What people believe really matters, according to a 2017 Canadian study of 22 churches and more than 2,000 churchgoers. Churches that adhere to conservative theology are more likely to grow than those that do not, and people who attend growing churches reported praying more often and reading their Bibles more often than those who attend declining churches, the study showed. What churches teach impacts the spiritual practices of their attendees and, in turn, the health of the church.
Our 2020 annual church survey asked church leaders this question:
How much does your church emphasize the following personal and family faith practices?
- regular worship attendance
- giving generously
- personal Bible study
- group Bible study
- talking about one’s faith with those who aren’t part of your church and/or believers
- parents talking with children about faith
- living out one’s faith in all aspects of one’s daily life
The response options included “not at all,” “a little,” “some,” “quite a bit,” and “a lot.”
We were seeking to learn the areas of faith that churches emphasize the most with the understanding that “what gets recognized gets repeated; what gets celebrated becomes a habit,” as author and consultant Leslie Yerkes said. It follows that churchgoers are more apt to do what they hear emphasized by their church leaders.
In looking collectively at these seven faith practices, 91 percent of megachurches said they emphasized them “a lot” or “quite a bit,” the highest figure among the six church size categories. Among large and medium churches, 85 percent emphasized these faith practices “a lot” or “quite a bit,” followed by emerging megachurches (84 percent), small churches (83 percent), and very small churches (74 percent).
In general, the larger the church, the more likely they were to report spending time emphasizing these personal and family faith practices, which seemed to reinforce the findings of the Canadian study cited at the outset.
The Most Emphasized Faith Practices
Overall, the top three faith practices churches emphasized “a lot” and “quite a bit” were “living out one’s faith in all aspects of life” (93 percent), “personal Bible study” (91 percent), and “regular worship attendance” (89 percent). The least emphasized was “talking about one’s faith with those who aren’t part of your family and/or believers,” with only 75 percent of churches saying they emphasized this “a lot” or “quite a bit.”
The Impact of Church Size on What Is Emphasized
Churches from four of the six size categories indicated they emphasized “living out one’s faith” more than any other—it was the spiritual practice they highlighted the most. Only large and very small churches emphasized a different faith practice more.
Overall, the top three faith practices for each church size category were distinctly different. Here’s a summary of the faith practices the highest percentage of churches in each size category said they emphasized “a lot” or “quite a bit”:
Very small churches (99 or fewer in average worship attendance) focused the most on the following faith practices: personal Bible study (88 percent), living out one’s faith (87 percent), and regular worship attendance (87 percent).
Small churches (averaging 100 to 249 weekly)—living out one’s faith (94 percent), personal Bible study (93 percent), and regular worship attendance (88 percent).
Medium churches (averaging 250 to 499)—living out one’s faith (94 percent), regular worship attendance (90 percent), and personal Bible study (90 percent).
Large churches (500 to 999)—regular worship attendance (92 percent), group Bible study such as small groups or Bible classes (92 percent), and personal Bible study (91 percent).
Emerging megachurches (1,000 to 1,999)—living out one’s faith (93 percent), personal Bible study (90 percent), and group Bible study (90 percent).
Megachurches (2,000 or more)—living out one’s faith (100 percent), regular worship attendance (93 percent), and personal Bible study (93 percent).
The Least Emphasized Faith Practices
The least-emphasized faith practices were “talking about one’s faith with those who aren’t part of your church and/or believers” (75 percent), “parents talking with children about faith” (76 percent), and “giving generously” (78 percent). The gap between the most-emphasized and least-emphasized faith practice was 17 percentage points (93 percent vs. 75 percent).
The fact that churches are more likely to stress “regular church attendance” than “talking about one’s faith” is concerning. Granted, the frequency of church attendance has declined for more than a decade, but maybe we’re “majoring in the minors” by stressing church attendance more than sharing our faith.
This reality might help to explain why many churches are not growing. This finding likely also reflects an increased focus on an “attractional” model of church over the last 20-plus years rather than a “missional” model of ministry.
Another concerning finding from this research is the lesser emphasis on “parents talking with children about faith.” Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is a portion of liturgy known as the Shema which emphasizes the need to worship God alone and to love God with our whole being. The Israelites were called to repeat these two truths again and again to their children. Parents were supposed to “talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (v. 7).
A September 2019 Barna report found, “Nearly two-thirds of U.S. 18–29-year-olds who grew up in church have withdrawn from church involvement as an adult after having been active as a child or teen.” Therefore, it’s vital for churches to create tangible tools to better equip parents to talk with their children about matters of faith. These tools could expand and evolve as children become teenagers, so that faith discussions can transition from “milk” to “meat” to better ensure young adults’ faith is solid and steadfast as they transition into adulthood. This would help to decrease the high percentage of young adults who leave the faith after growing up in church.
What gets recognized gets repeated; what gets celebrated becomes a habit. What is your church recognizing and celebrating the most in your gatherings and groups?