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The research organization Barna Group reported in February that two-thirds of American adults who attend church “do so largely because of personal enjoyment.” That claim may not be sensational, but it is misleading.
Barna’s State of the Church 2020 study highlights five trends “essential in understanding the Church’s place in the U.S. today.” It offers little new or noteworthy: Barna concluded that many Christians “church hop,” that church membership is common but declining among younger churchgoers, and that many non-Christians believe church to be irrelevant.
But Barna also reported that 65 percent of American churchgoers attend because they personally enjoy doing so. On the surface, this number seemingly reinforces a common notion that American Christians possess a consumer mentality—that they attend church not to worship the Lord but to satisfy self.
Barna apparently did not intend to draw that conclusion. Digging deeper reveals more about Barna Group than about American Christians.
Barna focused on what worshippers felt they had received from worship, while giving them no opportunity to describe what they had given in worship.
Barna asked survey respondents: “Do you usually attend church because you enjoy doing it, because you feel you have to do it, or you do it out of habit?” The question gave respondents no option to reply, “I attend church to worship God.” The best possible answer respondents could choose (as 65 percent did) paints them in a potentially narcissistic light. A bad question produced a misleading answer: It is inaccurate to conclude, as Barna did, “Those who frequent worship services do so largely because of personal enjoyment.”
The very structure of another survey question reinforced a self-oriented approach to worship. Barna asked: “Thinking about the worship services you attend at your church, how often do you leave the worship services feeling …” Respondents chose from nine possible answers, and while “inspired,” “encouraged,” and “forgiven” scored higher than “disappointed” or “guilty,” Barna focused on what worshippers felt they had received from worship, while giving them no opportunity to describe what they had given in worship.
Stranger still was Barna Group’s conclusion: “Today’s church leaders are tasked with meeting a diverse set of emotional expectations.” But data describing the emotional experiences of people during worship does not speak to the emotional expectations of those who enter worship. Nor does it imply church leaders must craft worship services primarily to satisfy emotional expectations.
Worship is for the Lord, and maybe American Christians know it. But Barna couldn’t tell you because Barna didn’t ask.