The Unchurched

The Barna Group released a report yesterday claiming that the “Unchurched Population Nears 100 Million in the U.S.”

It would be fun if atheists could take some credit for this. But the rate hasn’t statistically changed since 1994, says the report. Still, “unchurched” people represent approximately 1/3 of the people in the country.

What else does the Barna report tell us?

  • 47% of political liberals are unchurched, more than twice the percentage found among political conservatives (19%).
  • [W]hile about one-third of heterosexuals are unchurched (31%), half of the homosexual public (49%) met the unchurched criteria.
  • [E]vangelicals are the most reliable church goers: just 1% is unchurched.
  • [C]hurch size was related to attendance patterns: 24% of the people who attend small churches were unchurched, compared to 15% who usually go to a mid-sized congregation, and just 5% of those who affiliate with a large church (defined as attracting 500 or more adults on an average weekend).

The report also included a nod to the recent release of Jim Henderson and Matt Casper’s new book Jim and Casper Go To Church:

These results coincide with a unique book released this week by Tyndale House Publishers, entitled Jim and Casper Go to Church. That book describes the experience of a former pastor and an avowed atheist who together visited a dozen significant churches across the nation. Jim Henderson, who has been a pastor of small and large churches, interviewed the atheist (Matt Casper) during and after each church service they attended to gain insights into what it’s like for an outsider to attend such churches. Among the congregations visited were well-known ministries such as Willow Creek (pastored by Bill Hybels), Saddleback (led by Rick Warren), Lakeside (featuring Joel Osteen), and The Potter’s House (home of T.D. Jakes).

Many of the insights drawn from the experiences of “Jim and Casper” parallel the findings of Barna Group studies among the unchurched. Some of the critical discoveries were the relative indifference of most churched Christians to unchurched people; the overt emphasis upon a personal rather than communal faith journey; the tendency of congregations to perform rituals and exercise talents rather than invite and experience the presence of God; the absence of a compelling call to action given to those who attend; and the failure to listen to dissident voices and spiritual guidance to dig deeper in one’s faith.

It’s a pretty powerful plug :) The book has already cracked the top 1,000 on Amazon.

Incidentally, I’ve heard from many Christians who dislike Joel Osteen. But does anyone else find it interesting that the press release listed Osteen’s church as “Lakeside” instead of the correct “Lakewood”? Probably a typo. But it is fun to hypothesize about how this “accident” might have occurred…


[tags]atheist, atheism, Barna Group, Unchurched, Christian, liberal, conservative, heterosexual, homosexual, evangelical, Jim Henderson, Matt Casper, Jim and Casper Go To Church, Tyndale House Publishers, Willow Creek, Bill Hybels, Saddleback, Rick Warren, Lakeside, Lakewood, Joel Osteen, The Potter’s House, T.D. Jakes, God, Amazon[/tags]

  • Richard Wade

    The report off-handedly defines “unchurched” as having “steered clear of churches for at least the past six months.” So if I’ve been inside a church for any reason within the last 6 months I’m churched? If I have to go into a church for somebody’s funeral or wedding I can’t regain my unchurched status for half a year? Can I be dechurched sooner than that by some process? Is it possible to be immune to being churched no matter how often I go inside one, something like exchurched? What if a church comes all over and around me against my will? Would I be called bechurched? And if I hated it would I be dyschurched? How long do I have to be in a church for my enchurching to happen? I mean, what if I just went in to take a leak or ask directions? Funny, they mentioned lots of categories of people, but didn’t list how many atheists are churched. Seems like a lot of us have been churched unawares.

  • http://patrickimo.blogspot.com Patrick Craig

    I hear that the blasted “Friendly Atheist” has been churched, bechurched, and enchurched many times! The evidence is in that filthy, porno-ridden liberal book of his! Let’s all take up our torches and burn that fake Atheist, that infidel to our Antifaith in NO GOD, that Democrat, that SubGenius! Ia! Shub-Niggurath!

    If you can acquire a copy, Madalyn Murray O’Hair talks about the status of the “unchurched” in America in her book What On Earth Is An Atheist! (American Atheist Press, 1969). The chapter is “Statistics on church members and Atheists” and appears on pages 32-37. That book should be required reading for all of us in the Freethought movement…

  • http://blogginglight.com Amy

    [C]hurch size was related to attendance patterns: 24% of the people who attend small churches were unchurched, compared to 15% who usually go to a mid-sized congregation, and just 5% of those who affiliate with a large church (defined as attracting 500 or more adults on an average weekend).

    I’m confused, how could someone who attends church be “unchurched?”

    Great blog btw!

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Richard, your questions do a good job of highlighting some of the inherent problems with this kind of statistical research.

    Remember what Mark Twain said about the three types of lies: “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics!” :)

    BTW, didn’t Barna have some involvement with Jim & Matt’s book? Do you suppose that’s why he gave it such a strong plug? Hopefully some of the interest will rub off on yours as well.

  • http://www.whatbox.blogspot.com Jennifer

    I was wondering about the same thing as Richard and Amy. Does Barna define the term “unchurched”?

  • Mriana

    The first link didn’t work for me. Might be overloaded with people, but you know I’m not sure what the big deal is about whether or not a person goes to church. Going to church doesn’t necessarily make you a better person and not going doesn’t makes you a bad person. Looking at the stats Hemant showed, it seems a lot of people do not go to church, at least not on a regular basis. So, what is the big deal?

  • HappyNat

    So, what is the big deal?

    I don’t think anyone said it was a big deal, just interesting. We have know for years that church attendence doesn’t influence personal behavior.

    I find it interesting that there is a substancial percentage who say they are Christians but don’t make it to church on a regular basis. It seems to me if you “really” believed in heaven/hell you would get you butt in a pew once a week.

