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Christian and UnChurched: Barna’s Newest

From George Barna’s newest study:

One of the biggest surprises to some people, however, is that a large majority of the nation’s unchurched population is drawn from the sector comprised of people who consider themselves to be Christian. In the United States, 83% of all adults label themselves “Christian.” The percentage is lower among the unchurched, but such self-identified Christians still outnumber those who do not embrace Christianity by a three-to-two margin (61% vs. 39%).


Other interesting insights into the self-identified Christians who have distanced themselves from a conventional church relate to their beliefs. Two-thirds (68%) hold a biblical view of God – that is, He is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe and He still rules that universe today. However, only one-third (35%) agree to any extent that the Bible is totally accurate in all the principles it teaches. Only one in seven (15%) claim that their religious faith is very important in their life. One out of five (22%) contends that the ultimate purpose of life is to love God with all their heart, mind, strength and soul. A mere one in seven (14%) claims to have a clear sense of the meaning and purpose of their life. And minorities of the group, ranging from one-quarter to one-third, support the notions of salvation by grace alone, Jesus Christ living a holy and sinless life on earth, and Satan existing today.

Demographically, the self-identified Christians among the unchurched stray from common assumptions. Within this group, women outnumber men; Boomers and their elders outnumber the young; downscale adults double the number of upscale unchurched; conservatives are more common than liberals; and whites outnumber minorities by nearly a three-to-one margin.


Based on past studies of those who avoid Christian churches, one of the driving forces behind such behavior is the painful experiences endured within the local church context. In fact, one Barna study among unchurched adults shows that nearly four out of every ten non-churchgoing Americans (37%) said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people. 
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posted April 13, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Sure seems to line up with my experience pastoring in the Midwest. I meet people every day that have been burnt by pastors or churches and have walked away because of it.
I would be very interested if they believed that participation in a local church gathering was important because I’ve encountered many that have heard a hyper-individualized gospel presentation that doesn’t give any incentive or reason for participating in the Body of Christ this side of death.

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posted April 13, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Gnosticism wins…it’s an individual spiritual pursuit without incarnational community.

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posted April 13, 2010 at 4:49 pm

“women outnumber men” as unchurched. I am curious about why? I would like to know more about why.

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Travis Greene

posted April 13, 2010 at 5:01 pm

I thought women also outnumbered men inside the church. Maybe women just outnumber men among those willing to answer surveys.

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derek leman

posted April 13, 2010 at 5:19 pm

I’m not sure what is surprising in these results. This seems to be the picture I had all along. Or was it surprising that so many claim Christian on a survey even though they don’t attend church and have a low level of belief in various doctrines?

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Scott F

posted April 13, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Perhaps being “burned” by church experience is linked to the divergent views of the unchurched. Being hit over the head with the KJV every Sunday would be an unsatisfactory experience for someone who believes that the Bible is flawed as a unique source of revelation.

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Jim Martin

posted April 13, 2010 at 5:37 pm

It would be interesting to know if these negative past experiences occurred as a child or as an adult. DId these people grow up in a family where the negative experience occurred when that person was a child or was this a later experience when the person was an adult? I am just curious to know if the incident in mind happened within the last few years or whether it happened many years ago when that person was still at home?
Also interesting that this many can have a biblical view of God and yet say that their religious faith was important in their lives.

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Fred Lybrand

posted April 13, 2010 at 5:42 pm

It glares that we seldom notice that Barna has an underlying assumption that if we all ‘did it right’…everyone would be Christian. I’m not saying that these are things to ponder, but the Word seems to lay responsibility at the feet of the people themselves (see Ez 18). Scripturally speaking, isn’t there the possibility that some people just ‘rebel’? Realistically, what percentage of people in any period of time can be expected to be genuine believers (much less faithful ones)?

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posted April 13, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Important to recognize the role of bad past church experiences for so many people.
A side issue, is anybody else bothered by the way Barna words his Bible question? Defining orthodoxy as the Bible is totally accurate in all the principles it teaches. That would leave out a lot of orthodox Christians. Maybe including me, depending on how I decided to define “totally accurate” and what “it teaches”.
Why can’t he use something less fundamentalist-sounding, like “trustworthy and authoritative in matters of faith and practice”?

