This article first appeared on churchhealth.wiki
An executive summary of Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them (George Barna and David Kinnaman, 2014, Tyndale Momentum, Tyndale House Publishers, Carol Stream, Illinois).
Churchless looks intently at the US population in a statistically precise way. The statistics in the book are not created from individual church studie, or anecdotal information, nor is Churchless a compilation of statistical charts and trend analyses without context for the Church. The authors say that churches and ministries “can benefit from a better understanding of adults who intentionally avoid Christian churches. God has called you and your faith community to expand his Kingdom in a particular place with unique features and cultural quirks. Translate the research insights you find here into practical, culturally appropriate action” (Location 1711).
The research for the book is the result of a series of 18 nationwide surveys between 2008 and 2014. The studies surveyed 20,524 adults, including 6,276 churchless adults. This study offers significant insights in perceptions, beliefs, behaviors, and experiences of a statistically significant group of individuals.
The churchless are rising in America. Churchless people were 30% of the population in the 1990s and in 2014 had risen to 43%. Barna and Kinnaman break the population up into four significant groups: The Actively Churched (49%), the Minimally Churched (8%), the De-Churched (33%) and the Purely Unchurched (10%). For the church, this means that a small but slowing growing portion of the population is truly unchurched, meaning that they do not and have not attended church at any time.
The authors rate secularization on a scale from antagonism to advocacy. The nine points on the scale are antagonism, rejection, resistance, doubt, indifference, curiosity, interest, engagement, and advocacy. The measure created by Barna is based on fifteen different variables that measure a person’s identity, beliefs, and behaviors in regards to God, the Bible, and church attendance. From these criteria, the researchers are able to place individuals on the scale from church antagonist to advocate. Using this scale, the population at large was reviewed in 2013. The survey placed 38% in the postmodern section of the scale (indifference to antagonism) with 10% falling in the rejection and antagonism end or highly postmodern. Among churchless adults these percentages rise even more heavily in this sector. One concerning trend is that as the data is separated by generations, the younger the generation the larger the percentage of it falls to the antagonist side of the scale with 48% of mosaics falling into the postchristian end of the spectrum.
One of the highlights of the book for me is the data on prayer. While all other activities related to religion have declined steadily since 2008, those indicating that they have prayed in the past seven days on the Annual OmniPoll by Barna are reversing the decline. This indicator has stayed rather high, above 80% most years. Of interest is that public prayer is a common element that leaves the unchurched feeling empty. The authors say “Public prayers seem more like scripted statements than authentic conversation with God, more like an extension of the teaching time, directed to the congregation rather than to the Lord.” This seems to indicate a possibility that true, heartfelt prayer where we are connected to God in a relationship may be one of the most overlooked tools for reaching churchless people.
The authors end the book with some strategies for reaching the unchurched. “We must not lose sight of the fact that appealing to the unchurched is a spiritual quest, not a business transaction or bottom-line proposition” (location 2413), the authors say. They lay out five strategies in the book: loving them as motivation for everything we do, having our hearts reignited for the lost and sharing Jesus with them, being selfless servants, being suffering servants who are able to show our struggles and God’s victories, being discerning of our culture and how God and the bible address the issues that culture faces, and prayer for the lost and the unchurched.
Barna and Kinnamann do a good job in Churchless of isolating the pertinent data for church leaders instead of just giving a long list of statistics. The data they isolate in the book and their guidance in applying it in real ministry in the 21st century makes this an important book for pastors and ministry leaders. They do not paint a bleak and unwinnable picture of what we face in Christian ministry, but show that with our eyes focused on the churchless around us and with a willingness to understand them and change our strategies to reach them, the churchless can be led home to a family that shares the love, life, and redemptive power of the Living God.