The Bigger, the More Conservative (theologically)

Here is a fascinating new Barna study.

ChurchRural.jpgHow true is this to your experience? (Any suggestions about how to measure “orthodox biblical response”?)

“On all 9 of the belief statements tested, attenders of large churches
were more likely than those engaged in a small or mid-sized
congregation to give an orthodox biblical response – e.g., the Bible is
totally accurate in all the principles it teaches, Satan is not merely
symbolic but exists, Jesus led a sinless life, God is the all-knowing,
all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe, etc.”

Religious Beliefs of Protestants, by Congregational Size

Belief description* 1-100** 101-200 201-499 500-999 1000+
Bible is totally accurate in all the principles it teaches 60% 63% 70% 67% 75%
Have personal responsibility to tell others your beliefs 41 44 47 53 61
Your religious faith is very important in your life 82 83 90 88 90
Satan/devil is a living being not just a symbol of evil 30 29 36 38 51
A good person cannot earn a place in Heaven 33 39 47 48 55
On earth Jesus Christ did not commit sins, like other people 49 50 59 65 74
God is the omnipotent, omniscient creator who rules all 81 81 86 86 90
Born again Christian (see definition below) 63 64 69 81 75
Evangelical Christian (see definition below) 9 11 21 24 25
Number of respondents in this subgroup 547 306 247 120 114

* these are descriptions of the actual survey questions, not the wording of the questions actually used in the research.
** Adult attendance on an average weekend

"Either Paul was confused, a hypocrite, or worse - or, the do whatever your government ..."

Romans 13, Pence, Session …
"This is an excellent critique of Trump's Administration misuse of the Bible.I wonder if the ..."

Romans 13, Pence, Session …
"We can hope and work for a world where no child is ever unwanted... thy ..."

Our God Of Justice
"I perceive that Jesus influenced our culture toward defining love as a commitment to pursuing ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption” and ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I wonder why the larger churches have the smallest number of respondents? It’s disappointing to see how low the percentages are for all sized churches.

  • CJW

    This might be a bit controversial, but isn’t intended as an attack on anyone:
    Perhaps social as much as theological factors are at work here? Organisationally, the larger a social system gets, the more complex it is, and the greater need for an integrating factor. I would love to see further study done on other variables too: do larger churches also have less diversity in age, race, economic status, education, type of employment etc?
    My theory (arising from my experience) is that theological cohesion is simply one way of providing a singular organisation identity among other variables. (So I would expect larger churches to generally be otherwise, more diverse – at least than their host communities.)
    The greater number of believers seeking the security and comfort (at least if Fowler’s faith development stages have are relevant to this topic) of more literalist hermeneutics and black-and-white doctrine, as well as being more responsive to a charismatic or authoritative leader would more would make uniform liberalism less likely than uniform conservatism.

  • Scot McKnight

    When I saw what the study was about, I (not sure why) expected megachurches to have more diversity theologically but this study is not quite measuring that. It’s measuring an assortment of statements as measures of orthodoxy and then seeing if those correlate in one way or another with small vs. megachurches. In other words, while a megachurch might be more conservative it might have more diversity than a smaller liberal or a smaller conservative church.
    There’s another issue at work: historic mainline (more liberal than not) churches are smaller. Megachurches tend to be more conservative in all ways. Your last paragraph contains two different ideas, but the charismatic leader thesis would need some nuance, no?

  • RJS

    I look at these questions – and don’t want to answer several of them without giving a paragraph or so explanation.
    The precise answer I would give if forced to fill out a survey would be a coin toss based on mood – do I give what I think they want to hear or will I be reactionary. All of which to say that I think such surveys must be taken with a grain (or five) of salt.

  • RJS

    Oh yeah – and when reading this table it is important to realize that the numbers in the last row are low because this is based strictly on Barna’s definition of evangelical in conjunction with the answers to the other questions – to be evangelical one must agree with all of the other statements as written.
    I would identify myself as evangelical – but Barna would not and I’d be part of the 79% who attend a church of 201-499 who are not evangelical.

