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Meet Those Who ‘Love Jesus but Not the Church’

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We live in an increasingly secular American culture. In this new age, religion is in retreat from the public square, and traditional institutions like the church are no longer functioning with the cultural authority they once held in generations past. Today, nearly half of America is unchurched. But even though more and more Americans are abandoning the institutional church and its defined boundary markers of religious identity, many still believe in God and practice faith outside its walls.

This is the first of a two-part exploration of faith and spirituality outside the church. Let’s start with a look at the fascinating segment of the American population who, as the saying goes, “love Jesus but not the church.” (Return next week when Barna will break down the identity of the “spiritual, but not religious.”)

Traditionally Christian—with Exceptions
To get at a sense of enduring faithfulness among Christians despite a rejection of the institutional church, Barna created a metric to capture those who most neatly fit this description. It includes those who self-identify as Christian and who strongly agree that their religious faith is very important in their life, but are “dechurched”—that is, they have attended church in the past, but haven’t done so in the last six months (or more). These individuals have a sincere faith (89% have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important to their life today), but are notably absent from church.

According to aggregate Barna tracking data, this group makes up one-tenth of the population, and it’s growing (up from 7% in 2004). The majority are women(61%), and four-fifths (80%) are between the ages of 33 and 70. That is, they are mostly Gen-Xers (36%) and Boomers (44%), not Millennials (14%) or Elders (6%). Though Millennials are the least churched generation, they are also the least likely to either identify as Christian or say faith is very important to their life, explaining their underrepresentation among this group. Elders are underrepresented for the opposite reason—they are the generation most likely to attend church regularly.


This group also appears to be mostly white (63%) and concentrated in the South (33%), Midwest (30%) and West (25%), with very few hailing from the Northeast (13%)—a region typically home to the most post-Christian cities in America. The fact that they are just as likely to identify as Democrat (30%) than Republican (25%) is interesting, particularly for Christians and those in the South and Midwest, who typically are disproportionately Republican. It’s possible that left-leaning people of faith are encountering some level of political discord with their church, which may have prompted an exit.


Orthodox Belief Despite Church Absence
Despite leaving the church, this group has maintained a robustly orthodox view of God. In every case, their beliefs about God are more orthodox than the general population, even rivaling their church-going counterparts. For instance, they strongly believe there is only one God (93% compared to U.S. adults: 59% and practicing Christians: 90%); affirm that “God is the all-powerful, all- knowing, perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today” (94% compared to U.S. adults: 57% and practicing Christians: 85%); and strongly agree that God is everywhere (95% compared to U.S. adults: 65% and practicing Christians: 92%).

Positive, if Amorphous, Views of Religion
Despite their apparent discomfort with the church, this group still maintains a very positive view of religion. When asked whether they believe religion is mostly harmful, their response once again stood out from the general population, and aligned with their church-going counterparts (71% strongly disagree, compared to 71% among practicing Christians and 48% among U.S adults).

But the story changes slightly when it comes to the distinctiveness of Christianity: Just over half (55%) disagree (strongly and somewhat) that all religions basically teach the same thing, much closer to the general population (51%) than practicing Christians (68%), and even further from evangelicals (86%). In the absence of a rigid religious identity provided by the authority of the church, this group appears to be more affirming of the claims of other religions and open to finding and identifying common ground.

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