Let's be honest for a minute. Most churches expend the vast majority of their resources on weekend worship gatherings. It's when facilities are most utilized, when programming is most robust, when volunteers are most required, and what many pastors spend the majority of their time preparing for. This great emphasis on Sunday is often justified because it's when people gather to meet with God.
But new research released this week from Barna reveals that most churchgoers rarely experience God in worship services. While most people surveyed can recall a "real and personal connection" with God while at church (66%), they also reported that these connections are "rare." Among those who attend church every week, less than half (44%) say they experience God's presence. And one-third of those who have attended church report never feeling God's presence in a worship gathering.
But "experiencing God" is a wishy-washy, emotional, and subjective idea, you might argue. We're in the business of transforming lives. Well, the Barna study has a dose of reality for you too.
The survey also probed the degree to which people say their lives had been changed by attending church. Overall, one-quarter of Americans (26%) who had been to a church before said that their life had been changed or affected "greatly" by attending church. Another one-fourth (25%) described it as "somewhat" influential. Nearly half said their life had not changed at all as a result of churchgoing (46%).
A closer look at the breakdown of the survey participants is also illuminating. Generally, the older generations (Elders and Boomers) reported more positive church experiences than younger generations (Busters and Mosaics). The report says "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."
What should we conclude from this report from Barna? That is going to depend upon your own setting and congregation. But here are a few of my wonderings:
-Many (perhaps most) churches still have structures/values that appeal to those 50+. Despite all of the rhetoric since the 90s about "emerging generations" and new models of church, there is little evidence it has been implemented broadly or effective.
-Is the problem really our worship services, or what we expect from them? Some might look at these numbers and respond by updating their music selection, adding some icons or candles, and getting younger leaders up front. And that might be wise. But I wonder if most people aren't "experiencing God" in these gatherings because they aren't experiencing God Monday through Saturday either. Perhaps we (church leaders) have over-emphasized worship gatherings because they are something we can control, when we ought to be training people to commune with God apart from formal services.
-Finally, a friend of mine has vented in the past about all of the "transforming lives" talk that permeates ministry gatherings these days. "Transformation isn't our job," he rants, "it's God's! All we can do is lead people to him." Granted, my friend is highly Reformed, but he has a point. Might it be time to consider what Paul said about ministry in 1 Corinthians 3? Some plant the seeds, others water it, but ultimately it is God who causes the growth. I don't believe we should ignore outcomes or allow lazy, ineffectual discipleship to take root in our churches. But we must also admit that life transformation is more mysterious, more God-driven, than making widgets in a factory.
I welcome your responses to the Barna study.