I just learned about a recently reported study by the Barna Group entitled What People Experience in Churches. This study asked Christians questions to assess five different dimensions of church-going. There’s some good and some bad news included in the findings of the report. The good news is that most church-goers say they experience a connection with God (66%) and others (68%) at church. While these numbers could be higher, as my most recent post said, sometimes two out of three isn’t bad. Also good, 40% of respondents said their congregations cared about helping the poor a lot, while 33% said their congregations cared somewhat. That’s a total of three-quarters of people who say their churches care about the poor. Again, could be higher, but overall, not bad.
The bad news is that church doesn’t seem to be a transformative experience for many. 46% of church-going respondents said their life has not been changed by church. 61% couldn’t remember an insight from the last church service they’d gone to. That’s not to say that these people aren’t getting anything from church – remember, two thirds of people are connecting with God and others – but it does mean that their faith life may not be growing and developing in their faith through participation in church. The Barna study appears to be asking about church worship experiences, and worship certainly can’t address all aspects of Christians’ faith lives, but the findings should give us pause.
I found out about this study through two blog posts written by Taylor Burton-Edwards. In his first post on this topic, The Differences Congregational Worship Makes . . . And Doesn’t, Burton-Edwards reflects on what this means for worship. In particular, he picks up on the lower numbers reported by young adults regarding what they’ve received from attending church, rightly raising concerns about these results. He also notes the poorer scores from people who attend middle-sized churches and ventures an interesting explanation based on Dunbar’s number for social group cohesion.
Burton Edwards’ second post, Differences Congregations Don’t Make . . . And What to Do about It, is more pessimistic, concluding, “Congregations make little or no difference in the lives of most people who attend them.” Burton-Edwards then reasons that we shouldn’t expect congregations to make a difference in people’s lives and instead this task should be left to groups similar to the early Methodist societies. Burton-Edwards cites the examples of campus ministry groups, Walk to Emmaus Fourth Day groups, and unspecified UMC groups in Zimbabwe.
Although I appreciated Burton-Edwards’ first post, I have to take issue with his second post. First, I think it’s an extremely negative reading of the Barna Group’s report to conclude that congregations make no difference in people’s lives. Burton-Edwards takes “somewhat influential” to mean that churches only “marginally affect” people’s lives. While I agree that this report points out that churches have a problem in terms of fostering discipleship, Burton-Edwards’ overstates that problem.
But more importantly, no matter the size of the problem, there is no way we can excuse congregations from the responsibility to make a difference in people’s lives, as Burton-Edwards suggests we do. This is especially true as United Methodists, with our mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. The Book of Discipline affirms that congregations are the primary sites at which the UMC carries out its mission. We need to expect congregations to be just that.
I really believe in the importance and effectiveness of small group ministries such as those Burton-Edwards cites, but if our congregations are not making a difference in people’s lives, if they are not helping them become better disciples of Jesus Christ, then we as the United Methodist Church are not carrying out our mission. If we truly believe in our mission and truly believe that our local congregations have a role to play in that mission, then we should continue to expect that they carry out the work of making disciples, including teaching them and transforming their lives. It’s not easy work, and it’s not something that’s going to happen every day, but to be United Methodists, we cannot give up on it.