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God? Meaning of life? Many Americans don’t seek them in church

Shavon Gardner, 17, prays as she sings with the Redeemed Christian Church of God youth choir at Redemption Camp in Floyd, Texas, on June 17, 2009. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-UNCHURCHED-SURVEY, originally transmitted on June 28, 2016.

(RNS)  The “seekers” have left the church — if they ever came.

LifeWay Research has taken a close look at what might draw them in, zeroing in on people who say they have not attended a religious service in the past six months except for special events or holidays.

Worship? Not particularly interested, 2 in 3 people told the evangelical research firm in a survey released Tuesday (June 28).

Talk about God? Not so much, said 3 in 4 of the 2,000 “unchurched” people in the survey –including 57 percent who identified as Christians.

“Are a lot of Americans on a conscious journey to learn who Jesus Christ is? I don’t think so,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay, which is based in Nashville, Tenn.

The survey was conducted May 23-June 1. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.


READ: Southern Baptists are going to need a bigger tent


The findings suggest most folks could be lured to church through events where faith is not explicit: community causes, entertainment and sports.

Recently LifeWay Research asked 2,000 unchurched Americans how likely they were to attend activities and events at a local Christian church. Photo courtesy of LifeWay Research

Recently LifeWay Research asked 2,000 unchurched Americans how likely they were to attend activities and events at a local Christian church. Photo courtesy of LifeWay Research

Even that old “seeker” standby — the search for meaning — doesn’t cut it for many who a decade ago might have read Rick Warren’s mega-selling handbook, “The Purpose Driven Life.”

Although 57 percent of those surveyed said finding “their deeper purpose” is “a major priority,” 31 percent disagreed at least somewhat and 12 percent were unsure.

That finding can be read two ways. Either folks are feeling secure in their salvation, even without church, or “most unchurched people don’t particularly care,” said McConnell in an interview.

Fully 70 percent of people who do not attend religious services agreed that “there is an ultimate purpose and plan for every person’s life.”

But whose plan is the unanswered question.

LifeWay deliberately didn’t mention God in asking about “plan” and “purpose,” McConnell explained, because it wanted to assess whether people had “a framework of wanting to make better, or the best, choices for life.”

If they already view life in terms of plans and goals, it’s easier to talk about the Christian faith. Evangelizing is like marketing a product — you need a value that matters to the customer, McConnell said.

The survey suggested that while evangelical churchgoers say heaven is the main benefit of their Christian faith, “that value proposition is not a product the unchurched are looking to buy,” McConnell said.

The survey found that 43 percent said they never wonder if they’ll go to heaven when they die and 20 percent can’t recall the last time they thought about it.

According to a new online survey of 2,000 unchurched Americans, LifeWay Research found few wonder, at least on a regular basis, if they’ll go to heaven when they die. Photo courtesy of LifeWay Research

According to a new online survey of 2,000 unchurched Americans, LifeWay Research found few wonder, at least on a regular basis, if they’ll go to heaven when they die. Photo courtesy of LifeWay Research

The results were not entirely bleak, however: Nearly 62 percent would come for a meeting at church on neighborhood safety.

Offering a venue to “express compassion” can be a top draw for churches, Rick Richardson, professor of evangelism and leadership at Wheaton College, said in a press release. He is a research fellow for the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, which sponsored the survey.

Other ways people could be inspired to visit were for events such as concerts (51 percent), sports or exercise programs (46 percent) or a neighborhood get-together (45 percent.)

Most (51 percent) said a personal invitation from a friend or family member could draw them to church. And many are willing to at least listen to the benefits of being a Christian. Only 11 percent said they’d change the subject if religion came up in conversation.

But only about 1 in 5 would accept if that invitation came from a church member knocking at their door, a TV commercial, postcard or Facebook ad.

McConnell said bringing people into church is “a different kind of conversation. It’s like cajoling them to take a blind date with someone you want to spend your life and your eternity with. We need to say take it one day at a time: ‘Let’s introduce you to Jesus and see what you think.’”

About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues

46 Comments

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  • This seems… weird and maybe a bit dishonest to me. Like it’s more about tricking people to go to your church than it is sharing your ideas with them. If the ideas are sound, shouldn’t they be able to stand on their own without “marketing”?? Shouldn’t theology be more important than salesmanship?? Ah well, that must be why God forbade Evangelism in my Faith.

