Most Americans look so kindly on churches, they might even go sometime

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Americans' impressions of 9 faith groups. Photo courtesy of LifeWay Research

Americans’ impressions of nine faith groups. Photo courtesy of LifeWay Research

(RNS) Many Americans today don’t think they have a place for church in their lives.

“But they believe the church has a place for them, when or if they are interested,” said Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research, which issued a new survey Wednesday (June 3) on perceptions of religious denominations.

The findings show that as many as 45 percent of Americans will look at the church brand on the sign out front — Catholic or Baptist or Methodist or whatever — and drive past, thinking it is “not for me.”

And yet, McConnell said, the survey reveals an openness in most people — if not a very theologically deep one — to stopping by, even if they declare no religious identity, the “nones.”

“Many people view a church like the ice cream parlor down the road. They think, ‘When I’m in the mood, I can go.’ Church leaders can take it as good news: People haven’t ruled them out. But they have to be a little unsettled at how little people are thinking about this,” said McConnell.

The LifeWay survey, “American Perceptions of Denominations,” asked 1,000 U.S. adults last fall to give a favorable or unfavorable rating on nine traditions, or say they don’t know enough to form an opinion.

Every group had more favorable than unfavorable ratings, and the largest groups led the way:

  • Baptist — 61 percent favorable
  • Catholic — 57 percent
  • Nondenominational — 53 percent
  • Methodists — 52 percent
  • Southern Baptists — 49 percent
  • Presbyterian — 46 percent
  • Lutheran — 46 percent
  • Assemblies of God — 45 percent
  • Pentecostal — 38 percent

However, 20 percent or more of respondents said they “don’t know enough” about particular denominations to respond favorably or unfavorably. McConnell was surprised this was true even among larger denominations such as Catholics, the nation’s largest. For smaller groups, “don’t know enough” responses rose as high as 35 percent.

Unfavorable ratings ranged from 19 percent for Baptists to 27 percent for Pentecostals.

“Churches today are at a crossroads,” McConnell said. “They are not declining today, but they are vulnerable.

“The buzzword now is ‘revitalization.’ The best way to change a brand is to change the meaning associated with a brand. You do that by appealing to what people care about. If a church is doing good things and bringing positive changes in people’s lives and communities, that generates a favorable rating and response.”

The landline and cellphone survey of 1,000 U.S. adults was conducted Sept. 26-Oct. 5, 2014. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The findings were released in time for the annual summer meetings of many Christian religious denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, which meets June 16 in Columbus, Ohio.

Americans' assumptions about church names. Photo courtesy of LifeWay Research

Americans’ assumptions about church names. Photo courtesy of LifeWay Research

The SBC might take note: Respondents looked less favorably on the specifically Southern Baptist choice than on “Baptist” in general. There are dozens of Baptist denominations, including the liberal American Baptists and the historically black National Baptists.

LifeWay also asked respondents whether, for each of the nine traditions, they agreed that “When I see a church named the following, I assume it is not for me.”

Here, McConnell found a hopeful sign. According to the report, 40 percent to 48 percent of “nones” don’t see themselves in the pews at these churches but a “majority don’t automatically exclude them.”

Interfaith marriage might explain this. Although LifeWay’s survey didn’t ask about marital status, a Pew Research survey released in May on the changing landscape of U.S. religion found that 33 percent of U.S. adults who are married or living with a partner chose someone from another major religious tradition or no religion.

LM/MG END GROSSMAN

  • mike

    This entire story and the survey it’s based on means absolutely nothing because it was conducted by a Baptist group. It’s all bunk, Ms. Grossman, and you just lost any credibility you may have had as a journalist.

  • Bill

    Unfortunately, Mike,you are not the one who signs Ms. Grossman’s paycheck! HaHa!

  • Larry

    “However, 20 percent or more of respondents said they “don’t know enough” about particular denominations to respond favorably or unfavorably. McConnell was surprised this was true even among larger denominations such as Catholics, the nation’s largest.”

    Not really, when you realize about 30% of the US population isn’t Christian. Therefore it entails a group which would not be particularly cognizant as to the peculiarities and differences between Christian sects except in the most generalized way.

    But as mentioned earlier, Lifeway Research is a PR organ for the Southern Baptist Convention. Its credibility and ability to analyze its own data in an objective fashion cannot be assured.

