The State Of The Church In 2021

Feb 6th, 2021 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

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Next to the family, the church is the most important institution God has created.  Jesus only spoke of the “church” (ekklesia) twice—both in future terms:  “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18) and (18:17) in terms of church discipline.  The church could not begin until Jesus had died, been resurrected (see Colossians 1:18), ascended to heaven (Ephesians 1:20-23) and then sent the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13).  Thus the church began at Pentecost (Acts 1:5, 2:4 and 11:15-16).  The New Testament affirms that the church (ekklesia) is literally a body of “called out ones.”  In the book of Acts and the New Testament epistles, the church is both an organism (the universal, living body of Christ) and a local church organization, with leadership and structure, which assembles together for worship, instruction and edification (see Acts 8:1; 13:1; 14:23; and 20:28).  This local assembly consists of those who profess faith in and allegiance to Jesus Christ.  The one universal church is manifested in a particular locality, yet each individual assembly is the church in that place (e.g., Paul refers to the Corinthians as “the church of God which is at Corinth” 1 Cor. 1:1).


What are the purposes, function and mission of the church?

  1. The church exists to bring glory to God—”to the praise of the glory of His grace” (see Ephesians 1:4-14; 3:21).
  2. Since the church is founded on the apostolic message of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-8), it is essential that its members be continually instructed in it.  Thus teaching is a NT priority (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 3:1-2), because the most dangerous threat to the church is false teaching (see Acts 20:29-30; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; 2 Peter 2:1-3).  Teaching children is both a family and church responsibility (see Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Ephesians 6:1-4).
  3. Along with teaching, exhortation and encouragement are essential for the growth of believers as they face a hostile world (Acts 14:21-22; Hebrews 3:13).  Exhortation and encouragement are accomplished by gathering (normally on Sunday) with other believers in corporate worship (Hebrews 10:24-25), where there is the reading of the Word, prayer, singing of praises, the preaching/teaching of the Word, and the collection of offerings (see Acts 20:7; 2:42; 4:31; 1 Timothy 2:1; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; Acts 11:27-30; 1 Corinthians 16:1). Conversion places you into the church, which, among other things, is the family of God.  “I” becomes “we” and it is in the local church where we begin to live out this family name.
  4. The local church is also to teach, cultivate and nurture love, as it is woven into the fabric of believers’ lives (1 Corinthians 13; John 13:34-35).  It is commanded by Jesus and is the mark of the church.
  5. The local church is to witness to the world what Christ has accomplished through His death, burial and resurrection.  This is done through proclamation and through the exemplary behavior of believers in every circumstance of life.  As salt and light, the church benefits and enriches culture.  Church members are guardians and examples of truth in a world of falsehood and deception and are thereby instruments to restrain evil (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7).


Therefore, as we begin 2021, it is important to evaluate the state of the American church?  In addition, how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the church?  The Barna organization has done a superb job in helping us to answer these questions.  Here is a summary of recent studies and research the Barna group has completed.  There are five trends that are essential in understanding the Church’s place in the U.S. today.

  1. “Nearly two in five churchgoers report regularly attending multiple churches.”  Declining church loyalty—or what is sometimes referred to as “church hopping”—is becoming a common feature of churchgoing. Just because somebody might attend church doesn’t mean they attend the same church every time. “While a majority of churchgoers tends to stick with a single congregation (63% churched adults, 72% practicing Christians), a sizable minority is at least occasionally attending other churches, including nearly two in five churched adults (38%) and one-quarter of practicing Christians (27%).”
  2. Churchgoers are divided on the value of church.  Another element of the churchgoing landscape is the paradoxical perceptions that churchgoers hold of church itself. David Kinnaman observes, “Those who frequent worship services do so largely because of personal enjoyment, but many churchgoers also readily admit that they believe people are tired of church as usual.”
  3. Churchgoers largely experience—and have come to expect—positive emotions and outcomes by going to church.  “Overall, churched adults say they leave worship services feeling inspired (37%), encouraged (37%), forgiven (34%), as though they have connected with God or experienced his presence (33%) and challenged to change something in their life (26%), every time. A plurality of churched adults also express always feeling like attending service was the most important experience they had all week (29%) and that they learned something new (28%).”
  4. Church membership is still a common practice and is correlated with positive outcomes—but its importance is declining among younger churchgoers.  Church commitment extends beyond just finding your pew. “A common and more formal next step is church membership—and this new Barna study shows that many Christians are reluctant to embrace it. To what extent is membership relevant today?”  Kinnaman comments, “Americans aren’t joining much of anything these days and church membership is not as compelling as it once was. In a world of untethered commitments and free-for-all content, the positive correlations of church membership should not be overlooked. The form of membership may be undergoing change, but the function of generating a mutually committed group of people is still highly relevant to today’s Americans.”
  5. The perception of the Church’s relevance to the community is under question—especially among non-Christians.  These numbers challenge the Church’s place in society, as does further research. Barna found that, “while the general population, and practicing Christians especially, have a largely positive impression of the Christian faith (75% U.S. adults, 100% practicing Christians, 91% self-identified Christians, 49% non-Christians)—regardless of generation, race or denomination—the Church itself is regarded as irrelevant by about one in 10 Americans (15% U.S. adults, 10% practicing Christians definitely agree). Even some who are committed members of the Church feel it is falling out of style; the percentage of practicing Christian Millennials who agree the Church is irrelevant today is the same as non-Christians who hold this view (25% each definitely agree).”