  • Karen

    a former pastor and an avowed atheist

    Wow. I haven’t seen that wording (“avowed atheist”) in a looooong time. I thought that terminology became passe a few years ago, when people started to realize that “atheist” is not an automatic insult.

    Maybe they’re using “avowed” because they assume Barna’s audience is primarily composed of Christians who DO still equate “atheist” with “murderer,” “rapist,” etc?

    Glad to hear that Jim and Casper’s book is doing well. :-)

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Wow. I haven’t seen that wording (”avowed atheist”) in a looooong time. I thought that terminology became passe a few years ago, when people started to realize that “atheist” is not an automatic insult.

    I’m confused. Is “avowed” a bad word or something? According to Websters it simply means “openly acknowledged or declared”. Why would it be passe or insulting to say that someone openly declares themselves to be an atheist? I don’t get it.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant

    Mike– It’s more of the fact that a lot of journalists use that word only when talking about atheists. You would never hear them say “Mike, who is an avowed Christian, says this.” Or “Bob is an avowed Jew.” It’s like no one would believe a person was an atheist unless they had that disclaimer. “Wow! That person is an atheist! He even says so openly!”

    Try this, Mike (and others): Go to Google and type (with the quotation marks) “Avowed atheist”… see how many hits you get. Then try “Avowed Jew” and “Avowed Christian”

    Fascinating, eh? It is to me, anyway. And it’s a sensitive topic in the atheist community.

  • Karen

    Why would it be passe or insulting to say that someone openly declares themselves to be an atheist? I don’t get it.

    In the past (and in some circles today) the label “atheist” by itself carries such a stigma that it is automatically considered an insult. (Several of the Kitzmiller trial plaintiffs were very upset that townspeople called them “atheists” although they are not – it was definitely perceived as a putdown.)

    That’s why the term “avowed” or “self-avowed” started commonly being used before “atheist.” It was a way of saying “hey, we’re not insulting the guy by accusing him of this – he’s identifying himself voluntarily!”

    That’s why you’ll never see “an avowed Christian,” but you did commonly see “avowed atheist” up until a few years ago. I have not seen it used recently, however, and I was starting to think the phraseology was considered antiquated because “atheist” lost its sting a little, so “avowed” was no longer necessary.

    This susprised me to see it used again, and I imagine it’s because Barna’s audience does still perceive “atheist” as an insult.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant

    BTW, didn’t Barna have some involvement with Jim & Matt’s book? Do you suppose that’s why he gave it such a strong plug?

    Barna was involved with the book in the sense that it was published by Barna Books (his publishing wing) and according to Barnes and Noble, Barna is listed as a co-author. I think he just wrote the foreword, though… I’m not sure if he had involvement with the rest of the book.

    Perhaps Jim can shed some light on this?

  • Karen

    Here’s an interesting take on the “avowed” useage from the blog of a San Francisco writer:

    We would find it odd, at the very least, to call someone an “avowed Lutheran” or an “avowed Buddhist.” Yet “avowed atheist” slips right by our internal censors. It has become an unchallenged epithet, as predictable to our ears as “wine-dark sea” and “gray-eyed Athena” were to Homer’s listeners or “card-carrying Communist” was to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s. (In English, we like our alliteration.)

    But hold on a minute. “Avow” is not a neutral word: it means “to acknowledge without shame.” The implication is that there ought to be an element of shame involved, but the avower just doesn’t give a damn.

    As we know all too well, to be godless in America is to be un-American–even anti-American. This country was founded by theists–avowed theists, if you will–and is trending scarily toward official theocracy. In this environment, where Jews can be regarded as “people who go to a different church,” atheists can barely be regarded at all. Even Wiccans get a fairer shake. But what’s an athetist, after all? Someone who just says no to the whole Great Spirit thing. Who says, Go ahead and pray if you like, but leave me out of it, thanks.

    What disturbs me is hearing otherwise intelligent commentators–such as the one on my public-radio station–revert to the lazy, unthinking “avowed” epithet. Let’s think twice before automatically splicing adjective to noun for the sake of a sound bite. And a moment of respectful silence, please, for the ungodded among us. If nothing else, they force us to confront our collective demons.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    That’s why the term “avowed” or “self-avowed” started commonly being used before “atheist.” It was a way of saying “hey, we’re not insulting the guy by accusing him of this – he’s identifying himself voluntarily!”

    I see. That makes sense. Thanks for the explanation!

  • Jim Henderson

    Barna was involved with the book in the sense that it was published by Barna Books (his publishing wing) and according to Barnes and Noble, Barna is listed as a co-author. I think he just wrote the foreword, though… I’m not sure if he had involvement with the rest of the book.

    Perhaps Jim can shed some light on this?

    George was involved with this book from the beginning in terms of wanting to publish it. He only wrote the forward. He is listed as co author by a few groups but is not listed that way on the book.

    Yes his marketing machine is VERY powerful which is why we signed with him
    I have slowly learned that in order to get “heard” (if one aspires to this) one must first get a “hearing”

  • Logos

    have slowly learned that in order to get “heard” (if one aspires to this) one must first get a “hearing”

    But when you do this there is always a chance your voice will be drowned out!

  • Matt Casper

    Maybe they called me an “avowed atheist” because, unless you purposefully and publicly choose a religion, atheism is a person’s natural state.

    We make assumptions about people’s religions, because they must “be” something. It’s part of what Wallace Stevens called our “rage for order.” The world can’t just be; it has to be “X.”

    People can’t just be; they have to be religion X. And if they’re not religion X, they must purposefully and publicly proclaim something. Because atheist as default makes people really uncomfortable. Hence, “avowed.”

    Makes it sound like I got something notarized, or have a glittery robe/crown.


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