  • Cathy,

    I am curious why The Episcopal Church was not included in this survey — not merely because it is the denomination to which I belong, but because of its own motto: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” That slogan has been promoted on church signs for quite some time, and I suppose I thought that it would have a positive influence on some people in our culture. Thank you for considering my question, if you even know that answer to it (I realize the survey does not belong to you personally).

  • JR

    In my youth, Church was a core part of most people’s week. Sunday was Church day for everyone but the Jews. Businesses were generally closed, except for bakeries, theaters, etc.
    Today, sadly, Sunday is another Saturday. Sports games, shopping, TV marathons, etc.have replaced any idea of going to church. I actually get squinted faces when I tell someone I have to go to Mass……they don’t even think about it, and now I’m unique!
    Yet, ironically, when someone wants a Baptism, Wedding, or Funeral at their local Church they are appalled that they are questioned as to their status as, say, a practicing Catholic. Some stamp their feet at the notion that certain criteria has to be met to receive certain services. They ate completely ignorant of the Faith they claim adherence to. It’s both funny and sad. Why do you need a Catholic Wedding if you have no plans to come back to church until you die?

  • Fran

    People today are more likely to go to a “church” just twice a year, to celebrate Christmas and Easter services, both pagan religious holidays.

  • dmj76

    Hi
    The Episcopal church is a wondeful institution, maybe too ….for these folks. I no longer attend but remember it with great respect.

  • Fmr Cath

    Fran,
    My mother was a devout Catholic and made us go to church every Sunday and holidays (and all the crazy church mandated “holy” days). At least I got the importance of having God in my life. My father was agnostic and had many various ideas about God although he only went to church on Christmas and Easter. My take on both teachings and points of view of my parents was 1. God is very real and 2. attending church wasn’t really necessary in order to worship God. I recognized the hypocrisy and false teachings and chose to go my own way. I never quit searching the scriptures & talking to God. I had many questions and one night I asked God for the truth. In all the churches I ever attended, who had the truth? He promptly answered my request with a knock on my door… He brought the truth TO ME… I didn’t have to go to “church” after that…

  • Thecla

    Problem is that the ice cream parlors are going to close if they don’t get regular business. Dwindling congregations can’t afford to maintain their church buildings. Churches are closing—standing derelict or gutted to use for secular purposes.

    Freelance ‘spirituality’ isn’t going to keep those building open. Churches have to drum up business to survive and mainline churches in particular aren’t making much of an effort.

    Lots of people it seems aren’t familiar enough to form opinions about even some churches that have the most name recognition. And from what I’ve heard most of the unchurched assume that all churches are conservative evangelical, promoting Biblical literalism and a conservative social agenda.

    How do churches get the word out? And get some of those bums on pews?

  • Jack

    Mike, why the extreme response? She’s only reporting on a survey. If you think the results are in error, see if you can find other surveys on the same subjects and compare them.

  • Jack

    Well, Larry, the Southern Baptists didn’t exactly come out gloriously in the study.

    The big story about the Baptists is the gargantuan racial divide. The Southern Baptists are trying to deal with it by playing pander bear, but that’s no answer, either, because at this point in the history of race relations, both whites and blacks have lots of repenting to do.

    There is no easy answer for them, or for any other American church.

  • Jack

    The problem with the Episcopal Church is that it so totally reflects America’s elite culture at any point in its history (conservative before the 1960s, liberal since that time), it has no prophetic voice. Who wants to go to church to hear a parrot in the pulpit?

  • Larry

    “Lots of people it seems aren’t familiar enough to form opinions about even some churches that have the most name recognition. ”

    About 30% of the nation is not concerned the least with what differences exists between sects of Christianity. A good deal of them people of other faiths with their own sects and beliefs. It is less a function of church PR than acknowledging a level of religious diversity.

    “And from what I’ve heard most of the unchurched assume that all churches are conservative evangelical, promoting Biblical literalism and a conservative social agenda.”

    That is a function of the timidity of liberal/progressive sects. Instead of calling out conservative evangelical fundamentalists, they stay silent. Thus people consider the fundies the only public voice of Christianity. If you don’t want to be associated with that crowd, then speak up once in a blue moon. Stop shifting the burden on secularists and minority faiths to oppose their nonsense.

  • Jack

    The problem with too many American churches is that they’re trying so hard to be culturally relevant, they have nothing original to say. Why would someone waste their Sundays hearing someone parroting everything they’ve heard from Monday through Saturday?

