Religion in America is undergoing accelerating change. In this blog I want to give you a quick glimpse at the leading trends of 2015 and look forward with some expected trends for 2016. If you want to pursue them in more depth, links to the original sources are provided following each summary.
For a look at 2015, I turn to a report from the Barna Group that came out this week (December 16, 2015). The Barna Group "provides spiritual influencers with credible knowledge and clear thinking, enabling them to navigate a complex and changing culture." To look ahead, I turn to two blog postings by Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, another respected source for perspectives on religion in America. These also appeared this week (December 15 and 16).
Barna Group Top 10 Findings for 2015
Following is a quick summary of the Barna report. You'll want to look up the full report, which has more detail and some great graphics. Several points include links to even greater detail. Follow the link below.
- Legal same-sex marriage reveals cultural fault lines
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 26, a Barna study revealed nine key findings, including deep divisions that persist among the American population. While respondents under 40 are generally more favorable to the ruling (about 20% difference on five questions in the summary article), there is a marked difference between practicing Christians and non-practicing Christians. That difference is magnified even more when looking at practicing non-mainine Protestants, where differences in age also shrink.
- Concerns about religious freedom are growing
"In 2012, one-third of Americans believed “religious freedom in the U.S. has grown worse in the past 10 years” (33%). By 2015, that number grew to four in 10 (41%). As might be expected, religious Americans are more likely to express anxiety over the state of religious freedom in the nation...."
- Post-Christian beliefs are on the rise
"While the United States remains shaped by Christianity, the faith’s influence—particularly as a force in American politics and culture—is waning. An increasing number of religiously unaffiliated people, a steady drop in church attendance and the growing tensions over religious liberty all point to a larger secularizing trend sweeping the nation."
- U.S. adults do not agree on who Jesus was and is
"Jesus Christ remains a central figure and perennial person of interest in the American religious landscape. But who do people say that he is? The vast majority says he was a real, historical person (92%)—but beyond the fact of his human existence, there is less agreement."
- Americans define themselves by family, country and faith
"Many factors make up human identity, but most Americans say the primary factor for them is family. Nearly two-thirds say family is a lot of their personal identity (62%). More than half of all adults say “being an American” makes up a lot of their identity (52%). And while “my religious faith” makes it into the top three factors that shape people’s identity, only 38 percent rate it as a major factor.
The two younger generations are much less likely than their elders to say “being an American” is a major factor in their identity. There is nearly a 50-point drop between Elders (80%) and Millennials (54%), and a considerable gap between Boomers (66%) and Gen-Xers (37%). Older adults are also more likely to say “my religious faith” is a lot of their identity. Almost half of Elders (46%) and Boomers (45%) say so, compared with one-third of Gen-Xers (34%) and 28 percent of Millennials."
- Voters want a presidential candidate to take a stand on issues
"Seven out of 10 Americans say a candidate’s stance on particular issues is their top consideration when deciding whom to support in the 2016 election (71%). By a wide margin, the top issue among the general population is the economy (76%), followed by health care (65%), immigration (46%) and foreign policy (46%), and gun control (43%)." [The economy has been the Number 1 issue for months, eclipsed by the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks, which occured too recently to be reflected in the Barna report.]
- Discipleship in U.S. churches in not effective, pastors say
"Half of all Christian adults (52%) believe their church “definitely” is doing well when it comes to discipleship. In stark contrast, only 1 percent of U.S. pastors say today’s churches are doing very well in this area. A sizable majority—six in 10—feels that churches are discipling “not too well” (60%)."
- Scotland research offers lessons for ministry in a post-Christian context
"Despite levels of secularization much higher than the U.S., research findings from Scotland will likely strike Americans as familiar: increasing numbers of non-religious adults, declining church attendance and fewer people engaged with the Bible. Barna’s yearlong study examined the state of faith in Scotland and identified ministry approaches that seem to be working in that post-Christian cultural context....
...Barna’s best practices study of Scottish churches and ministries experiencing growth against broader secularizing trends can help American Christians prepare for effective ministry in a more post-Christian future."