  • Jeff Moulton

    I don’t really think that the answer is all that complex. There are two primary sources in scripture of the entrance requirements to the Christian Club – salvation. We all know those as John 3:16 and Matthew 25. We could give them all sorts of labels, but John would be primarily proclamation driven and Matthew would be primarily service driven. Living the Christian life is in part a voyage of self-discovery in finding a balance between the two.
    Generally speaking, at least in my experience in the central and south US, the more “conservative” a person is, the more likely that they will ascribe more weight to John (personal decisions, evangelism) and the more “liberal” a person is, the more likely that they will ascribe more weight to Matthew (compassion, self-sacrifice).
    John 3:16 is much more likely to have a growth effect upon a church than is Matthew for a number of reasons, most of which are augmented in a capitalist system. While no less of a commitment than Matthew, John is a commitment of, at least at first, emotion and intention. There isn’t a price to be paid, or the price is in the future and not certain. It is also proclamation driven – we could call that advertising. Matthew is a much more difficult pill to swallow, particularly when the society in general values accumulation. The price is much more immediate. Being service driven, it also loses that element of advertising.
    Of course, this could all be fanciful thinking as well. 🙂

  • Rick

    Off-hand 2 things come to mind:
    The 2nd question (“telling others”) gets a higher number in larger churches, so there appears to be more an effort at evangelism and inviting people to church. Large churches tend to make intensive and creative efforts to be more seeker friendly, even changing some things to adapt to the cultural setting, thus they see more of those who are at least curious. Once the church is large, the resources available to continue focused and creative outreach just multiply.
    Those churches not as interested in telling others will probably not go to such efforts.
    Also, conservative circles have good communication networks. When word gets out about a thriving church, a dynamic leader, or something cutting-edge in ministry, like-minded people easily hear about it and come to attend- or to at least check it out.

  • dopderbeck

    Meh. I agree with RJS. “Orthodox Biblical response” is such a loaded and complex term. Why not draw the questions from something like the Apostle’s Creed, instead of making up a list skewed to a conservative Evangelical perspective? For example, I wonder how many people who would be considered “conservative” members of Evangelical megachurches really have a historically orthodox Nicene / Chalcedonian Christology? Heck, I’ve taken seminary classes and I’m not sure I know exactly how to explain the dual natures of Christ or the relations of the persons of the Trinity.
    And I wonder whether Barna’s “surveys” are subject to any sort of rigorous methodological peer review. Given the complexity of the doctrinal issues underlying these questions, are the questions even valid from a statistical perspective? Is a sample size of about 1300 meaningful in this context? Was the sample randomized for geography, gender, age, etc? Were any statistical correlations drawn or is correlation just inferred from the raw data?
    Ok, I’m being grouchy. Something about Barna’s surveys always gets my stomach churning. Maybe this is unfair, but I often feel like this is a kind of propaganda designed to skew a certain way — which is fine, unless its clothed as an objective study.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    I have to agree with others that minus all the nuances along with the factors involved, this survey probably is misleading.

  • Ben Hunsberger

    I’m particularly interested in the respondent counts. Out of how many 500-999 churches did only 120 respond? Why would smaller churches feel more compelled to respond than larger churches? Are the respondents the leaders in the larger churches because its the leaders job and we pay them to do that? Is only 120 respondents from 500-999 enough of a sample to tell you anything? I guess I only have questions, and I wonder if the respondents count tells us more about large vs. small than the questions themselves do.

  • I am not sure that surveys are the best tools to determine the theological character of any group or church. Not only can the phrasing the question shift the direction of the results, the person answering may misunderstand or misspeak when responding. Or they might just lie.
    But having said that the small churches I have been associated with (4 of them) all have been very conservative. So I from my experienced I would disagree with the survey’s conclusions.

  • kent

    To those who wonder why fewer larger churches responded to the survey, thearefewer of them There are less than 2000 mega churches in the country. Percentage wise a greater share of large churches have responded to the survey than small churches, there are more than 120,000 small churches in the country.