  • Religion’s reliance on fictions like original sin and guilt, I contend, would hasten my Huntingtons Disease.

  • If Christianity is a fiction then you believe:
    1. Order came from disorder
    2. Uniformity came from the accidental
    3. Intelligence came from non-intelligence
    4. Design came from chaos
    5. Personality came from non-personality
    6. Love came from hard matter
    7. Something came from nothing
    8. Life has no ultimate purpose
    9. Your life meaningless
    10. Man is just a meat machine.

  • The Art of Getting up in the Morning

    I need to get up in the morning.
    I need the transition of dark to light.
    I need the blue light from the sun.
    The light distorted as it travels through the
    horizon.
    If I don’t after two weeks my body will want
    to sleep all day and stay up all night.
    That is our nature.

    I need to get up in the morning.
    God is not going to get me up.
    A nagging spouse is not going to get me up
    Fear of consequences is not going to get me
    up.
    It will keep me in bed.
    I have to get my DNA to want to get up and
    face the day. That means I have to convince my own
    DNA, that as a collaborative monkey, I am
    contributing.
    I must prove to it I have meaning and
    purpose. It has to be real. That is our nature.

    I need to get up in the morning, to eat well,
    to go for a 2 hour walk for the BDNF so I can
    produce new brain neurons. That is our nature.

    I need to get up in the morning to ask of
    others and learn, discuss, ask questions,
    be terribly wrong, listen, think, project,
    assume, verify, articulate and write.
    All that leads to production of new brain
    neurons. That is our nature.

    I need to get up in the morning knowing
    that over the last week someone said
    something with that incredible tone of voice
    that means I have made other’s lives better.
    That means it is very likely to happen again
    in the next week. That is our nature.

    I need to get up in the morning to go to bed
    at night at 10 p.m. for a full night sleep with
    the short and long term memory shuffling
    that comes with dreams and restorative cel
    work that comes during sleep. That is our nature.

    I get up in the morning because I know
    each day will be exceptionally wonderful
    and that takes my mind way beyond my
    physical limitations, including that broken
    part of my brain.
    As the poem I once read to my kids revealed
    to me; “Good morning, good morning,
    its time to face the day, first we’ll have
    breakfast and then we will play.”

    Don McLeod
    If you find this useful please help a family with Huntingtons Disease for me.

  • There is no reason to get up in the morning since according to atheism life is meaningless. Its a fiction to think life has meaning.

  • You obviously believe, “7. Something came from nothing.” And that “something” is your god.

    Humans are obviously simple organisms compared to a god who must be infinitely more intelligent, skilled, and powerful to have created the universe. An old question that people seem to spend little time contemplating is: Where did God come from? A common answer is: God is eternal, and thus has always existed. And then they change the subject. All the answers I’ve heard seem to be designed to avoid any serious consideration of the question.

    You can assert that God just suddenly appeared, but there is not a single shred of evidence for that (and Bible verses don’t count). So, if God didn’t just suddenly appear, he must have developed by some form of evolution.

    If you are unable to believe that life on earth could have developed via evolution, how can you possibly believe that an infinitely more intelligent, skilled, and powerful God suddenly appeared from nowhere or through a form of evolution?

  • If God is not eternal then who created God? How are you going to avoid the infinite regression problem?

    God did not just suddenly appear but has always been. He is the one who created the universe. We know this because nothing cannot create something, the universe had a beginning, has design and is fine tuned. All of these characteristics require a super intelligence with infinite power.

    Evolution cannot account for the origin of life. No evolutionary theory can explain it but fails every time it is attempted.

  • “according to atheism life is meaningless” is “a fiction”, JP. When it comes to other people’s lives and beliefs, it’s better to ask than to state.

    As an atheist, I believe we’re all we’ve got, and that alone makes us valuable. Spiritual/existential beliefs are not the determining factor when it comes to how individuals value humanity. From my observations, I’d say that, religious or not, most people in our society care about others, but some don’t; most people respect others’ beliefs, but some don’t; and many people (I can’t say most) consider others their equals, but some don’t.

