%) who say it has no impact at all. The plurality of U.S. adults (38%) says it has just a somewhat positive impact.
Non-Christians, meanwhile, are inclined toward indifference (39% no impact) or to see harm in churches’ local contributions (30% very negative, 10% somewhat negative).
While the general population, and practicing Christians especially, have a largely positive impression of the Christian faith (75% U.S. adults, 100% practicing Christians, 91% self-identified Christians, 49% non-Christians), the church itself is regarded as irrelevant by about 1 in 10 Americans (15% U.S. adults, 10% practicing Christians definitely agree).