  • T

    I’ll add this: I think it would be a mistake to view this study reveals any kind of causal relationship between size and (evangelical) “orthodoxy.” In fact, the fascinating thing to me here is whatever lies beneath the correlation. I think Scot is right about older mainline churches generally being small. I’m curious, too, about the extent that theology (such as a priority for evangelism) or practice (such as formal liturgy) creates angst, ambivalence or apathy regarding church size.
    My hunch–total hunch–is that liturgical churches are more geared toward apathy (or less angst) about how many are in attendance week to week. However, the theology and practices of a low evangelical church (evangelism priority, weekly altar calls, etc.) create angst when numbers are down, which can result motivate toward evangelism, or switching to a large church! The growth of megachurches from transfers might be the result, in significant part, of the cognitive dissonance that has come especially to evangelicals as church attendance has dropped in the West. Of course, the study doesn’t tell us any of these kinds of things, but it does make me wonder.

  • This is surprising?
    Churches that teach that the Bible is true, hell is real, people need to have a real saving relationship with Christ, and you have a responsibility to tell them seem more likely to grow.
    Churches that teach or have such poor teaching that their members can believe that parts of the Bible are true and “good people” will go to heaven are going to produce “disciples” who don’t feel a need to evangelize.

  • Mistaking correlation for causation is a common logical fallacy. Barna’s survey shows correlation between conservative views and large churches, but it does not necessarily follow that conservative views are the cause of large churches.
    Another possibility (to give one example) is that a disproportionate number of large churches are in the South, where there remains a cultural expectation to attend church. Most southerners are conservative. But their large churches may have more to do with living in a churched culture than with their conservative views on a handful of theological topics. A breakdown of Barna’s data by region would be needed to test this hypothesis.
    Also, the number of persons surveyed from the largest churches is too small to be used as support for making generalizations about American churches. The margin of error for these subgroups must be huge–which might make the differences between groups statistically insignificant. I’m surprised Barna did not use an oversample.

  • dopderbeck

    ChrisB (#14) — the survey mentions church size, not rate of growth, and you’ve added to the already tendentious list of “orthodox” statements that actually appear in the survey. Aside from all that, who says church size / rate of growth is a reliable indication of spiritual health? After all, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world right now. Whatever your views are about Islam in general, it obviously has little to do with Christian orthodoxy. We could also mention any variety of heterodox Christian groups that often experience rapid growth, particularly the rapid growth of health and wealth churches in the third world.
    How about a survey that measures the depth and scope of congregants’ love? According to scripture, love is the most important distinctive and the prime mark of genuine Christian faith.

  • T

    dopderbeck, Yes.
    ChrisB, you’re drawing the exact conclusion that I’m sure many will draw, but that is also unjustified from this study. It’s the classic causal/correlational fallacy. This data shows a correlation; it doesn’t say that one caused the other or whether, instead, a third (and/or fourth and/or fifth) factor caused one or both. You may be right that evangelical teaching is a factor that leads to growth. I would like that to be true but I doubt it is that strong of a factor. I mentioned another possibility in my comment above and there are many, many others.

  • Joe Beach

    Here’s a thought: Could there be a large percentage of people attending large churches who would identify themselves as “evangelical” and who know the “right” answers to the basic questions? Maybe these same people trust the conservative theology of the strong leader(s) of the church… and haven’t sensed the need or desire to think through the issues for themselves? Conversely, maybe there is a huge diversity among smaller churches – everything from house churches, emerging churches, mainline churches, start-ups, etc., where there’s much more diversity in theological thinking – and a more safe place to do so? I guess this is similar to what’s already been suggested. Just wondering.

  • Troy Parson

    I think there is a significant sociological component where people in a community are strengthened by others that confess similar beliefs, reinforcing each other. As the community becomes larger, the more weight it holds on a person’s worldview because it encounters more of their lives. I would also argue that the megachurches tend to be more seeker sensitive and less legalistic; thus growing confidence in the community rather than insecurities leading to doubt and mistrust.