    I would think that the churches that will do best in the future will be those that have something unique and valuable to contribute — let’s say….hmmm……maybe the Gospel instead of the equivalent of a political talking head in the pulpit?

    Now that’s a concept.

  • Fran

    Fmr Cath,

    Thanks for sharing your experience! Both my parents were born and raised Catholic in Europe before moving to the States 60 years ago. They were not “looking for truth” at that time, but it evidently found them through a knock on their door as well, and for that I am very grateful! Yes, good-hearted people today who are looking for “truth” will find it, and it is marvelous that both you and I found the “truth that will set you free” from the hypocrisy and false teachings of many religions today. We thankfully know the truth about God; his son, Jesus; and the wondrous Kingdom or heavenly government that will soon bring grand blessings to all meek mankind on earth! BIG hugs to you!

  • Fran

    Jack,

    Yes, they should be preaching the ‘good news of God’s kingdom’ (Matthew 4:17; 24:14) or heavenly government as the only hope for mankind, as Jesus, the apostles, the disciples, and first-century Christians did, instead of human political stances. Alas, they are not doing so now and is doubtful for the future.

  • JR

    There is no truth in the Jehovah Witness cult, as devoted you may be to its tennets of belief. Men with no religious authority or knowledge created this cult in the late 19th Century. Jesus is not Michael the archangel. You should open your eyes to the Faith your parents abandoned.

  • Augustine Thomas

    It’s so strange to me how secularists think we can’t trust the work of Christians but we can trust the work of secularists. Secularists are MORE biased than Christians.

  • Larry

    @Augustine Thomas

    Because all the evidence and history suggests so. How often do you hear secularists talk about justifying irrational acts, for vague reasons and no evidence? Religious belief DEMANDS such actions.

    Christians are notoriously biased even against fellow Christians. They can’t even behave well with sects of their own faith, let alone others. Your claim that secularists are more biased than Christians when it comes to recall of facts and news is not supported by evidence.

  • Larry

    When you have a church which spent 2/3rds of its existence supporting slavery, white supremacy and legalized prejudice, its very tough to recruit outside of a caucasian demographic. Their continuing support of politicized prejudice does them no favors either. The only bright spot is the most virulent racists of the bunch have their own churches now. Christian Identity.

  • Larry

    So they don’t fall in line with the survey makers’ (Southern Baptist) idea of Christianity. Jack, your criticism is neither appropriate nor relevant. You are applying self-serving criteria and engaging in nothing more than sectarian sniping for its own sake. Its a shame you can’t show respect to fellow Christians.

  • Greg1

    Yes, I’ve invited the Jehovahs in for discussions. And it is surprising how little they really know about Scripture. They have about 25 verses memorized, but don’t know how to defend their faith when challenged. After a few visits, they now avoid my house when frequenting the neighborhood. In reference to the restoration of the “Kingdom” (often mentioned here), I asked them why in Acts 1:8 Jesus did not proclaim that they’d be Jehovah’s (the Father’s) Witnesses, but instead proclaimed that His Apostles would be His witnesses? Of course after a long pause, the hoops came out and it is amazing how high they could jump through them.

  • Thecla

    I tried. When at our local Earth Day event fundamentalists occupied with pictures of aborted fetuses occupied an acre, I bugged the Diocese for 3 years to do something to represent the Episcopal Church. No mainline church was represented. I finally ponyed up $430 for a booth which I contributed to the Cathedral, and the Dean manned it.

    The Episcopal Church has made every effort to publicly affirm its support a range of positions that are anathema to Evangelicals. & lookee: a UCC church has sued the state of NC to allow gay marriage. http://time.com/79734/united-church-of-christ-sues-north-carolina-to-allow-gay-marriage/ Why haven’t people noticed?

    Evangelicals are not our people and their god is not our God. Their religion is more remote from ours than Zoroastrianism. Everybody should do all they can to destroy Evangelicalism. We have no special obligation but doing our…

  • Fran

    JR,

    Jehovah’s Witnesses are not a cult; however, we are the earthly organization of Jehovah, the only true Almighty God (Psalm 83:18), with over 8 million persons worldwide diligently preaching the ‘good news of God’s kingdom’ as the only hope for mankind. Source: jw.org

    My eyes are opened to the religion my parents rightfully abandoned, Catholicism. My parents discovered there isn’t a trinity, a man-doctrine of 3 Gods in one but only one God, Jehovah; his son, Jesus, who is not equal to or greater than Jehovah; and holy spirt, which is God’s active force. They discovered there is not a place of fiery torment forever for wicked ones; only the common grave, where the dead, good or bad, are sleeping, not aware of anything. They discovered that not all good people go to heaven after they die; but only a limited number of persons from earth, 144,000, make up God’s kingdom or government with Christ Jesus. The list of untruths goes on, but I am almost out of space.

