Large Churches more Orthodox and Faithful than Small Churches …?

A recent report issued by the Barna Group in November of 2011 has turned up some interesting findings related to church size and the nature of an individual’s theological beliefs and actions.  This study, which was based upon interviews of more then 3000 church-going Protestants, has revealed that individuals who attend large churches are more likely to adhere to orthodox Christian beliefs than those that attend churches with 100 or fewer adult attendees.

Please click to enlarge the image.

More interesting still were the findings related to behaviors and church size.  According to the report, “on seven of the eight behavioral measures, attenders of large churches were substantially more likely than those of small churches to be active. (These included behaviors such as attending church in the past week, reading the Bible in the past week, volunteering at their church in the past week, etc.) The average difference related to these seven behaviors was 17 percentage points.”

So what do you think?  Do these findings surprise you, or is this what you already expected to be true?

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* “Born again Christians” were defined as people who said they had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that was still important in their life today and who also indicated they believed that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”  

** “Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

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20 Responses to Large Churches more Orthodox and Faithful than Small Churches …?

  1. Carrot says:

    What are you referring to when you use the term Orthodox Christianity? As an occasional Catholic, I don’t consider Protestant variations Orthodox at all.

    • Well, if you look at the table, it’s categorizing “orthodox” as beliefs that the Protestant church has historically taught as central doctrines. As for overlap with traditional Catholic teaching, I would suggest that there is a fair amount of commonality. I’m guessing the largest point of potential disagreement might be on the “good person earning there way into Heaven” as it gets at the whole faith vs. works thing. But even there, I don’t think Catholics have ever taught that “good works” alone were sufficient. It was “good works” in conjunction with a belief in the work of Christ. Is that fair?

      • Carrot says:

        There are a number of things that earn the place in heaven – the sacraments, liturgy, good works, etc. No one can simply say “I choose you” and be given a free pass upstairs. But Rebecca clarifies what I was actually getting at, in that Orthodoxy is different than orthodoxy.

        But to your actual post! Is the mega-church mentality encouraging the high involvement by offering more chances/opportunity/religion-in-a-social setting or do you think the personalities of intensive devotion in gather together in like mind? It might be a chicken-or-egg question.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Agree with Carrot…you probably ought to lower case that “O” to orthodox….not that we have it trademarked or anything, but Orthodox Christianity is a much different thing than orthodox Christianity.

    • I capitalized it because it was in the title. But I get what you’re saying. Out of curiosity, do the actual finding surprise you?

      • Rebecca says:

        No, because most of the really small churches anymore tend to be “Mainlines” (United Methodists, Episcopal, liberal Presbyterian, Church of Christ, etc) which have long-ago eschewed orthodoxy. And the larger churches have been sheep-stealing from smaller, orthodox congregations (maybe younger members of those congregations of a more fundamentalist bent), so those beliefs and those that hold them are concentrated in the mega-churches. That was the case back in the 80’s too, but the churches were more, well, 80’s–Thomas Road Baptist style.

        • Peter Sipes says:

          Oddly, when I thought of small churches, I immediately thought of the Foursquare Gospel Church in Rockford.

        • I can’t decide whether I’m surprised or not. I totally agree with the Mainline statements, and thus I was leaning towards not surprised. But then, I started thinking about the “attractional” nature of mega-churches and the low-bar for involvement, and started leaning towards being surprised. Kind of weird.

  3. Ryan M. Mahoney says:

    I am willing to bet this may be the result of the types of churches (denomination/affiliation) and their typical size. In other words, the mainline churches are smaller and in decline (and less orthodox) and larger megachurches tend to be evangelical (and more orthodox).

    • Ryan M. Mahoney says:

      Maybe I should have read Rebecca’s comment before typing…I could have just said, “dido.”

  4. Peter Sipes says:

    Odd. I wouldn’t have expected this, but I hadn’t really thought much about it either. I wonder if the correlations are stronger or weaker for non-denominational vs. denominational churches. For example: Is this effect as pronounced within Methodist congregations of varying sizes?

  5. Cal says:

    I wonder what defined a “church”. I congregate in a house to be “The Church”, were these type of groups polled? Is it only folks with a building?

    More questions, but this is where I’m most curious.

  6. Bill says:

    Ack Ack blaaahhh, excuse me. In the history of Christendom, wait that is an exaggeration – Let me start again. Since I have been a Christian (that would be 1981) there has not been a more over-rated writer than George Barna or a group of studies which should have been more readily dismissed than anything published by the Barna Group. Scott the basic premise of your blog may or may not be true, but for my money you would need to cite much more reliable sources. George Barna is best at marketing George Barna, which of course is greatly aided by currying favor with larger churches.

  7. Morning Bill,

    If you noticed, I did put a question mark in the title because I’m not sure that I am buying what they are selling. But it’s not because of Barna. I’m just not sure that we’re comparing apples to apples. As Rebecca astutely remarked above, the mainlines have moved away from preaching the traditional gospel, which in turn will attract those that want to hear a different “gospel.” Moreover, they are diminishing in size. So my guess is, many in the mainlines are small and not longer adhering to the traditional gospel that has been preached over the years.

    Having said that, I do believe that Barna has so very solid research. And I’m somewhat curious as to why you react so strongly against his work? Care to share?

    • Bill says:

      I will share just a couple, because I don’t have time for a lengthy post. The first time I saw George Barna was in the early 90’s at a Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru) national staff conference. I asked him about two current trends in the culture at that time and he said that he was not aware of either of them. One of the movements was the “Men’s Movement” inspired by Robert Bly’s book “Iron John” and Sam Keen’s book “Fire in the Belly”. I was very surprised that he knew nothing about (his words) either cultural trend. I assumed that anyone who was being billed as an expert on how cultural trends effect the church, would be aware of current cultural trends. Since then I have read two or three of his books and I think they are essentially the same book. So he has made a lot of money with his formula books which (in my opinion) have a lot of bad advice. I think going to him for statistical data is like going to Tim LaHaye for eschatology.

    • Cal says:

      Another huge factor is definition of terms. What I find is that someone may affirm one thing but mean something entirely different.

      Take the resurrection of Jesus, most people will say they agree, but push them. Some ‘liberals’ (for lack of a better term) may not really believe it is important if the tomb is really empty, it is metaphor. Or for the ‘conservative’ (lacking a better term again) who may say, yes walk as Jesus did, but that means no cussing, voting Conservative, and showing up to a church-building once a week on sundays.

      With this level of clarity, a survey is useless and insufficient and sadly, we’re living in a world where many important biblical ideas (typical english translation) mean other things than they ought to mean.

      • Bill Radford says:

        I agree and I also think there are some who when they first believe in the gospel would describe themselves as a “born again”, but as they progress in their faith, they might not wish to be categorized in that way because of the cultural baggage which has been (some fairly and some not) attached to that term, even if they believe the underlying doctrines even more than they did at first.

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