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Easy explanation to puzzling Barna survey?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A new Barna survey shows that attendees of larger Protestant congregations are more likely than those in smaller ones to have orthodox beliefs, but that doesn’t mean conservative Christians should start fleeing for mega-churches.

As it turns out, the study — which has led to a fair amount of discussion on social networking websites — could have an easy explanation.

According to the study of 3,000 adults, people who attend larger churches are the most likely to have biblical, orthodox beliefs on a number of issues: the sinlessness of Jesus, a belief in the importance of evangelism and the accuracy of Scripture, among others. In many of the categories, the differences are striking. For instance, among those who attend a church with 1,000 or more attendees, 74 percent believe in Jesus’ sinlessness, compared to 49 percent who believe so among churches of 100 or less.

The Barna data, though, included attendees of all Protestant denominations — liberal and conservative ones — and other surveys have shown that the larger the church, the more likely it is to be a conservative one.

A 2008 Baylor Religion Survey of 1,648 adults found that only 21 percent of mega-churches (1,000-plus in membership) are affiliated with mainline liberal Protestant denominations, compared to 47 percent of small congregations that are. If that’s the case, then the smaller churches represented in the Barna survey were made up of a mixture of liberal and conservative congregations, while the category of larger churches consisted mostly of conservative ones.

Like Barna, the Baylor survey also found a gap between the beliefs of mega-church attendees and small church attendees. Ninety percent of mega-church attendees in the Baylor poll believe that hell “absolutely exists,” compared to 69 percent of attendees of small congregations. On another issue, 82 percent of mega-church attendees believe that the rapture “absolutely” will take place, compared to 49 percent in small congregations who believe as much.

The Barna survey was conducted from January 2007 through November 2008. People were asked to estimate the number of adults who attend their church on a typical weekend. Among Barna’s other findings:

— Attendees of large churches are substantially more likely to be active in their church than those in small churches.

— Large church attendees are more likely to have children under 18 living in their home. Small church attendees are more likely to homeschool their children.

— Those who attend house churches (which average about 20 in attendance) are more likely to mirror the beliefs and practices of large church attendees than small church attendees.

— Sixty-four percent of Protestant churchgoers attend a church of 200 or less in attendance. Eighteen percent attend one between 201-499, 9 percent one between 500-999, and 9 percent one of 1,000 or more.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. The Barna survey can be read online at http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/289-how-faith-varies-by-church-size. The Baylor survey can be read online at http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/72471.pdf.

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  • Michael Foust