The Gap Between Pastor Perceptions and Church Member Reality

George Barna

From: The Barna Group (, January 10, 2006. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Based on interviews with a representative national sample of 627 Protestant pastors, the Barna study discovered that pastors believe a large majority of their congregants deem their faith in God to be the highest priority in their life. On average, pastors contend that 70% of the adults in their church consider their personal faith in God to transcend all other priorities. Amazingly, as many as one out of every six pastors (16%) contends that 90% or more of the adults in their church hold their relationship with God as their top life priority!

In contrast to the upbeat pastoral view of people’s faith, a nationally representative sample of 1002 adults was asked the same question – i.e., to identify their top priority in life – and a very different perspective emerged. Only one out of every seven adults (15%) placed their faith in God at the top of their priority list. To make an apples-to-apples comparison, the survey isolated those who attend Protestant churches and found that even among that segment of adults, not quite one out of every four (23%) named their faith in God as their top priority in life.

Some population niches were more likely than others to make God their number one focus. Among those were evangelicals (51% of whom said their faith in God was their highest priority), African-Americans (38%) and adults who attend a house church (34%). The people groups least likely to put God first were adults under 30 years of age, residents of the Northeast and West, and those who describe themselves as “mostly liberal” on political and social matters.

Regardless of how the population was evaluated, though, there was no segment of the adult population that came close to the level of commitment that Protestant pastors claimed for churchgoers.


Misunderstanding Based on Poor Assessment

In trying to understand how pastors could have such a positive notion of the faith commitment of their people at the same time that the people themselves deny making God their top priority, the survey of Protestant pastors sheds light on the issue. A question asking pastors to identify the specific standards they use to evaluate the spiritual commitment of congregants showed that few pastors rely upon criteria that reflect genuine devotion to God.

Overall, only one measure – how many people are involved in some form of church-related volunteer activity or ministry effort – was listed by at least half of all pastors (54%) as a measure of the spiritual health of their congregation. Only two other criteria – church attendance and some type of life change experience (usually meaning that a person has made a first-time commitment to Jesus Christ as their savior) were named as important criteria by more than one out of every seven pastors. (Each of these criteria was listed by 45% of all pastors.) Other top-rated standards were whether congregants were involved in evangelism (13%), how much new information or knowledge about Christianity the people received (10%), how much money was donated to the church (10%), and the comments made by congregants to the pastor (10%).

The unifying thread running through pastors’ responses to an open-ended survey question regarding how congregational health is assessed was that the most common measures do not assess much beyond the superficial participation of people in church or faith-related activity. On average, a pastor might seek information as to attendance relative to previous years; how many people, if any, had accepted Christ as their savior; and whether there were enough people involved in the church’s ministry to keep existing programs going. In other words, the typical pastor measures the spiritual health of congregants by considering one or two numbers (e.g. church and Sunday school attendance) and a handful of vague impressions (what did exit comments suggest about people’s reaction to the sermon, how widespread was people’s participation in the singing, were there enough people who were sufficiently trained to enable the services and programs to operate smoothly).

Perhaps the most telling information relates to the measures that are not widely used by pastors to assess people’s spiritual health. Less than one out of every ten pastors mentioned indicators such as the maturity of a person’s faith in God, the intensity of the commitment to loving and serving God and people, the nature of each congregant’s personal ministry, the breadth of congregational involvement in community service, the extent to which believers have some forms of accountability for their spiritual development and lifestyle, the manner in which believers use their resources to advance the kingdom of God, how often people worship God during the week or feel as if they have experienced the presence of God, or how faith is integrated into the family experience of those who are connected with the church.


Activity That Does Not Concern Churches

In fact, the survey found some disturbing results concerning the priorities of pastors in how they measure spiritual health.

  • Stewardship is rarely deemed a meaningful measure of church vitality. Church budgets are typically set based on the assumption that the average congregant will give 2% to 3% of their income to the ministry. Consequently, the fact that only 6% of born again adults tithe is not seen as an indicator of lukewarm commitment.
  • Evangelism is not a priority in most churches, so the fact that most churched adults do not verbally share the gospel in a given year is not deemed problematic. Only one out of every eight churches bothers to evaluate how many of their congregants are sharing their faith in Christ with non-believers.
  • When pastors described their notion of significant, faith-driven life change, the vast majority (more than four out five) focused on salvation but ignored issues related to lifestyle or spiritual maturity. The fact that the lifestyle of most churched adults is essentially indistinguishable from that of unchurched people is not a concern for most churches; whether or not people have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior is the sole or primary indicator of “life transformation,” regardless of whether their life after such a decision produces spiritual fruit.
  • Churches are prone to looking for indicators of serving people within the church more often than seeking signs that needy people outside the church are being cared for. In fact, for every two churches that consider the congregation’s breadth of ministry to people not connected to the church to be an indicator of spiritual health, there are five churches that focus on the amount of “in-reach” activity undertaken.
  • Pastors are nine times more likely to seek reactions to their sermon than they are to assess the congregation’s reactions to visitors.
  • Perhaps most alarming of all, pastors were 21 times more likely to evaluate whether people showed up (i.e., attendance) than to determine whether people experienced the presence of God during their time at the church.

Excerpted from “Surveys Show Pastors Claim Congregants Are Deeply Committed to God But Congregants Deny It!” by The Barna Group (, January 10, 2006. Used by permission. All rights reserved.