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the American church?

  1. One in three practicing Christians has stopped attending church during COVID-19.
    As initial safe-at-home ordinances were lifting across the country (April–May 2020), Barna surveyed thousands of Americans to see what their new Sunday morning routines looked like during the COVID-19 response. “At that time, data showed that, among practicing Christians—those who identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and attend church at least monthly (prior to COVID-19)—over half (53%) had streamed their regular church online within the past four weeks.” Another 34 percent admitted to streaming a different church service online other than their own, essentially “church hopping” digitally.
  2. Signs of decline and hope among key metrics of faith.  The first and perhaps most significant change we explored as part of the State of the Church project is that practicing Christians are now a much smaller segment of the entire population. In 2000, 45 percent of all those sampled qualified as practicing Christians. That share has consistently declined over the last 19 years. “As of early 2020, just one in four Americans (25%) qualified as a practicing Christian. In essence, the share of practicing Christians has nearly dropped in half since 2000.  Where did these practicing Christians go? The data indicate that their shift was evenly split. Half of them fell away from consistent faith engagement, essentially becoming non-practicing Christians (2000: 35% vs. 2020: 43%), while the other half moved into the non-Christian segment (2000: 20% vs. 2019: 30%). This shift also contributed to the growth of the atheist / agnostic / none segment, which nearly doubled in size during the same amount of time (2003: 11% vs. 2018: 21%).”
  3. What does the new Sunday morning look like for Christian households who continued to tune in to virtual worship services throughout the pandemic?  “Practicing and non-practicing Christians have different routines during online services. For example, while three in five practicing Christians (64%) pray along with prayers, only two in five non-practicing Christians (41%) do the same. This trend is similar for other practices, such as households watching services together at the same time (42% practicing Christians vs. 21% non-practicing Christians) or singing along with worship (40% vs. 23%).  A number of churchgoers also admitted that attending online services offer opportunity for them to multitask while the service is streaming (15% practicing Christians vs. 30% non-practicing Christians). Although, as Barna has previously noted, distraction is reportedly a common part of in-person attendance too, regardless of age and device usage.”
  4. The year 2020 wasn’t the first year that church leaders have expressed to Barna that they are struggling in their ministry to younger adult generations—but the strain and distance of the year intensified some of those challenges. For instance, Barna data gathered in late May 2020 showed that as one in three practicing Christians stopped streaming church during the early months of the pandemic, the digital dropout was led by practicing Christian Millennials; fully half (50%) were not tuning in to online worship services at the time
  5. The outlook for young adults and teens—which, data show, was already starkly different than that of generations past—was reshaped yet again in the shadow of the pandemic. Further, half of pastors told Barna they were struggling in their ministry to kids and youth in this time.  “Among the most dire concerns this year was loneliness and anxiety in young adults. According to data from a global study of more than 15,000 18–35-year-olds, despite being part of the most digitally connected generation, young adults and teens are prone to feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Concerns around the mental health of both old and young generations only grew once the pandemic’s disruptions began, whether due to financial stress, ongoing social distancing, physical well-being or the loss of loved ones.”

See The State of the Church 2020, Barna Research Group; “Year in Review: Barna’s Top 10 Releases of 2020” (28 December 2020).

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