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Good news for the UMC in Barna book “Churchless”


By Jeremy Steele

Research by the Barna Group offers good news for The United Methodist Church and helpful insight into how we can bring people into our open doors.

Research by the Barna Group offers good news for The United Methodist Church TWEET THIS TWEET THIS

1. United Methodists are well thought of by those not in church.

In the intensely practical research detailed in the book "Churchless: Understanding Today's Unchurched and How to Connect With Them," Barna Group did a sentiment analysis of leading religious groups across the country. When those not involved in church were asked to give their impression of major religious groups in the United States, The United Methodist Church came out on the top with the highest favorability score (55% favorable) of any group in the study.

Capitalizing on that positive response is important from the first impression of your church. Your first step should be to make sure your church has curb appeal both physically and virtually.

2. Millennials want open doors.

In the 2015 Seeker study done by Barna on behalf of UMCom, Millennials gave some clear directives on what they want from a church. When asked to offer reasons that would encourage them to attend church more than a third (35-39%) said they desired a church that helps my spiritual development, an opportunity to find out more about God, an opportunity to make friends and nurture friendships, knowing that anyone will be welcomed into the church community, and an opportunity for support during difficult times. 

These responses offer a key insight that matches the UMC commitment to open hearts, open minds, and open doors. Millennials are not just looking for a class in Christianity or a well-researched sermon; they want to explore spirituality in a welcoming community where they can find accountability, meaningful relationships and lasting friendships.

3. Personal invitations still carry the day.

For churches who are hoping to help new people feel comfortable visiting their church, personal invitations still carry the most weight with those not currently attached to a local congregation. When asked what would make them interested in visiting a church, the clear leader is a personal invitation from a friend, with 47% indicating it would make them more likely to visit.

Rounding out the top four reasons cited for visiting are all versions of personal invitations: a pastor or church leader making a visit to their home and asking them to attend (27%), a phone call from a church member giving information about the church and inviting them to attend (24%), and a church representative taking a poll on church habits that concludes with an invitation to attend (21%).

That means that we can super-charge any community outreach by equipping church members with tools to make inviting their friends and coworkers easier. Whether it is creating hand-deliverable invitation cards for a special event or inviting church members to come back on a Sunday evening to making personal invitations over the phone, complementing church promotions with personal invitations will take them to the next level.

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4. Involvement in service to others is important.

The United Methodist Church has always been known for its deep commitment to help the sick and oppressed and to take a stand on human rights issues. John Wesley would preach about these topics as often to coal miners as to English elites. That DNA is just what currently unchurched adults are looking for. When asked what churches can contribute to their communities, the top two responses from those without church affiliations were addressing poverty and serving youth/families/elderly.

That means that when we advertise our church, it is important that we highlight the many outreach opportunities we engage in and support financially through apportionments. Need help finding the incredible things we financially support as United Methodists? Check out for an exciting interface to explore all that we fund!

5. We support science.

One of the major reasons that those who do not attend church say that they do not like the church is that many churches seem antagonistic to science. More than 29% of young adults who have left the church cite “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” as a primary reason. Yet again, this represents good news for The United Methodist Church. Our deep commitment to science in our social principles turns out to be exactly what many young adults are seeking.

More than 29% of young adults who have left the church say “churches are out of step with the scientific world ...” TWEET THIS TWEET THIS

In the section on the natural world, we state our belief in science saying, “We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific.” One of our characteristics as United Methodists aligns with the type of church being desired by those who are not yet part of our congregations.

Highlighting our acceptance of science can start with sharing stories of scientific breakthroughs from NASA or Psychology Today on social media, and thanking God for the gift of science and scientists when we do. Beyond that, we can even use scientific experiments as illustrations for our lessons to help make the often intangible realm of faith come to life in the real world.

This research is an encouraging word to The United Methodist Church and can help shape how we communicate and advertise to our communities.

If we are hoping to reach those who have not yet discovered the power of a life lived as part of a local church community, these stats show us that through personal invitation, we can share our deep heart for peace and fairness and our harmonious relationship with science. Many of the churchless are primed and ready to hear the good news. Let us go now and give it to them.

Jeremy Steele

When Jeremy and his wife are not playing with their four children, he oversees youth and college ministries and leads the evening worship service at Christ UMC in Mobile, Ala. Jeremy is an author of several books and resources that you can find at or follow him on Twitter!