Five Different Kinds of Christian?

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Understanding the disparity of those who call themselves Christian in America.
A new national survey co-sponsored by Leadership. Reported by Helen Lee.

Survey Shows 5 Kinds of Christians in U.S.

Jennifer Hua identifies herself as a Christian. A 35-year-old former attorney studying Christian counseling at the Wheaton College Graduate School (Illinois), she has gone to church all her life and is a lay leader in her suburban Chicago congregation. She furthers her spiritual development by daily Bible reading, prayer, listening to and singing worship songs, and interacting with other Christians. And every few months, she carves out time for a silent retreat. "I do all of these things because I know from past experience I need to recalibrate my mind and my heart to be in tune with God," she says.

James Smith also identifies himself as a Christian. He attended church as a child, but his attendance was minimal as a young adult. He believes in God, occasionally attends Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan when his time-consuming job in the finance district allows, but he does not often participate in other activities to further his spiritual life. He has a Bible but rarely opens it; what leisure time he has he spends with friends, most of whom are of different faiths, and he does not necessarily believe that his God is any different from the one his Muslim friend worships.

"I don't think that God would be a God who would shut others out of heaven because they don't use the word 'Christian' to describe themselves," he says.

The United States is described in mainstream media as largely Christian (between 70 and 80 percent, depending on the study, identify themselves as "Christian"), and compared to the rest of the world, this is certainly the case. However, not all within this vast group of Christians are alike.

To understand the range and differences among American Christians, Christianity Today International (publisher of Leadership) recently partnered with Zondervan Publishers to commission Knowledge Networks to conduct attitudinal and behavioral research of U.S. Christians. In September 2006, more than 1,000 self-identified Christians 18 years of age and older were surveyed on their religious beliefs and practices. The results reveal a number of significant differences, illustrated by the examples of Hua and Smith. In fact, portraits of five distinct segments emerged from the study. We have named them Active, Professing, Liturgical, Private, and Cultural Christians.

Each group represents about one-fifth of those identifying themselves as Christian, with Active Christians (such as Hua) most likely to have a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that affects their beliefs and inspires an active church life; Cultural Christians (such as Smith) are least likely to align their beliefs or practices with biblical teachings, or attend church. Between the two is a range of beliefs, commitment levels, and public practice of the faith.

Leadership discussed the survey results with leading pastors and religious experts to ascertain the ramifications for church leaders. Three critical issues emerged:

  • The local church is no longer considered the only outlet for spiritual growth.
  • Churches must develop relational- and community-oriented outreach.
  • Lay people have to be better equipped to be God's ambassadors.

Faith Yes, Church Maybe

The survey shows that for nearly half of Christians, involvement in a local church body is a minimal part of their daily lives (see chart 1).

"Faith is relevant for many people, but church is not," says Bryan Wilkerson, senior pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts. "People want to attend to the spiritual side of their lives, they are interested in God, but their experience of church has not been relevant. They say, 'Why do I have to sit through boring sermons and old music that don't speak to my real needs and problems?'"

"A growing element of the Christian population is disappointed with or frustrated by the local church," says D. Michael Lindsay, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University and former consultant with the Gallup Institute. In part, this trend can be attributed to factors within local church bodies themselves, such as lack of strong leadership or teaching.

Given that 60 percent of all Christians worship in churches with fewer than 300 people (see chart 2), most Christians are in congregations that continually struggle with resource issues. Previous generations were accustomed to that, and today's worshipers have higher expectations.

"These days, people can get good teaching, wonderful music, and excellent writing, whether through iPods, TV, or online," says Wilkerson. "They learn to shop around and pick and choose. Then they expect the same high quality in their local church. A generation ago, the average person learned to accept his home pastor and was faithful to his local church. But now, people's appetites for excellence have been heightened."

As pastor of a large church himself, Wilkerson acknowledges "we probably end up perpetuating that kind of appetite by trying to be as high-quality as what we find out there. The temptation of larger churches is to compete and to be as good as the others are."

Even for those Private and Cultural Christians who do not typically consume Christian media, access to it can still play a significant role in their spiritual development in ways that may not be reflected in the survey.

"Private and Cultural Christians might not use traditional Christian media, but I would bet they disproportionately watch [Lakewood Church pastor] Joel Osteen on cable," says Lindsay. Cultural Christians are the group that spends the most time watching TV and using the Internet.

Spiritual growth, then, may be occurring for many of today's Christians in non-traditional ways. Instead of attending church on Sunday mornings, many opt for personal, individual ways to stretch themselves spiritually.

"Emerging generations may not see themselves as churched, but neither do they see themselves as any less committed," says Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Florida. "The traditional programming that churches do is becoming less essential to work out faith for many people."

Personal or Media Relationships?

The danger, however, is that the multimedia availability of religious content helps people become spiritual do-it-yourselfers. As a result, they lack an important aspect of faith development: interaction with other Christians in community. This privatizing of Christian faith fits with the American spirit of individualism, but it may not produce Christians with enduring and long-term spiritual vitality.

"It's fine to use religious media as an addition if you are part of a local Christian community," says Lindsay. "It becomes problematic if you have no binding commitment to a local community and you become a Lone Ranger Christian. Before long your faith becomes something you put on and off like a jacket."

Instead of trying to win underchurched people back to a traditional church context, leaders say the approach to bringing Private, Cultural, and non-Christians into the church is relational and outward-looking rather than programmatic and inward-focused. Lindsay notes many Christians who are not involved in traditional churches are "much, much more interested in personal connection. The ways in which they nourish their faith are through home churches or one-on-one Bible study or non-church related small groups."

In fact, house churches have recently become a noteworthy trend in the United States. Time magazine in March 2007 quoted pollster George Barna as saying that house churches were evidence of a "seminal transition that may be akin to a third spiritual awakening in the U.S." and that in two decades, "only about one-third of the population" will attend traditional churches.

"The old paradigm of evangelism was a transactional sharing of the gospel," says Ken Fong, senior pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles. "I would try to get people to intellectually agree with me. But the new paradigm is different, an approach in which I invite you to walk alongside me, examine my life, and see evidence of the truth, and hopefully there will be something compelling that you see. It's a no-strings-attached invitation to enter my life as I follow Jesus."

Another necessary shift is recognizing that the old metrics of success may no longer apply. Wilkerson says, "We need to spend the next ten years investing in the life of our surrounding community and finding ways to regain a hearing for the gospel. Instead of going to the nursing home and holding a church service, we're just going to go and love and serve people for years and years, until the staff and residents ask, 'Why do they care so much?' This won't result in 150 decisions for Christ in a year. You might not see results for five or ten years."

Churches that do engage their local communities may discover that what they gain surpasses what they give. At Evergreen Baptist Church-LA, the demographics of the city of Rosemead, where the church is located