  • Rick

    Barna is not the only one that comes to this conclusion, at least in regards to megachurches:
    Now although the terms “orthodox” and “evangelical” are not clearly defined, and seem to be interchangable, The Hartford Institute study states:
    “Our data shows that most megachurches demand a lot; they have high spiritual expectations and serious orthodox beliefs and preaching.”
    “Nearly all megachurches have a conservative theological orientation. An overwhelming majority would be considered Evangelical, Charismatic, or Fundamentalist. Even the megachurches from moderate and liberal denominations often stand out as having a more conservative theology than do their counterparts”
    However, they also quote a study that finds, “More important than theological orientation is the religious character of the congregation and clarity of mission and purpose. Growing churches are clear about why they exist and about what they are to be doing – “purpose-driven growth.”
    I think the common basic (evangelical) orthodox emphasis on “go make disciples”, makes the “clarity of mission and purpose” much easier to communicate.
    Last thought- although Barna’s study has some questions about its method, it is interesting to see that so many here want to disregard it so easily. I am not sure if this is just due to an attempt at objective critical analysis, or due to a deeper bias against Barna, large churches, and/or evangelicalism.

  • Who says the way “orthodoxy” is defined in the survey is actually accurate?

  • Rick (#20):
    My point was not to “disregard” Barna’s survey (which I find interesting). I simply observed that it shows only that large churches tend to be conservative, not that conservative theological views cause large churches. It was hardly a secret before this report that many large churches are conservative.
    I think evangelicalism’s emphasis on evangelism almost certainly benefits conservative evangelical churches in terms of numerical growth. I wish mainline Protestants (as one of them) would be less private and more public about their faith.
    Hartford has a newer study (2008) than the ones to which you have linked. I have written about it at
    This study found that the two top reasons for growth and retention at megachurches were worship style and a charismatic senior pastor. On the subject of the commitment levels of megachurch members, it found that 71% of megachurch attenders volunteer “occasionally” or “never”; and megachurch attenders give financially at lower levels than do members of all churches. The study’s authors write: “It has long been suggested by researchers that church attenders shop around to find a place that best meets their spiritual needs. Megachurches offer a multitude of choices and diverse avenues by which this can happen. As such, involvement at these (and perhaps all) churches may be less about creating an idealized plan to move someone toward commitment and more about providing many ways by which people craft their uique, customized spiritual experience to meet their needs.”
    Purpose-driven, perhaps; consumer-driven, definitely.

  • Mich

    How come they weren’t asked, You here the Gospel preached weekly?

  • Rick

    “On the subject of the commitment levels of megachurch members, it found that 71% of megachurch attenders volunteer “occasionally” or “never”
    Is that at the church, or just volunteer in general? Many may be outward, rather than inward focused.
    “…and megachurch attenders give financially at lower levels than do members of all churches.”
    Since many megachurches are attracting seekers, one would think that giving rates would be lower. Seekers are going to be less committed. Therefore, what is the giving rate at those churches for those who are more spiritually mature (that can’t be specifically measured, but you get the idea)?
    “Purpose-driven, perhaps; consumer-driven, definitely”.
    Not all are consumer-driver, but I will agree with you that there are some that do, and that is a problem.

  • Your Name

    In your post #3 you mentioned about mainline churches being smaller, but there’s that big liberal Methodist Church (I think) in KC, and there must be others. No?

  • Scot McKnight

    Doug, I was speaking only to the trends. Yes, Adam Hamilton in KC’s church is exceptional.

  • Rick, the volunteering is participation in “the life of the church”–which could mean any number of ministries, inward or outward focused.
    This study found that only 6% of megachurch attenders are truly seekers. A far larger % come from other local churches.
    I encourage you to follow the link I posted above to the study; it’s fascinating reading.

  • Rick

    Thanks for the link. It is an interesting study, and has some expected results. No doubt.
    However, your mentioned the quote:
    “As such, involvement at these (and perhaps all) churches may be less about creating an idealized plan to move someone toward commitment and more about providing many ways by which people craft their uique, customized spiritual experience to meet their needs.”
    I think that painting with too broad a brush. I see two types of megachurches: those primarily focused on meeting needs, and those primarily focused on commitment (growing spiritually, missional-minded, etc…). We need to be careful to not discount those latter churches. I also think we need to keep in mind that many of those same churches are constantly working to better reach and minister to people, thus we see efforts such as the “multi-site” strategy.
    Too bad the study did not include a “theological” option (in addition to the “worship, “senior pastor”,…) in their “why did you choose to attend this church?” question. It would have helped with this overall topic/post.

  • BenB

    I think that ChrisB proved Jeff Moulton’s point!