Do Boomers or Millennials prefer longer sermons?
What do unchurched people think about the community leadership of pastors in the wake of COVID-19?
How would individuals in your city describe the presence of the local church?
The answers may surprise you, just like they surprised many in attendance at the launch of Barna Group’s monthly forums that educate church leaders on how to better understand and serve their local community.
Over 2,300 pastors, nonprofit leaders, and civic officials have joined a year-long initiative to learn about and discuss community perceptions of the church in four major United States areas: South Florida, Kansas City, Columbus, and Dallas-Fort Worth. In each forum, attendees reviewed brand new data on how people in their communities feel about the church, ranging from their perceptions to their expectations and desires.
Early in each forum, Mark Matlock, Insights Lead for Barna, introduced Glenn Packiam, Associate Senior Pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. New Life faced a globally public scandal in the 1980s, which taught a lesson Packiam will never forget: When churches set out to regain credibility, they only make the problem worse.
“People can smell that inauthenticity,” Packiam said.
“Step one is not ‘how can I win you back?’” Packiam said. “Step one is ‘how can I listen better? How can I better understand how you are experiencing me?’”
Hubs of Hope
These are the questions that Barna’s unprecedented research asked on behalf of the church. David Kinnaman, President of Barna Group, and Savannah Kimberlin, Barna's Director of Published Research, analyzed this data for the attendees, encouraging them to identify three features according to their own contexts: spotlights, which illuminate a problem that would otherwise go unnoticed, scales, which provide an opportunity to measure something useful, and shovels, which help identify areas where more research is needed. Later in the forum, participants shared their spotlights, scales, and shovels in breakout groups that facilitated discussions on local solutions.
In all four cities, most of those who were polled think favorably of the church. In each group, the most common description was that the church “offers hope to people.” And perhaps most encouraging, the majority of both unchurched and churched respondents said that pastors in these cities demonstrated strong leadership on issues related to the pandemic and racial justice.
Across generations, the average ideal sermon length was 32 minutes in person and 30 minutes online. Millennials, often chided for their short attention spans, actually prefer longer sermons compared to older generations. Matlock identified this fact as a potential spotlight for the pastors in attendance, wondering if some millennials lack foundational Biblical knowledge that they’re now hungry for in the sermons they hear.
Room to Rise
The data also presented opportunities for growth as respondents nationwide hold their local faith communities to high standards. In Dallas-Fort Worth for example, of those polled, 58% expect churches to provide homeless services, 57% expect companionship for the elderly, and 51% expect the church to offer counseling services. The numbers are even higher in Columbus, where 67% of residents polled expect homeless services, 60% expect companionship for the elderly, and 49% expect counseling services.
Even while many small churches struggle to support existing staff members, Kinnaman argues that this data presents a unique opportunity for the church to listen, move outward, and personify hope. Coming out of the pandemic, Kinnaman said, there will likely be a tsunami of mental health challenges and emotional support needs. People want mental health and emotional well-being support from churches, as best reflected in Columbus’s polling where a remarkable 68% of Millennials and 73% of GenXers affirmed such a desire. How can local churches anticipate and meet this need?
A major part of Barna’s presentation outlined five dimensions of human flourishing: spiritual growth and development, financial well-being, mental and emotional well-being, vocational or career well-being, and relational well-being. These dimensions (and distinctions) are significant as polling reveals that those unaffiliated with a local congregation are open to church programs that help them achieve greater flourishing across these areas. Seemingly, should pastors offer counseling or similar services, many in the local community would pursue that care, including residents not currently attending church.
When prompted, forum attendees also offered measured advice from their perspective as co-leaders in the community. Those in attendance were encouraged to complete the following thought: “Together, we can improve the reputation of the church by _____.”
“Partnering with or providing mental health services,” suggested Jackie Helbling of South Florida.
“Participating in other groups’ activities in a supportive way without taking over,” said Jim Fenlason in Kansas City.
In Columbus, Robin Forde observed that “there are many younger persons who are hungry to learn more,” noting that they are “open minded” when it comes to the ways the church may be relevant to their lives. Kurtran Wright highlighted that 34% of polltakers in Dallas-Fort Worth feel that the church is “judgmental.” 42% of respondents say that the church is “known for the things they are against.”
“We may be majoring in morality and minoring in compassion,” Wright suggested.
Leading by Listening
While examining these trends sparked awareness and conversation, the forum speakers and attendees seemed to understand one essential caveat: the data itself is not the goal. Rather, the data serves the greater good, enabling community like that of the tribe of Issachar, who "had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do'' (1 Chronicles 12:32).
With understanding then centered as the goal, Barna provided timely data from major cities that’s relevant to pastors and church leaders. But the unsung hero of the events laid in the chat box: an open platform for questions, comment, insight, and discussion with other attendees, like when Rebecca Walls, Executive Director of Unite DFW, noted rising community concern about eviction prevention, or when several pastors were able to foster a discussion over potential differences in church perception and polling across racial groups.
And this, it seems, is the collaborative aim of the forums: to empower pastors who, after a harrowing year, are still regarded as community leaders. Barna’s data equips people to better understand avenues for leadership, but as energetic joy permeated the chat and pastors shared their spotlights, scales, and shovels with fellow attendees, the community building was entirely their own.
A push for listening—to the polling, to the presenters, and to the pastors—took centerstage at Barna’s first event while the forum’s design communicated as much as its content: yes, pastors need more information, but supporting them as they support others is essential to the future health and happiness of the church.
These opportunities for listening, learning, and mutual discovery will continue as part of Barna's City Toolkit.