A majority of adults who don’t attend church say they believe in God, but they have other feelings about the institution of church.
A recent U.S. survey of adults who don’t attend church, not even on holidays, found that 72 percent thought the church ‘is full of hypocrites,’ but that 78 percent would ‘be willing to listen’ to someone who wanted to share their beliefs about Christianity. At the same time, 72 percent of respondents also said they believe God exists.
The survey results were published last week by LifeWay Research, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. The organization surveyed 1,402 ‘unchurched’ adults last spring and summer. The margin of error is 2.5 percentage points.
The survey defines unchurched as those who had not attended a religious service in a church, synagogue or mosque at any time in the past six months.
More than 1 in 5 Americans say they never go to church, the General Social Survey found in 2006. The survey is conducted every two years by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
Other researchers have found similar negative opinions about church.
Researchers at Barna Group, a Christian survey organization, have found that young adults in particular are rejecting the institution — and Christianity in general — because it is perceived to be anti-gay, too political and hypocritical.
The implications, the researchers from both studies said, are seen when churches try to evangelize to and reach the unchurched. But the research also speaks to the way churches have communicated their messages, said Jerry Wilkins, director of the Tuscaloosa Baptist Association, the local Southern Baptist organization.
‘We’re just still struggling,’ Wilkins said. ‘I think the answer for this dilemma is for the church to better communicate that we are a hospital for sick people. We need to be helping [non Christians] understand what the church is. My feeling is we’ve done a poor job communicating that church is not for people who have arrived, but for people who are on a journey.’
The Barna findings were the basis for the book ‘unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why it Matters,’ released in October 2007.
‘There are a lot of different factors for it,’ said David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group and one of the authors of ‘unChristian.’
‘The reasons people come to negative conclusions about Christianity, churches or Christians is as diverse as the people you ask. But I think the media-saturated, fault-finding, skeptical society we live in is part of it. You see the mistakes of prominent [Christian] leaders broadcast and printed on pages, and that solidifies people’s perspectives about Christians as hypocrites or living hypocritical lifestyles.’
The recent headline-making stories of disgraced church leaders accused of lying, cheating and philandering have had their impact, but Kinnaman said people’s personal relationships also influence their perception of church, such as the neighbor who is heavily involved in his church, but also heavily involved with a mistress.
Some high-profile Christian leaders have also come under fire for alleged misdeeds, with their stories played out prominently in the media. Richard Roberts, son of evangelist Oral Roberts, resigned last week as president of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa amid allegations he misspent school money to support a lavish lifestyle. And six popular televangelists are under federal investigation for financial misdeeds.
In November U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking member of the committee on finance, requested financial information from the six ministries: Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries, Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International, Benny Hinn of Benny Hinn Ministries, Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Joyce and David Meyer of Joyce Meyer Ministries, and Randy and Paula White of the multiracial Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries.
Evangelical leaders have also come under fire for other personal sins that are contrary to the Christian message.
Ted Haggard, the former leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, resigned his post as pastor of the church he founded after allegations surfaced of a homosexual affair and methamphetamine use. And just this week, Georgia megachurch leader Archbishop Earl Paulk pleaded guilty to lying under oath about several sexual affairs and was sentenced to 10 years probation.
Scandal isn’t the only problem. Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, said in comments released with the survey that many unchurched don’t have a biblical understanding of God and Jesus. The survey found that slightly less than half, 48 percent, agree that God is the God described in the Bible, while 61 percent said they believe ‘the God of the Bible is no different from the gods of spiritual beings depicted by world religions.’
At the same time, LifeWay found that 78 percent of those surveyed were open to talking about spiritual matters with a friend. That number was even higher among young adults, aged 18-29, of them 89 percent said they were willing to listen to a Christian sharing his or her beliefs.
That openness should be used as a platform for holding conversations, said Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research, in the news release.
‘Although we may not have the home field advantage we once did, people are open to spiritual conversations, open to hearing about a genuine faith, and God is still at work, using people and churches to share the Good News in an increasingly confused world,’ McConnell said. ‘That should propel us to action and help us move beyond fear to share our faith.’
Still, the perception that Christians are hypocritical is one that faith leaders say needs to be addressed.
Kinnaman said part of the problem comes from a misunderstanding that Christians believe they are perfect.
‘There is not a particular strategy or approach where a church can say we are no longer going to be hypocritical,’ Kinnaman said. ‘We are trying to become much more of a movement to restore, except, love and bless the community around us. That’s important when the only thing that a non-Christian sees from a church community is discussion of becoming a saved Christian and Christian morals and ethics or how we define family. Those discussions have missed some of the larger needs that the community is looking for and shows how out of tune Christians can be with the real world.’
The evangelical role in the abortion debate, Kinnaman said, illustrates his point.
‘Most Christians have strong conviction that abortion is not the best response [to an unwanted pregnancy] and believe life starts at conception,’ he said. ‘There are deep philosophical and theological motivations behind that. But I don’t think most Christians fully understand why most young women have abortions. It’s not because they sinned and want to clean up the mess. The reality is they don’t want to admit they are pregnant not finding support from the father, not from the church, and they have no economic means for caring [for the child]. …
‘The church ought to be the place where it is not simply and academic or theological discussion about principles. It needs to be a very tangible, loving response that leads a revolution of adoptions and foster care.’
Wilkins, however, said he doesn’t think that the individual congregations are doing a good job of getting the message of what a church is about out beyond the church walls.
‘I wish I could say there is a concerted effort to do that,’ he said. ‘But so few churches are. We tend to be talking to ourselves. We say this in church but only about 3 percent of unchurched people come into a church. This is one reason why churches must begin to communicate outside the walls of the church more, so people understand what church is and what church is not.’