    Spiritual/existential beliefs aren’t the determining factor when it comes to whether or how individuals find meaning and purpose, either. For example, I place great value on making positive contributions to society.

    As an atheist, I believe that we, as living persons, will cease to exist; but I certainly don’t believe life is pointless. We each leave behind what we have done in our lives and with our lives, for better and/or for worse, alone and/or with others. Deciding what we want to leave behind, and working daily toward that goal, can be exceedingly life-affirming.

  • I’m not the only one saying that life is meaningless if atheism is true. Consider:
    “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
    ― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life

    “There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.” Cornell University atheist William Provine

  • “If Christianity is a fiction then you believe…” How would you know what anyone else believes? Your statements (presumptions) do nothing but keep you from learning about others. You are doing yourself a great disservice by not simply asking others what they believe, and why, and how those beliefs affect their lives, etc.; and then simply, quietly, and respectfully listening.

  • You know what? Non-Christians (including those of other faiths as well as atheists) are people, too, with individual minds, thoughts, and ideas about life and meaning. Just because you found a couple of self-proclaimed “authorities” to support your prefabricated one-size-fits-all beliefs about strangers, that hardly makes you an authority on all strangers, does it?

    Richard Dawkins and I have as much in common as you seem to believe you and I have. He’s a devout antitheist; I’m not. The world view he presents is utterly pessimistic; mine is not. His public demeanor is angry and hostile; mine is respectful and, though assertive, also hopeful. His statements about other people’s beliefs are as presumptuous as yours; when it comes to other people’s beliefs, I ask those people rather than declaring what they believe. Particularly in that regard, he has more in common with you than with me.

    William Provine (of whom I’ve ever heard) says, “There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind.” I say, “I personally believe there are no gods, it’s up to us to find our own purposes, and we generate our own goal-directed forces.” I agree with what he says about “When I die”. And, regarding his downer-downer-downer view of ethics, meaning, and free will, I believe that we shape our own ethics with the essential help of others, our meaning comes from what we do in life and leave behind for others, and of course we have free will:

    You choose what you believe, value, say, do, aspire to, hope for, and seek; you choose your guiding values and how you’re going to uphold them; you choose your personal goals and how you’re going to achieve them; you choose whether you’re going to respect other people’s personal boundaries and private lives; you choose whether you’re going to impose your beliefs upon others or hold only yourself to your own beliefs; you choose whether you’re going to ask others about themselves or simply make up stuff about them; etc.

    So do I; so does Mr. Dawkins; so does Mr. Provine; etc.

    It’s demonstrably misleading, insulting, and a waste of time to make up stories about others. And I believe it’s patently immoral to mistreat them accordingly.

    How about you?

  • These are not made up stories by Dawkins and Provine but they are taking their beliefs and the implications to their logical conclusions. If atheism were true this certainly the implications. In such a world life is meaningless. It doesn’t matter how you live because you are never held accountable. Once you die, you cease to exist.

    Any hope you have is but dust in wind. Its all meaningless without God who holds you accountable. You might as well eat and drink for some day you will cease to exist and soon be forgotten. This is the world and life without God.

  • For the third and last time, they do not speak for all of us.

    Nor do you.

    I’m hopeful you will eventually realize that, and will not hold their disrespect of your beliefs against the rest of us.

    “It[‘]s all meaningless without God who holds you accountable.”
    I don’t go to your church. Notice who’s disrespecting whose beliefs. Bummer.

  • Interesting how many false premises, misrepresentations and strawman positions are required for your creationist position. Fairly good proof how willful dishonest creationists are. It’s a pov dependent on 1ying.

  • Lifeway Research is the propaganda arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Treating these surveys in an uncritical light is ridiculous. The results are generally not to be taken at fave value. For example, “unchurched” means not Southern baptists. Members of other sects fall in this category.

  • “How are you going to avoid the infinite regression problem?”

    Use a different argument. One without such a glaring flaw.

    “Evolution cannot account for the origin of life.”

    Because that’s not part of evolution. It’s like saying a diner is bad because they don’t serve tacos. It’s not where you go to look for such things. Your understanding of ideas outside your own religious dogma is sorely lacking.

  • “There is no reason to get up in the morning since according to atheism life is meaningless.”

