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Review: Barna’s latest surveys those who leave church

When people we know walk away from the church we love, we sometimes take it personally. 

We may ask: “How can we re-connect? What do they need that we don’t have? Is there a way to draw them back?”
California-based Christian research firm Barna Group has sought in recent years to understand why people leave the church. The latest book based on its research is “Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them ” by the firm’s founder, George Barna, and author David Kinnaman. “Churchless” picks up where Kinnaman’s “You Lost Me” and “unChristian” left off. 
In line with one key purpose of the book — to understand the churchless — 11 of the 14 chapters describe the demographics of the unchurched: their feelings about religion, their behaviors, their lifestyles, and their spiritual lives.
In Print | Holly C. Allen
One of Barna and Kinnaman’s critical findings is that the churchless primarily are made up of the “de-churched;” that is, the majority of unchurched adults in America have had firsthand experience with one or more Christian churches at some time in their past and have decided at least for now to walk away.  
Another central — and surprising — theme that emerges from Barna and Kinnaman’s analysis is that churchless adults are similar to those who are churched. 
Half of the unchurched say that they are “actively seeking something better spiritually than they have experienced”; “four out of five want their life to make a difference in the world” and want to “contribute to the good of their community”; and “62 percent consider themselves to be Christian.”  
The authors summarize these findings: “unchurched adults are very much like churched adults … except they don’t attend church.” 
This analysis leads the authors to the book’s main purpose: how the church can connect with the unchurched. First, they emphasize the importance of relationships between the churched and the churchless. 
Beyond this well-known (but less well-practiced) relational insight, the profound and deeply moving last chapter of the book makes a compelling case for the value of church life. 
Among several beautifully articulated understandings about church life, Barna and Kinnaman summarize: “most Americans have plenty of opportunities to gather with people they don’t know for conversation, music, education and personal enrichment. But a local body of believers is the only place they meet God together with his people.”
We in Churches of Christ should desire to draw churchless people to Christ. Listening to them and loving them is one key way to draw them near and show them Christ; creating opportunities to encounter God when we gather together is the one unique thing we offer that they desire.
I have two brief critiques of the book. The charts and graphs depicting data supporting key findings might be beyond many readers’ interest. 
On the other end of the spectrum, sociologists might wish for a more rigorous explanation of the methodologies involved in the data-gathering processes, beyond the three pages shared in Appendix 1. 
But for all of us who are devoted to God and a life of faith in community, “Churchless” offers a much-needed help in understanding those who are unchurched. 
Barna and Kinnaman, in a spirit of humility and grace, provide us with strong tools to help us embrace those who have un-chosen the abundant life in Christ.

HOLLY CATTERTON ALLEN is professor of family studies and Christian ministries at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. Her most recent book is “Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship ” (InterVarsity Press, 2012). 

Filed under: Features Reviews

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