July 13, 2011 - Although public skepticism of religion has become increasingly commonplace, a new Barna Group study shows that most Americans remain relatively upbeat about the role that local churches play in their communities.
The nationwide study shows that three-quarters of U.S. adults believe the presence of a church is “very” (53%) or “somewhat” positive (25%) for their community. In contrast, only one out of every 20 Americans believes that the influence of a church is negative—either very (2%) or somewhat so (3%). That leaves about one out of six adults (17%) who are indifferent toward the role of churches.
Those with the most favorable views of churches are Elders (ages 66-plus), married adults, residents of the South, women, Protestants, churchgoers, African-Americans and political conservatives.
The people least likely to hold a firmly positive view of churches are Mosaics (ages 18 to 27), men, never-married adults, those living in the West and Northeast, atheists and agnostics, unchurched adults, political liberals, and those not registered to vote. However, with the exception of atheists and agnostics, a majority of every key demographic group studied believes that churches have a generally positive influence on their communities.
How Churches Can Contribute?
Despite their positive feelings toward churches, many adults are unclear as to how churches could best serve their communities. One-fifth of adults (21%) did not venture a single response as to how churches could contribute positively to their communities. Among the unchurched, defined as those who have not attended a church in the last six months, fully one-third are not certain how congregations could be beneficial. [Note: the survey question asked, Many churches and faith leaders want to contribute positively to the common good of their community. What does your community need, if anything, that you feel churches could provide?]
Addressing poverty and helping the poor was the most common top-of-mind response Americans offered as to how churches can positively influence their communities (29%). This includes helping the needy, poor and disabled, distributing food and clothing, and assisting the homeless.
Americans also expect that churches would contribute positively by engaging in common ministry activities, such as teaching the Bible and giving spiritual direction (12%); serving youth, families and the elderly (13%); and cultivating biblical values in individuals and communities (14%). What kind of biblical values do people expect churches to espouse? Respondents not only said churches should teach and instill morals and values, but also believe they should cultivate a sense of belonging, show compassion and love toward others, and bring unity to the community.
Also, one in ten Americans (10%) believe that churches should assist those in recovery, providing counseling, support groups, and other forms of guidance and assistance to help lives get back on track.
One out of 14 adults (7%) said that churches can assist in terms of financial, career-related or other educational ways—such as helping the unemployed get jobs, giving financial assistance, providing financial counseling, and offering literacy classes.
Small percentages of adults mentioned that churches should be inclusive and accepting of everyone (3%) or that they should be engaged politically (1%) as a means of contributing to their communities.
What Does it Mean?
David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, offered four observations about the research findings:
1) Churches are perceived to be an important element of a community, even among the unchurched. This positive view is partly due to the fact that most unchurched adults are de-churched, or former churchgoers. So, although they may be wary of personal involvement, they have an understanding of the service and assistance that churches can provide to their communities.
2) Indifference toward churches is a key feature of skeptics’ opinions. Even among the most non-religious adults—atheists and agnostics—the majority simply express neutral perspectives about the role of congregations. Only 14% of this segment is negative toward churches. Despite the aggressive posture of leading skeptics, most Americans who have no religious affiliation or belief are not overtly hostile to churches. Their response is better characterized as benign indifference.
3) Churches are not thought of as contributing to civic enhancement, beyond poverty assistance. Most people do not connect the role of faith communities to civic affairs, particularly local efforts like assisting city government, serving public education, doing community clean-up, or engaging in foster care and adoption, and so on. There are opportunities for faith leaders to provide more intentional, tangible, and much-needed efforts to assist local government, particularly as many services have been diminished by the economy.
4) Introducing people to a transformed life in Christ is rarely perceived to be an act of community service. There seems to be a disconnect for most Americans between serving the community and helping individuals find their way to God through Christ. Ministry-related goals – such as teaching the Bible, introducing people to Christ, and bringing people to salvation – are infrequently viewed as a primary way to serve the community. Even among many churchgoers, contributing positively to the community is perceived to be the result of offering the right mix of public service programs. Yet, this seems to miss an important biblical pattern: you change communities by transforming lives.
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About the Research
This report is based upon online interviews conducted in the Barna Group OmniPollSM. This study consisted of a random sample of 1,021 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, February 10 through February 18, 2011. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.
The survey was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. Created by Knowledge Networks, the panel is a probability-based online non-volunteer access panel. Panel members are recruited using a statistically valid sampling method with a published sample frame of residential addresses that covers approximately 97% of U.S. households. Sampled non-Internet households, when recruited, are provided a netbook computer and free Internet service so they may also participate as online panel members. KnowledgePanel includes persons living in cell phone only households.
“Unchurched” adults are those individuals who have not attended a Christian worship service in the last six months, not including special events such as weddings or funerals.
Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. It 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 Group 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 (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources are also available through this website.
© Barna Group, 2011.