    I would really have reason to hate getting up in the morning if I were going to spend my day ‘walking on eggshells’ in constant fear of committing some trivial infraction that would throw a vengeful god into a conniption. Now, that would be a meaningless life.

    For all the talk about “revealed truth” in the Bible, isn’t it interesting that God never revealed a single shred of knowledge that went beyond the general level of knowledge/ignorance of the time period? God is no better, no worse, and has no more or less knowledge/ignorance than the people who invented him and those who modified him to suit their visions . . . and to advance their authoritarian compulsion to control every facet of human thinking, beliefs, and behavior.

  • As a non-Christian and non-believer I can say that your “Top 10” list is an inaccurate depiction of my belief system.

    Regarding your statement: “Evolution cannot account for the origin of life. No evolutionary theory can explain it but fails every time it is attempted.”. Why do you expect evolution to explain the origin of life? Evolution is not, and never has been, a theory of origin; it is an explanation about how life changes over time. No scientist (or anyone who understands it) uses evolution to explain life’s origin but people uneducated on the topic of evolution (like yourself) constantly fall back on it as if it should.

  • You have a habit of making statements about other peoples belief system as if you know what you are talking about. Please present evidence that your statements are factual (bad philosophical arguments as you present elsewhere on this site are not evidence).

  • Life may be meaningless. Mine isn’t, but I cannot speak for everyone.

    But to say it is meaningless is not the same thing as saying that it has no value.

    What you have done is engage in a straw man argument. I don’t know any atheist who claims that life is meaningless. Meaning or lack of it is not a part of atheism. All atheism is, is a lack of belief in God.

    Anything else you add on to that is simply you.

  • Dawkins isn’t saying that it’s meaningless. He’s saying that it it is indifferent to what we think. In short, there are no eternal rewards and no eternal punishments. There are only life and consequences.

    Provine isn’t saying there is no meaning. He’s saying there are no absolutes. The meaning we get out of life is the meaning we assign to it. I don’t agree with his statement that there is no free will. Christians have demonstrated conclusively that the term is meaningless.

  • The sad thing is your contention that without religion your life would have no meaning. That makes your religion a crutch in your case. I don’t need a threat of hellfire or the promise of heaven to follow the “golden rule”.

  • WE hold EACH OTHER accountable. That is the only accountability there has ever been. That is why we must be diligent and tenacious in working for a just society. That is humanism, by they way. You seem to be unaware that a great many atheists are also humanists. I suggest you research this.

  • I don’t think you have Dawkins right on this point. He is not arguing that life CAN’T have purpose, but that one is not handed to us ready made. Life has the purpose we give it. It only has no purpose if we are too lazy to think for ourselves and live it purposefully. Dawkins’s point is not that life has no meaning because there is no god; rather he expresses alarm that so many people would rather not bother to learn and to think and to make meaning for their lives.

    Further, Dawkins does not say the universe is bleak, but rather a source of awe and wonder. The fact that much of the universe is, however, chaotic and not arranged for our benefit is exactly the result you would expect if it were NOT intelligently designed, and that is his reason for the sentences you quoted. I think you need to re-read your Dawkins for better understanding, and avail yourself of all his writing, not a single one.

  • So the results said that 33% would be interested in a worship service and 26% in a small group meeting to talk about God. How is that so bleak? Those results offer plenty of prospects, and none of them interested in church out of conformity or respectability.

  • Nonsense. Evolution has described the evolution of life in proven detail, not pompous claims with no evidence.

  • Nonsense. Life is about making meaning, not having it delivered to us by some preacher and a violence loving book.

  • You can deceive yourself in thinking your life has meaning but the reality is that it doesn’t. It can’t since when you die you become worm food and the deeds of your life are soon forgotten while the universe continues on forever and ever.

  • How could any life have any value if when you die you cease to exist and you are never held accountable for the kind of life you lived?

    Atheism is not just a “a lack of belief in God” but is a knowledge claim about reality that no god exist. Atheism is not based on a person’s lack of belief rather it claims there is no god.

    The ramifications for this are huge as I have pointed out. One is that it means life is meaningless. It has no ultimate purpose. The problem is that the atheist tries to mask this by deceiving himself.