- Woman are disengaging from church
"Only 17 percent of women say they feel “very” supported at church and fewer than one-quarter (23%) say they feel “somewhat” supported. Nearly half (43%) say they feel no emotional support at all from church. This relational disconnect may provide a key for understanding how women are able to disengage from churches: Without strong relational bonds within a church community, women’s absence from church can largely go unnoticed. This begs the question of where women are finding such support—and indicates a major opportunity for churches seeking to engage women in their community."
- Most Americans plan to stay where they are
"While Americans may not be moving as much as they used to—and while they may settle down in one place as they grow older—most people have moved at least once in their lifetime. Only one quarter of Americans live in the town where they were born. So, what are the primary reasons people make those moves? [The report suggests that 6 in 10 never plan to move or aren't sure if they ever will.]
Among adults who were not born in their current city or town, the most influential factor in their decision to move was family (42%). As one might expect, many people also move for their careers—work is the second-most cited reason people move to a new city, with nearly three in 10 Americans saying they moved to their current location for work (28%)."
See the full Barna report—December 16, 2015
Thom Rainer's "16 Trends in American Churches in 2016"
Thom Rainer is a respected observer of religion in America. Rather than using the survey research methology of the Barna Group, Rainer has written about trends in churches for two decades, extropolating those observations into trends. As he says,
This year I take this approach with a higher level of confidence than previous years. I have seen most of the following issues grow month by month in 2015, so I don’t have to be the brightest person in the world to project them as major trends in 2016.
Following are 16 topics that Rainer identifies as trends to watch in 2016. I included only the topic and part of his description. To see the complete (but brief) description of each one and follow the comments that carry on the discussion, follow the links below.
- Church security as the fastest growing ministry. Shootings in churches and sex abuse of children mandate this unfortunate trend...
- Decrease in worship center size and capacity. The large worship gathering is not as popular as it has been....
- Increase in successfully revitalized churches. More church leaders sense a call to lead revitalized churches....
- Rapid growth of coaching ministries for pastors and church staff. The current trend is anecdotal, but it wile soon be verified and obvious....
- Increase in the numbers of churches in gentrified communities. Thousands of older urban communities are becoming revitalized. Churches are following....
- Increased emphasis on practical ministry training. Church leaders in America have seen a much needed two-decade renewal of training in classical disciplines and doctrine....
- Increasing emphasis on groups in churches. Church leaders are getting it. When church members are a part of some type of group . . . they attend more faithfully, evangelize more frequently and give more abundantly.
- Fewer segregated churches. For most of American history, 11:00 am on Sunday was the most segregated hour of the week. That is changing....
- The rise of the mini-denomination church. This trend is an acceleration of the increased number of multi-site churches....
- Increased pastoral tenure. For a number of reasons, the tenure of a pastor at a given church will increase....
- Rise of alternative ministry placement organizations. Old and existing systems of how churches find prospective pastors and staff are falling apart....
- Increase in the number of Millennials who are Christians. I am projecting the number to increase from 15 percent of the generation to 18 percent...an increase of 2.3 million Millennials who will become believers in 2016.
- Accelerated decline of 100,000 American congregations. Historical, American congregations have been tenacious and survived beyond most expectations. That reality is no longer true....
- Churches no longer viewed favorably by many governmental units. As a consequence, it will become increasingly difficult for churches to expand their physical facilities or to be able to hold functions in their community.
- More bivocationsl pastors and staff. This trend is increasingly becoming the result of choices by pastors and staff, rather than financial limitations of congregations.
- Dramatic changes in senior adult ministries. The baby boomers will not participate in the way most churches do senior adult ministry....
In many ways, I see 2016 as a pivotal year for thousands of congregations. Unfortunately, many church leaders and church members will elect not to change anything. Those congregations will be among the 100,000 rapidly declining churches.
But for other churches, new opportunities abound. For decades, churches could choose a path of modest to no change and do okay. That is not the case today. For those congregations that are eager and willing to face the culture in God’s power and strength, they will likely see incredible opportunities for ministry and growth.
It is becoming that simple.
Change or die.
See the complete blog and become part of the discussion by adding your comments. The blog appeared in two parts:
16 Trends in American Churches in 2016: Trends 1 to 8—December 15, 2015
16 Trends in American Churches in 2016: Trends 9 to 16—December 16, 2015