Over recent decades, much of Barna Group’s research on the state of Christianity could be summarized like this: The Church in the United States has a reputation problem.
This seems especially obvious as we look toward the future, examining perceptions among younger generations both inside and outside the Church. In research for his book Faith for Exiles, Barna president David Kinnaman found that the percentage of young adults with a Christian background who have dropped out of church continues to climb, from 59 percent in 2011 to 64 percent in 2018.1 In a recent international study of 18–35-year-olds, about one-third of young adults from 25 countries, including the U.S., says terms like “hypocritical,” “judgmental” and “anti-homosexual” describe present-day Christianity “a lot.” To Millennials, even those who are practicing Christians (47%), the practice of evangelizing is often considered morally wrong.2 Meanwhile, among the leading edge of Gen Z, religious affiliation in general is on the decline; granted, those in this age range are still in the formative years of developing their belief systems, but at this point the percentage of atheists in this generation doubles that of the general population (13% vs. 6% of all adults).3
What might change people’s minds about the value of faith and the credibility of Christianity?
Multiple Barna studies suggest that, while public opinions about the Church at large are mixed (at best), feelings toward individual Christians are often much warmer. Redeeming the Church’s broader reputation may need to involve recommitting to its personal presence— that is, as a locally embodied faith that knows and cares for the church’s members and surrounding community. Consider this: The same international Barna study that shows young adults see Christianity as judgmental and hypocritical also reveals that friends and opportunities to fight injustice are the top things missing from this generation’s experiences in communities of worship. However, that doesn’t mean people aren’t seeking out these connections and opportunities elsewhere or on their own—and it doesn’t mean the Church can’t step up now to play a part in facilitating them, even beyond formal ministry programs.
Barna undertook this study, alongside our research partners at Lutheran Hour Ministries (LHM), to learn more about the types of people, and particularly people of faith, who are taking initiative in their communities—who gather, donate, serve, create, teach, mobilize and innovate, alongside other passionate neighbors, to meet needs around them. In the first two reports released through our ongoing research partnership with LHM—Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age and Households of Faith—we looked at the ways in which people form and express their faith in their daily lives and within their spheres of influence. This study looks at the next concentric circle of influence, from the individual to the household and now to the local community.
Specifically, this project seeks to understand Christians who are being the Church and loving their neighborhoods of their own volition, even outside of professional obligation or the formal structure of ministry programs. As the following chapters will detail, there are many forms these groups may take and many goals they may be working toward. The researchers have categorized participants of these groups to learn more about some of their motivations, how they organize and what’s working.
Done and supported well, the possible benefits of such groups are not hard to imagine: fulfilling the Christian call to care for those in need, inspiring believers to take ownership of their faith, adding and growing new disciples, distributing personal responsibility when organizations have limited resources and reach, alleviating burdens for ministries and pastors who may be stretched thin already, deepening and improving the relationships and reputation of Christians, activating new or young leaders, and extending the reach of the Church beyond the institution while also strengthening membership within it. These could be much-needed solutions, both spiritual and practical, to questions about the Church’s credibility and longevity in a secularizing age.
If you’re a pastor reading this, perhaps this is not a new idea to you. The data indicate that many church leaders are in favor of giving church members and lay leaders some agency in living out the gospel on a local level in their own ways—though perhaps pastors have not focused on, invested in or measured this valuable effort yet. In this study, more than four out of five pastors tell Barna they prefer lay initiatives to new church programs (40% agree strongly, 52% agree somewhat), and more than two-thirds (68%) strongly agree that healthy ministries are ones in which lay people take more responsibility. Even so, only about one in 10 (9% strongly agree) is confident that their church is good at developing new leaders.
This report is intended to help churches understand the impact and inner workings of groups of good neighbors, and to help leaders develop a vision for how these members might complement their ministry goals for discipleship, growth and outreach. We hope that pastors, equipped with this research, might be able to move the members of their congregation from concern to action and, in the process, realize the power of releasing Christians to do good in their own neighborhoods.