  • That’s YOUR definition of atheism that fits your agenda. No one I know thinks that way. No thoughtful atheist thinks that way. I don’t think that way.

    if your life is meaningless without a god, that says more about you than it does about atheism. Just like your assertion that there is no morality without God. If it’s only God that keeps you from raping and killing, you don’t need religion. You need empathy.

  • …As if you’re privileged to define my character, my life, its meaning, etc.
    Your relentless disrespect toward people you don’t even know is bizarre.

    We’ve made our positions clear. There’s nothing else I can do or say but
    “Block” you.

  • “Shouldn’t theology be more important than salesmanship?? ”

    Well the majority of believers do not consciously choose their faith. They usually adopt the one they are born into or reflect their community. I would venture to guess only a small number of sects really swell their numbers by conversion. So theology usually is far less of an issue than demographics and cultural entanglement.

    Most Evangelical churches have an easy time with first generation converts but usually have trouble keeping it going in subsequent generations. Hence the sudden demand for evangelical colleges for their kids. Anything to keep them in a hermetically sealed bubble and insulate them from other cultures and beliefs.

  • If your religious beliefs are challenged by scientific theory it means you don’t understand either of them. You conflate religious views with facts and evidence and pretend science is based on beliefs.

  • “I think you need to re-read your Dawkins for better understanding, and avail yourself of all his writing, not a single one.”

    I sincerely doubt JP has read ANY of Dawkins works. It looks like he is quote mining from some fundie source and pretending he knows what it is about.

    I personally can’t stand Dawkins. The man has no sense of propriety when it comes to what to say in public or on social media. As representatives of misanthropic atheism go, Christopher Hitchens is far better. Like a modern day Mark Twain.

  • The assumption is JP read any of those works. I highly doubt that. He probably just took a quote mine C&P from an apologist site

  • Ah, well, see, that’s the thing. The exact same thing happens to you. You only imagine it to be different. Why do you feel the need to do that? — that is the key question.

  • Such silly statements. Who says life has no meaning? Some people think it does, others don’t.

    But in any case, meaning isn’t the only motivator. I get up in the morning because I LIKE GETTING UP. I do all of the things that I do because THEY BRING ME PLEASURE AND MEANING. some of them even make the world a better place for the people I love. And that brings me PLEASURE AND MEANING.

    And yet, you are insisting that I can’t possibly experience what I do. or shouldn’t be. I’m not entirely sure which you mean. Like other people on this site who think and believe with all of their little hearts that they think the know exactly what God thinks and exactly what God wants, for themselves and everyone else, you find it impossible to conceive that other people might have a vastly different experience, a vastly different understanding of life, than you do.

    Just because you can’t have meaning (and possibly pleasure) in life without a god to assure you of your personal value to him, doesn’t mean that everyone else suffers from that particular and peculiar point of view.

  • And what is wrong with that, especially if it’s far more likely for that to be the case than for religious people to go to their particular and peculiar version of heaven, there to sing hosanna for ever and ever, although in life they couldn’t carry a tune in a basket.

    If that’s what it is, then that is what it is. I have no problem with it, myself. But then it really doesn’t matter what I believe, because that will certainly not change a thing about anything.

    As said Koschei the Deathless, Who Made Things As They Are:

    “What are your beliefs to me, Who Made Things As They Are?”

  • As Humpty Dumpty said,

    “Words mean what I say they mean. Nothing more and nothing less.”

  • That’s OK, Ben, I don’t care what he thinks. I consider it just another housekeeping chore, like cleaning the toilet or taking out the trash.

  • Ah yes – the classic christian trick: there appears to be order in the universe, so christianity must be true. Uh . . . no . . . if you want to believe that alleged order in the universe means there’s some sort of creator, fine (wrong, but fine). But the leap from that to christianity, with its mythical man-god and other pagan beliefs, cannot be made.

    Many of the Founding Fathers were Deists. They believed in some sort of “order.” But when it came to the religion that worships a man as a god, here’s what one of the most important Founders, Thomas Paine, had to say:

    “the Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world, . . . the fall of man, the account of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease the wrath of God, and of salvation, by that strange means, are all fabulous inventions, dishonorable to the wisdom and power of the Almighty; that the only true religion is Deism . . . .”

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