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posted April 13, 2010 at 7:06 pm

I don’t know why Barna’s amazing findings continue to be news. It’s been known for a while now that to be a “born-again Christian” to Barna’s group, one only has to check the right boxes on some very broadly worded questions. Add in regular church attendance and you get very different answers.
There are lots of people, especially in the south, who got just enough church growing up to be inoculated against Christianity. They walked an aisle, parroted a prayer, and they’re good.
Alternatively, they know a few hypocrites in the church, so they know they’re “better” than them and so don’t need church. My father-in-law and his family all quit going to church over one adulterous preacher 40 years ago.
Yes, Christians (and look-alikes) do bad things that make people avoid the church. And some people are just looking for an excuse.

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posted April 13, 2010 at 9:21 pm

I’m more interested in the data in regards to the unchurched on the whole more than those unchurched who still call themselves Christian.
Two Positives:
1. The total people who self-identify as Christians is up over recent surveys like ARIS that had the number down near 75%. At 83%, that’s a somewhat large move for the past three years. If anything, this could mean that the view of the church from the outside has improved some.
2. No matter how you slice it, this survey seems to indicate that even a good bulk of the 15% who now self-identify as non-religious have biblical beliefs concerning the character of God. Previous surveys have showed that over 2/3rds of these non-religious are believers in a god, transcendent spirit, etc. but as a Christian what is more interesting for me is that this survey may suggest that a good number of them hold to biblical beliefs about God.
A Negative:
1. 37% have been burned by churches…there’s no way to make that positive. Now, it cannot be assumed that everyone of these would have remained active in the church, but whenever you are talking about 37 million people (if you include kids) who are not attending church more than once a year or so because they were hurt by the church or those inside of the church…well, simply saying it makes me sad wouldn’t be enough.

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Jim Aurand

posted April 13, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Missing from the discussion is ‘What is the Church?” It isn’t a building. Remember that Stephen was stoned for saying “The God of Heaven doesn’t inhabit building made by men”. Wake up people, read “Pagan Christianity” by Frank Viola. We could evangelize the world with what we spend on bricks and mortar.

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posted April 14, 2010 at 8:03 am

Traverse, my question is real and should not be minimized. I had a person visit my church last week. He shared that is wife would not come to church because of how the church speaks about women.
I just don’t think that folks who do surveys really dive into that question. Also in the Book on Church Leavers, by Alan Jamison, he also found that among leavers the way women were treated and defined had something–not all to do with leaving.

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posted April 14, 2010 at 9:21 am

I wonder how Barna defines “churched” and “unchurched.” My family and I are part of a house/simple church. Are we considered “unchurched” because we don’t attend a conventional church?

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Your Name

posted April 14, 2010 at 9:23 am

I was out of church for almost a year because of hurt but realized that forgiveness was not an option. Upon returning, I prayed that God would allow me to see through His eyes the truth in regard to the church building and the people that attend. To my dismay, I find the people split in opinion in regard to truth in spite of their claim that they all believe the same Bible. The pastor and his wife are now separated (no infidelity are far as I know, just personal differences). It is difficult to come to grips with the idea of following leadership that are not following the precepts set down in the very book that they preach yet insist that their membership follow a different standard. We know that judgment begins in the church. I just pray for God?s mercy upon those of us that have endured and the ones that have strayed because of what they have seen or heard.

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Travis Greene

posted April 14, 2010 at 9:25 am

Joanne @ 13,
I certainly didn’t intend to minimize your question. How (many segments of) the church treats women is a huge problem.
That said, I seem to remember a post recently about how there are less men than women inside the church as well. That may have to do with age, since women tend to live longer than men and old people go to church in greater numbers. The discussion at that post was “How do we get men back in the church?”
If there are more women inside the church and outside the church…I’m not sure what that means. That there are just more women in general? More who will answer surveys?

