Churched/Unchurched: Study Unveils Nuances

Sam Rainer

July 22, 2008

What does it mean to be churched? What does it mean to be unchurched? Ellison Research released a study that attempts to shore up the semantic confusion.

They report that those who are churched may not attend as regularly as assumed. And those who are unchurched may not be as far from the church as perceived.

This blurb from the study:

Rather than defining “churched” and “unchurched” as a yes/no equation, if American adults are placed on a more realistic continuum based on their normal behavior, attendance at religious services actually looks like this:

Attend more than once a week:  11%
Attend once a week:  22%
Attend two to three times a month:  14%
Attend once a month:  5%
Attend occasionally, but not on a regular basis:  9%
Attend only on religious holidays:  10%
Do not attend at all:  29%

According to Ellison, labels don’t tell the whole story – 37% of those typified as “churched” don’t go to a worship service every week, and 40% of the “unchurched” actually step foot in a church every now and then.

Fair enough. The problem that I see with the study, however, is the broad scope of the survey. It included over 1,000 Americans, which is certainly a large sample. But it appears to have included people of many faiths. When evangelicals are sliced out of the mix, a different picture appears:

Attend more than once a week:  37%
Attend once a week:  38%
Attend two to three times a month:  14%
Attend once a month:  1%
Attend occasionally, but not on a regular basis:  4%
Attend only on religious holidays:  2%
Do not attend at all:  4%

Now my question: Only 1% of evangelicals are “once-a-month” attenders? I’ll assume their results are correct, but that number surprises me.

Overall, I’m glad to see someone placing a quantitative measure on “unchurched” and “churched.” Too often, these labels are used loosely and without much definition. And what I take from this study is that the “unchurched” may be frequenting churches more often than recognized. What’s your thought?

5 comments on “Churched/Unchurched: Study Unveils Nuances”

  1. Chris Bonts says:

    I agree that many we refer to as “unchurched” are actually partially churched, or even “de-churched.” My greater concern is that many who are “churched” (active attenders) in America today may not have a spiritual maturity level that sets them apart from the “unchurched” (not counting those who may be lost). I am reminded that for effective discipleship to take place, we as pastors must work to help the casual attenders build relationships within our church. We must then focus on using these relationships to build disciples by teaching God’s Word. If there is no consistent exposure to God’s Word, we cannot expect consistent spiritual growth.

    On another note, think of the leadership challenges presented when trying to guide a church where a significant number of members may only hear one third of your sermons! Repetition and patience are a must in our culture.

    Glad you made it back from Dallas. My church and I continue to pray for you.


  2. Sam Rainer says:

    Good points, Chris. And thanks for your prayers. We’re praying for you as well during this time of transition.

  3. Jim Jackson says:

    Sam, very interesting article. I definitely have to agree with Chris’ insights. As a college age and small group leader I have seen my share of church “attenders” and those I would classify as disciples.

    While I’m thankful for the regular attendance, it does concern me how many you can count on when trouble comes, and Jesus said that in this world we all are going to experience trouble.

    One closing thought. Did this study take into account those attenders who “church-hop”? I’m not thinking of the classic church-hopper, I’m thinking of someone who splits their time between two or three churches/para-church meetings. I’m seeing a tremendous amount of that. That would make a good study.

    I’m looking forward to your new book.


  4. Sam Rainer says:

    Jim – it does not appear that the study took into consideration those who attend multiple churches on a regular basis. And I agree with you that it would make for a great study.

  5. Page Schulman says:

    Great suggestions . BTW , if anyone needs a a form , my husband filled out and faxed a fillable form here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *