The Barna Group – Who is Active in “Group” Expressions of Faith? Barna Study Examines Small Groups, Sunday School, and House Churches


A new study from the Barna Group explores the profile of Americans who actively participate in faith. The study examined various expressions of “group” faith, such as: church attendance, small groups, adult Sunday school programs, church volunteering, and house churches. (Definitions of each type of activity, including how the researchers distinguished between small groups and home / house churches, can be found below in the research notes.)

The Barna study uncovered nine insights:

1. Women drive most faith participation, with the exception of home churches or house churches. A majority of weekly churchgoers are women (53%). Small groups that meet for prayer or Bible study (60%) and Sunday school programs for adults (59%) are also more likely to be attended by women. Similarly, a majority of church volunteers (57%) are females. Home churches are the only type of participatory religious involvement in which most attenders are men (56%).

2. Religious activities are typically missing single adults, especially those who have never been married. Just less than half of Americans are unmarried; however, the Barna study found that two-thirds of those who attend church, go to small groups, and participate in Sunday school are married; and 69% of church volunteers are married. Furthermore, single adults who have never experienced matrimony – that is, they are currently divorced, separated or widowed – represent fewer than one-fifth of the adults involved, with worship attendance and volunteerism the least likely to attract these never-attached adults. House churches fared better in this regard, reflecting a 50-50 split of married and unmarried participants.

3. Older adults also dominate faith involvement. Conventional wisdom suggests that older adults are more likely to participate spiritually, and the Barna research confirmed such thinking. Two-thirds of small group attenders as well as house church participants and three-fifths of church volunteers and Sunday school goers were ages 45 older. The most age-balanced activity was church attendance, with 56% of the spiritually active population being age 45 or older and 44% being ages 18 to 44. (Nationally, 52% of the population is 45-plus.) One of the challenges for churches that rely on small group strategies is that they are the “oldest” form of participatory faith expression (median age of 56) and they are least likely to include parents of young children.
4. Regionally, Americans’ faith involvement falls along stereotypical lines. Residents of the South make up half of the nation’s small group attenders as well as a majority of its Sunday school attenders. Still, Southerners were among the least common house church participants. Those hailing from the Northeast were unlikely to be active in terms of small groups, Sunday school or volunteerism, while those in the West were among the largest share of house church participants. Sunday school was also comparatively uncommon in the West. Midwestern residents were about “average” on each of the five activities.

5. Catholics are not particularly active beyond worship attendance, while evangelicals participate in many different forms of “group faith.” While Catholics make up one-quarter of all the nation’s worshippers each week, they are only one-tenth of small group attenders, Sunday School participants, and church volunteers. An even smaller proportion of house church attenders (6%) are Catholic. Protestants associated with an evangelical denomination are the largest share of involved believers, including activity in small groups, volunteering, and Sunday school. Interestingly, those associated with a mainline denomination represented an above-average percentage of church volunteers and house church participants.

6. Attenders of larger churches involve themselves in the broadest spectrum of faith activities. Americans who typically attend a church of at least 500 adults were among the most likely to also attend small groups, and house churches, and to volunteer. Those attending a medium-sized congregation (101 to 499 adults) were among the most likely to attend small groups and Sunday school classes. No notable patterns emerged among smaller churches.

7. African-Americans represent a significant share of those involved in participatory faith. True to their community-oriented religious heritage and experience, blacks help to power the group religious expressions of the nation. While blacks are 13% of the nation’s adult population, the segment accounts for one-quarter of America’s small group participants (27%) and three-tenths (30%) of its house church attenders. They also comprise a healthy slice of Sunday school attenders and church volunteers. Whites were comparatively less engaged in small groups and house churches, while Hispanics tend to abstain from small group involvement.

8. Personal Bible reading is most common among small group attenders. In comparing a personal spiritual activity with participatory involvement, the study showed that two-thirds of church attenders (67%) said they had read the Bible outside of church in the last week – whether their church was a conventional or house church. Small group attenders were more likely to read the Bible personally (84%). Bible reading levels among church volunteers (77%) and Sunday school attenders (77%) were sandwiched between the other forms of group engagement.

9. Many religiously active Americans lean toward conservative political views, though there is more diversity than expected – especially among house church attenders. Churchgoers, small group attenders, and church volunteers are likely to be either politically conservative or moderate. House church attenders are unique in that one-quarter of such participants describe themselves as political liberals and nearly half are registered Democrats – uncharacteristically high levels compared with other faith activities, perhaps connected with the above-average proportion of black adults who report house church attendance. Further demonstrating their non-conventional and independent inclinations, one-quarter of house church attenders said they are not registered to vote, twice the national average.

“There certainly is a dominant demographic faith profile of Christians in the nation,” commented David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. “The typical profile of an involved Christian is a married woman in her early fifties.”

“Still, the one-size-fits-all maxim does not adequately describe Americans’ religious participation. Significant diversity exists within the ‘group’ involvement of the American Christian community. And while there are many people who are engaged in various activities, the study shows that specific types of group participation attract particular types of people. This was especially true of the demographics and psychographics of house church attenders, who are younger, less predominantly female, and also more independent in terms of political views and affiliations.”

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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