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posted April 14, 2010 at 10:04 am

Presently, my husband and I are only going to church due to his obligations there. I’ve stepped back from ministry. I don’t know if I am resting or beginning the dechurching process.
We (my husband and I) have never acheived a good level of involvement at church. Too much (ministry, leadership) leaves us overworked, exhausted and frankly shocked at the machinations of church leadership/adminstration. Too little (only attending service and small group) doesn’t seem to be enough involvement to feel particularly attached. I can easily study, pray, discuss/teach, help others, etc. without the church. I like to work within the church to give back to others, but the church doesn’t seem to streamline the process, but rather get in the way and divert my energies. I don’t mind supporting the structure while I’m participating, but eventually I’m always just supporting the structure and watching the bickering and manuvering. Who needs it?

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posted April 14, 2010 at 10:50 am

Dana wrote, “Who needs it?”
I think that sums up well the question people (the unchurched) are asking themselves. They do not see involvement in a specific, institutionalized community as a “need”.

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posted April 14, 2010 at 11:35 am

Actually, I do see a need to be involved in a specific community. I desire to take part in corporate worship.
It’s just that it leaves me exhausted and disillusioned. I’ve tried to accept the downside of it for twenty years, but eventually it seems that there are other things I could be spending that time and effort on. Trying to be less committed and still participate is boring and feels shallow.

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posted April 14, 2010 at 12:35 pm

I hope my comment in #18 did not come across at being critical. I meant it more as a wake-up call for churches to examine themselves to see where they may be failing.
In #19, you said “I do see a need to be involved in a specific community. I desire to take part in corporate worship.”
Do you see that as a “need”, or as a “desire”, or both?

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posted April 14, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Here where I live one of the first questions you’re asked when you meet someone is where you go to church. So it’s no surprise to me that all sorts of unchurched people call themselves Christian; it’s a matter of self-defense almost. If you aren’t a Christian, you are in for a little persecution.
Plus, you don’t have to change anything in your life to be Christian. It’s not like we have to pray 5X a day, or go on pilgrimages, or made a discipline of meditation. It’s all faith, so no one can call your bluff.
It does tend to underline the fact that religion depends on geography. These same unchurched people would likely say they were Islamic if this were Saudi Arabia, Buddhist if it were India, etc.

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posted April 14, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Dana — This is part of why my husband and I became involved in a house church. It removes the extras and the obligations and leaves just fellowship and worship. It’s difficult to deprogram yourself from the conventional model. For awhile I didn’t feel like I’d really “been to church” and wanted something more…though I wasn’t sure what ‘more’ was. In the long run, it’s freeing and well worth the effort. I’m sure we’ve only begun to see the tip of the iceberg as far as where God can take us in the simple church model.
Still, I wonder if I’m considered “unchurched” because I feel more “churched” than I ever have before, just less “institutionalized.” ;)

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Robert Williams

posted April 14, 2010 at 8:20 pm

One of the biggest problems I see in the church is that a lot people don’t feel comfortable because they feel they will be judged. We as people of churches need to stop judging we need to allow our door to be open to all. People come in all colors and shapes. We are all different. Jesus didn’t spend his time with the rich and godly he spent his time with the weak and needy. He helped the outcasts of the community. The people that no one wanted to be around. We would be amazed how many people we could reach if we were more open to the people that really needed our help. A lot of people have questions and want help but are we really out there as churches to help them.

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posted April 14, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Any information about how this breaks down by race? My understanding is that the fastest growing population of Christians is in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And maybe the fastest growing here, too?!

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posted April 14, 2010 at 11:00 pm

No problem, I didn’t feel criticized. I don’t always express myself well.
I wavered between using the words “need” and “desire” in my post. (so I used both!) I do think that involvement in a community is necessary, although I acknowledge that there may be situations where it is not possible. I suppose that means I see it as a need. I also desire to worship with other believers. That’s why I keep trying.
I’m glad to hear that you are finding a satisfying way to be involved in community, and I do see simple church as an option and one that I may try at some point. I also see trying to stay in my current church as a valid choice. I’m very disillusioned at this point, but maybe adjusting my commitment level for a while will help. For now, I am seeing if I can find a good way to interact where I am. I’m not sure that I understand church to be a place where we should both be involved and maintain a certain protective distance. It seems contradictory to me.

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