Hearing George Barna: Why Houston Christians Don't Go to Church

"Why Houston Christians Don't Go To Church" was the topic of the conference sponsored by Chapelwood and area churches yesterday at First Baptist Church, Houston. With many churches represented and about 250 present, the event was a project of the Houston Coalition of Church Communicators. The Barna Group surveyed self-defined Christians who had not attended church in the last six months, nor do they have plans to so in the next six months. The area studied was generally the Katy Freeway corridor of West Houston. "We know them," Barna quipped, "because they're just like us." Barna described these folks as "self-absorbed." Success, health, family, and maintaining a comfortable life rank highest among values.

Barna presented conclusions from both the Houston study and his national research on unchurched adults over 18. He was passionate about treating this audience with respect. Marketing obviously only goes so far, but phone calls and home visits (with or without gifts) are invasive and manipulative. The best chance of reaching this group is through a friend who not only invites them, but also, offers to take them. And the research shows that multiple invitations, when done with patience and openness, eventually do work. Once there, anonymity is preferred. In fact, new attenders want to observe to see if the people there are kind and non-judgmental. At every point- before, after, and during a return to church, how the people of a congregation treat each other is the most important factor in reaching this audience, according to Barna.

Barna clearly communicated that there's no silver bullet here. Churches need to segment and offer many doors, many options. For example, over 50% see worship as the one thing churches offer of value; the problem is, there's such a gap between worship and anything else seen of value. Barna said "Congratulations, we got at least one thing right." But to make advances, we could also be perceived as offering value other than worship.

Many of the non-attending Christians have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important today. (78%) And their habit of not going to church is one of many years, not just a few months. A tough habit to break! Barna is confident that when and if there is something of value given and received, then the habit of church absence can be challenged. He said that he could do a whole day on why children's ministry is key. This audience does not automatically trust strangers with their children (who should, really?), so at least for the first few visits, they would much prefer to have their children stay with them.

Barna criticized our reliance on numbers alone to show "transformation." More does not prove transformation. And since that's what it's about, we need to look at other ways to measure fruitfulness- not just numbers. To say we therefore need more churches is to beg the question. It's about transformation, not more. I would have liked to ask Barna about emerging, but this conference was clearly focused on the conventional church and by the looks of the data, we have much work ahead of us among all age groups!

Comments

  1. Hi, George Barna here... I'd like to make a few corrections regarding what you have reported that I said.

    "Marketing obviously only goes so far, but phone calls and home visits (with or without gifts) are invasive and manipulative." Actually, I indicated that the unchurched view telemarketing and home visits as manipulative. I was not making a judgment as to whether every instance of these efforts is, in fact invasive and manipulative.

    "The best chance of reaching this group is through a friend who not only invites them, but also, offers to take them." For the sake of clarity, I did not say you have to take them, literally, but they would be more likely to attend if you meet them there (or take them).

    "For example, over 50% see worship as the one thing churches offer of value; the problem is, there's such a gap between worship and anything else seen of value. Barna said "Congratulations, we got at least one thing right." But to make advances, we could also be perceived as offering value other than worship." Actually, what I said was that most unchurched people (51%) listed worship services as the event or activity through which they were most likely to reconnect with a church, but that's mostly because they don't know what else to say. Because more than 4 out of 5 of them are formerly churched, worship services are a "been there, done that" experience for most of them, and are not especially effective at attracting or reconnecting with this audience. We are actually more likely to reconnect with them through other means that address their felt needs.

    "Many of the non-attending Christians were born again (78%)" This is not at all accurate. The 78% are not "born again," but are people who say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today." That's one facet of being born again, but it is certainly not the way in which we measure being "born again" through our surveys. Nationally between 15-20% of the unchurched are typically born again Christians, and I suspect the figure (which, as explained during the presnetation, was something we did not measure in this study) in Houston is perhaps slightly higher than that.

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  2. Thanks for the day and the comment. Yes, I read the "commitment to Jesus Christ" as "born again" and corrected the error.

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