  • Greg1

    No such thing as the Trinity? Hmmm. Let’s use the Emphatic Diagolot, the Jehovah’s Witness own Bible Translation: When Thomas put his hands in the side of the Resurrected Jesus, he proclaimed “the Lord of me, and the God of me” (John 20:28). So even their own translation shows the divinity of Christ. But, no Trinity? Man, the Bible is very clear that God in Three Persons (God is a Family), were all equally involved in the Incarnation of Jesus, each is considered responsible for the Incarnate Act (God taking on human flesh): The Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), the Son (Phil 2:6-8), and the Father (Heb 10:5)–all co-participants–all are God. See how John uses God to refer to Jesus as “the only begotten God” (Jn 1:18). Man the list just goes on and on and on. I do like the zeal of the Jehovah’s, but they are sadly wrong in their understanding of Who God Is.

  • Greg1

    BTW: the 144.000 is simply the numbers 12 Tribes (of Israel), and the 12 Apostles (first Bishops of the Church), multiplied (12×12=144). That effectively reveals that the Plan of God includes people of all time. The Old and New Covenants. Also, if the kingdom will last forever on this earth, then I’d hate to be on it (See 2Peter 3:10-11).

  • Jack

    Larry, both sides are biased. Any time research is done by anyone on a hot-button social or cultural issue, anyone who fails to question the results is naïve at best. No matter who did the study, a certain amount of skepticism should be the starting point.

  • Jack

    At this point, a large percentage of black churches are no better when it comes to the racial divide. Too many are in nearly-complete denial on the problems in the black community that occur apart from racism — or at least, they refuse to discuss the matter publicly. Meanwhile, among white churches, the pander bear “we-don’t-know-what-the-heck-those-people-want-so-let’s-just-tell-them-they-want-to-hear” approach predominates.

    It’s frankly pathetic.

    The only answer is for leaders of both the mostly white and the mostly black churches to pay a visit to larger churches in America’s cities that truly are integrated and learn why and how they are succeeding rather than depending they don’t exist.

  • Jack

    No, Larry, free-thinking people don’t march in complete lock step with each other, unlike you goose-steppers on the far-left fringes who’ve never met a religion you didn’t hate. Other than that, I have no idea what you’re talking about and neither do you, but that’s an old story.

  • Fran

    Greg1,

    Let’s see what the Bible says about the trinity:

    1. Our Heavenly Father, Jehovah God, has no start, and he has no end (Psalm 90:2). Jesus, however, had a beginning as the first direct creation of Jehovah, and he also now has no end. Jesus also had a part in the creation of all other things (Colossians 1:15-17. Jesus is referred to there as the “first-born of all creation”. If the Trinity doctrine is true, why are the Father and Holy Spirit NOT mentioned? Revelation 3:14 refers to Jesus as “the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.”

    2. Jehovah God and Jesus Christ are not equal. Jesus identified Jehovah as the only true God in a prayer to Him (John 17:3. He also said that the Father was greater than him (John 14:28). Jesus acknowledged neither he nor angels knew when the end would come, but only his Father knew (Mark 13:32). John 1:18 says no man has seen God at any time, but many did see Jesus, the son of God.

  • Fran

    In addition, at John 1:18, Jesus is described as the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father and has declared the Father.

    The Lord’s Prayer is directed ONLY to our Heavenly Father (Matthew 6:9-13) and does not include Jesus and the holy spirit. This indicates our worship and prayers should only go to Jehovah.

    1 Timothy 2:5 says: “There is ONE GOD, and there is ONE MEDIATOR between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” That is why we should end our prayers in Jesus’ name as he is our mediator or go-between. The Trinity would assume that the Father is also the Messiah and the “lamb of God”, but those roles only apply to God’s son, Jesus, who died for our sins, and God did not die. At the same time, Heavenly Father cannot apply to Jesus, since he is God’s son (Matthew 4:17).

    Paul was inspired to write that “.. the head of the Christ is God.” (1 Corinthians 11:3). Jesus is in subjection to his Father, who is in a higher position (1 Corinth. 15:24-29).

