David Kinnaman, at Barna, released this report:
I’m keen on hearing your response. And, what is your local church doing about accountability? Stories to tell? What are the dangers to avoid?
Many of the exhortations in the Bible are not popular in today’s world. But a new study by the Barna Group indicates that one of the least favorite biblical principles might well be “Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow” (Hebrews 13:17, NLT).
The Extent of Accountability
Because the underlying theme of the Christian life is one of being transformed from a selfish and self-driven individual to one who lives for and surrenders control of one’s life to God, the practice of accountability for life choices and behavior is central to that process of transformation. Yet, a national survey by the Barna Group among people who describe themselves as Christian and involved in a church discovered that only 5% indicated that their church does anything to hold them accountable for integrating biblical beliefs and principles into their life.
Although there were a few subgroups that were more likely than average to experience church-based accountability, there was not a single segment for which even one out of every five people said their church does anything to hold them accountable. The segments that were most likely to have some form of church-centered accountability were evangelicals (15%), adults living in the western states (10%), people who say they are conservative on social and political matters (9%), and Baby Busters, who are known to be a highly relational generation (8%). Amazingly, while 7% of Protestants claimed to have such accountability there was not a single Catholic adult surveyed who claimed to be held accountable by his/her church.
The Means of Accountability
Among the 5% of Christian adults who said their church holds them accountable, there were seven primary approaches to oversight that were described. The most common approach was through small groups, which was listed by one-third (34%) of those who claimed to be held accountable. Putting those figures in context, the survey found that 22% of adults were involved in a small group, which means that only 7% of all small group attenders identified accountability as one of the functions fulfilled by their group.
Other accountability methods utilized by churches included limiting or revoking membership for those who did not meet specific standards (21% of those who experienced any form of accountability); being accountable to individuals they were acquainted with in the congregation (19%); being responsible for completing activities assigned to them by church leaders, with follow-up by those leaders (16%); personal accountability to the pastor or other pastoral staff person (10%); answering directly to the congregation for questionable activities that are identified (8%); and having regularly scheduled reviews with church leaders (6%).
Placing these statistics into their larger context —that is, how many Christians are held accountable by any particular approach —demonstrates not only how infrequent accountability is, but also how little consistency there is in the procedures used by churches across the nation. The most frequent method—accountability through the relationships developed in small groups—is practiced in the lives of only 2% of all self-described Christians in the nation. Other forms are found in the lives of 1% or fewer Christians.
Why Isn’t Accountability More Common?
Although the survey was not designed to assess the reasons for such a paucity of accountability practices, the survey’s director, George Barna, offered some possibilities to consider based on previous research.
“Barna Group studies among pastors and other church leaders have consistently shown that such leaders have a distaste for initiating any type of confrontation and conflict with congregants. Another barrier is that many followers of Christ are uncertain about the difference between judgment and discernment. Not wanting to be judgmental, they therefore avoid all conversation about the other person’s behavior—except, sometimes, gossip.
“One of the cornerstones of the biblical concept of community is that of mutual accountability. But Americans these days cherish privacy and freedom to the extent that the very idea of being held accountable by others—even those with their best interests in mind, or who have a legal or spiritual authority to do so—is considered inappropriate, antiquated and rigid. With a large majority of Christian churches proclaiming that people should know, trust and obey all of the behavioral principles taught in the Bible, overlooking a principle as foundational as accountability breeds even more public confusion about scriptural authority and faith-based community, as well as personal behavioral responsibility.”