We’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling …

This is a short summary of a survey done by the Barna Group, who interviewed people who attended church recently about their experiences there. The survey included these topics:

Connecting with God – feeling a close, personal connection with God while attending church.
Experiencing Transformation – experiencing a perceived / real improvement in life as a result of going to church.
Gaining New Insights – self explanatory
Feeling Cared For – feeling connection with other people, part of a community / family.
Helping the Poor – being encouraged to give charitably.

The results of the survey can be found here. It’s a short read, but I didn’t want to just re-post the entire thing on my blog. Instead, I wanted to focus on one particular set of results having to do with age brackets:

Generational Experiences
Another noteworthy research finding is that older adults generally report the most favorable experiences at churches. This is not altogether surprising, but the level of disaffection of young adults is striking. The youngest generation—a segment Barna Group labels Mosaics, ages 18 to 27—is significantly less likely to describe positive outcomes while attending congregations. In particular, there were significant gaps between young adults and older adults when it came to feeling part of a group that cares for each other, experiencing God’s presence, knowing the church prioritizes assisting the poor, and being personally transformed.

GO BAMA!! Oh, wait ...

These results are particularly interesting, in my opinion.

Both questions relating to community – the sense of community that the church provides and the emphasis on charitable giving – has gone down both abruptly and significantly from the “Busters” (gen. X?) to the “Mosaics” (Millennials?).  The overall feeling of a sense of community holds pretty steady at about 70% for every generation except this latest one; then, suddenly, it drops 23-24% to 47%.  Same goes for helping the poor.  That’s pretty constant at about 42% until it drops to 30%.

So younger people see church as less of a source of social unity and less interested in helping the poor than the older members of the congregation.  This is likely because of how this generation grew up in the shadow of events like 9/11 and the current financial crisis.  I honestly wonder, though, how these numbers would look for any other institution that provided aid to the less fortunate.  Would they look any better with the same generational breakdown?

If you look at the questions that relate to spiritual fulfillment, it tells a different story.  Those numbers drop pretty consistently from generation to generation.  That suggests that – at least as far as the efficacy of the church is concerned – people are consistently getting less out of attending as time goes on.  This doesn’t necessarily say anything about their faith or spirituality; although with a relatively large proportion of non-believers under the age of 35 (55% according to ARIS 2001), this trend suggests that spirituality is getting less traction among younger people as a whole.

This honestly isn’t very good news for the church.  Its one main purpose, and its most vital commodity – spiritual fulfillment – is dropping with every subsequent generation. Combine that with the perception by Millennials that their focus on the needs of the poor is sorely lacking, and it translates to the overall perception that the church serves no practical purpose – spiritual or otherwise.

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2 Responses to We’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling …

  1. Dan Adler says:

    I’d love to see a breakdown of this by type of Church (i.e. Catholic, Lutheran, Congregational, Unitarian, whatever). I’m also curious as to why they only covered Christians, as opposed to including members of other faiths (Islam, Judaism, and so forth), because including that data would probably have been interesting as well. It’s a nice survey, but really not anywhere near thorough enough to suit me. But I’m picky.

    • They did break up the responses into Catholic vs. mainline / non-mainline Protestant, but I think the scope of the survey was a little too small to go any further as you suggest. I suspect that other religions would likely have similar results in this country (and in Europe, Canada) given the increasing secularization of society over the last 50-60 years. A study of the other major religions would provide a very interesting comparison.

      This would also have been a good survey to tie into one showing the trends regarding church attendance. It’s one thing to show the overall impression of your last visit being fulfilling / empty, but to illustrate that the overall attendance is down by x% on top of that puts an entirely new dimension to the scope of the problems facing the modern church.

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