Why Even Go to Church?

By Richard Flory

Yesterday, Jeremy Rhodes wrote about a new survey from Barna Group that shows that almost 50% of regularly attending American churchgoers say that their lives haven’t changed in any way as a result of their churchgoing habits. In the interest of full disclosure, David Kinnaman, President of Barna, is a former student of mine, and while I am proud of what he has done (and he’s taking Barna in good, new directions), I can’t take any credit for his success. Now back to the issue: church attendance doesn’t do much for half of those who go to church regularly. Without challenging Jeremy’s perspective—which I don’t disagree with at all other than I have absolutely no love for anything Disney—here is perhaps another way to think about the survey and what it might mean for churchgoing Americans.

Now, if I’m a pastor and I read the results of this survey (which I’m not, although I did grow up a pastor’s kid, a fact that probably goes a long way toward explaining why I’m a sociologist interested in religion), I’m thinking that these results suggest that about one-half of my congregation either doesn’t listen to the sermons, or maybe doesn’t understand the key points, or worse, that they find what I have to say completely irrelevant to their lives. Indeed, fully 60% said that they could not recall an important new religious insight from the last time they attended church, and 50% couldn’t remember any insight from the previous week’s service. That has to hurt the pastoral ego.

At the same time (and obviously), [Read more...]

The Church Has No Effect on Your Life?

By Jeremy Rhodes

A recent poll conducted by the Barna Group reveals that 46% of church-going Americans claim their lives have not changed at all due to their time spent in the pews. This seems like quite a large number. Certainly, one immediate reaction to this news is to think about the church’s effectiveness (or apparent ineffectiveness, in this case) when it comes to its goals of transforming lives through spiritual instruction and opportunities for service. No doubt, much could be written (and has) about the failings of the church as it attempts to be a relevant force in the day-to-day lives of its congregants. I distinctly remember reading a report 10 years ago about an urgent spike in church attendance right after the events of 9/11, which was followed by an almost-immediate return to prior levels. One writer pointed out, “After 9/11, Americans turned to the church in droves, only to be reminded why they weren’t attending in the first place.”

As a sociologist, however, I think the claims by these 46% are pretty dubious. One quintessential claim of sociology is that the socialization we receive is not only powerful and consuming, but is also subtle, often leaving us unaware of the forces that have shaped us. Of course, the fact that these 46% believe their church to have no impact on their lives is certainly an interesting fact, and tells us something important about their relationship with their church (and is likely correlated with their frequency of church attendance). But I would say that it is their belief that is the interesting finding here, not a reality that church actually has no effect on people. Does this reflect a special inability of religious organizations to affect change in the lives of believers, or is it merely another example of the difficulty we have noticing and acknowledging the social forces that shape us?

I see this difficulty every semester in my Introductory Sociology classes. When we begin discussing socialization, [Read more...]


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