  • Fran

    Furthermore, at John 8:18, Jesus said that he bore witness of himself and the Father that sent him bore witness of him. This indicates Jesus as being an individual separate and distinct from the Father.

    Also, at John 20:17, Jesus said: “…I ascend to my Father, and your Father, and to MY GOD, and your God. Jesus always prayed to his Father. When he prayed for assistance, God provided an angel to Jesus (Luke 22:41-43) to strengthen him.

    The holy spirit is referred to as a “comforter,” and “advocate” that bears witness, speaks and hears (John 14:16,17, 26; 15:26; 16:13). Other texts say people were “filled” with holy spirit, and others “baptized” or “anointed” with it. The latter references do not fit a person. The first texts thus employ a figure of speech personifying God’s holy spirit, his active force. The Bible also personifies wisdom, death, water and blood. Both the Father and son have a personal name, but NOT the Holy Spirit, as it is not a person.

  • Fran

    The New Catholic Encyclopedia admits the following about the holy spirit: “The majority of New Testament texts reveal God’s spirit as something, not someone; this is especially seen in the parallelism between the spirit and the power of God.” (1967, Vol. XIII, p. 575).

    It also says: “The Apologists [Greek Christian writers of the second century] spoke too haltingly of the Spirit; with a measure of anticipation, one might say too impersonally.” (Vol. XIV, p. 296.

    The Encyclopedia Americana cites: “Christianity derived from Judaism and Judaism was strictly Unitarian [believing that God is one person]. … Fourth century Trinitarianism did not reflect accurately early Christian teaching regarding the nature of God; it was, on the contrary, a deviation from this teaching.” (1956), Vol. XXVII, p. 294L.

    The Jews, chosen people of God in the Bible, knew then there was only ONE GOD, and still know that fact. They just don’t use his personal name, Yahweh or Jehovah.

  • Fran

    Greg1,

    Here is my answer to your first comment about the restoration of the Kingdom, as well as the 144,000 I had mentioned.

    First of all, Jesus instructed his disciples and apostles to be witnesses of him in many locations and to the most distant part of the earth (Acts 1:8). This was accomplished after they received God’s holy spirit or active force on Penecost 33 C.E. They proved to be very fruitful in that regard (Acts 4:4).

    Jehovah’s Witnesses have, in the past, as well as presently, preach and witness about Jesus, who is the King of God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 7:13:14; Isaiah 11:1-9) that was established in the heavens in 1914.

    However, the name of Jehovah’s Witnesses was adopted by them (Isaiah 43:10) because they worship Jehovah as the only true God. At the same time, they try to be footstep followers of Jesus, the son of God, as he instructed his disciples to be (Luke 5:27; 9:59; 18:22).

  • Fran

    Regarding restoration of Israel today, Galatians 6:15,16 says:

    “Neither is circumcision anything nor is uncircumcision; but a NEW CREATION is something. And all those who walk orderly by this rule on conduct, upon them be peace and mercy, even upon the Israel of God.”

    So the Israel of God is no longer determined on the basis of conforming to the requirement laid upon Abraham for all males of the household to be circumcised. Rather, as stated as Galatians 3:26-29, those who belong to Christ who are spirit-begotten sons of God “are really Abraham’s seed”.

    Jeremiah 31:31-34 says: “Look! There are days coming, is the utterance of Jehovah, and I will conclude with the house of Judah a NEW COVENANT…And they will no more teach each one his companion and each one his brother, saying “Know Jehovah!,” for they will all of them know me, from the least of them, even to the greatest one of them…”

    That new covenant was made, not with the nation of natural Israel.

  • Fran

    Instead, that new covenant was made with the loyal followers of Jesus Christ to whom hope of heavenly life was being extended. When instituting the Memorial of his death (on Nisan 14 of the Jewish calendar), Jesus gave them a cup of wine and said: “The cup means the NEW COVENANT by virtue of my blood.” (1 Corinthians 11:25).

    Revelation 7:4 says: “I heard the number of those sealed, a hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the sons of Israel.”

    But in the following verses, mention is made of “the tribe of Levi” and “the tribe of Joseph.” These were NOT included in the lists of the 12 tribes of natural Israel! In addition,while it is said that people would be sealed out of every tribe, the tribes of Dan and Ephraim are not mentioned. [Compare Numbers 1:4-16]. Reference here must be made to the SPIRITUAL ISRAEL of God, to those whom Revelation 14:1-3 shows will share in his heavenly Kingdom.

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