VENTURA, Calif. Most Americans believe churches play a positive role in communities, and even atheists and agnostics don't view churches harshly.
A Barna Group study released July 13 revealed a generally upbeat attitude among the public regarding how churches influence their areas. The study revealed that 78 percent of Americans believe the presence of a church has a "very" (53 percent) or "somewhat" positive (25 percent) effect on their communities.
"Those with the most favorable views of churches are elders (ages 66-plus), married adults, residents of the South, women, Protestants, churchgoers, African-Americans and political conservatives," the study said.
Among the approximately one-fifth of Americans who disagree, 17 percent profess indifference toward the influence of churches, while one in 20 believe churches play an either very (2 percent) or somewhat (3 percent) negative role in communities, the study revealed. It noted those least likely to view churches positively include Mosaics (ages 18-27), men, never-married adults, atheists and agnostics, the unchurched, political liberals, those living in the West and Northwest, and those not registered to vote.
While atheists and agnostics were the only key demographic group not to hold a mostly positive view of churches, Barna Group President David Kinnaman noted that only 14 percent of them viewed churches negatively.
"Despite the aggressive posture of leading skeptics, most Americans who have no religious affiliation or belief are not overtly hostile to churches," Kinnaman said.
Barna also asked the 1,021 adults surveyed how churches could benefit their communities. The three most common ways respondents said churches could help were by assisting the poor and addressing poverty (29 percent), cultivating biblical values (14 percent) and serving youth, families and the elderly (13 percent). Common ministry activities like teaching the Bible and giving spiritual direction came next (12 percent), followed by assisting those in recovery (10 percent) and addressing workplace, financial and educational issues (7 percent). Very small percentages answered that churches should be inclusive and accepting of everyone (3 percent), while only 1 percent of respondents said churches should contribute to their community by being engaged politically. One-fifth of those asked didn't give a response.
Among Kinnaman's conclusions from the research are that even the unchurched view churches as important to their communities.
"This positive view is partly due to the fact that most unchurched adults are de-churched, or former churchgoers," he said. "So, although they may be wary of personal involvement, they have an understanding of the service and assistance that churches can provide to their communities."
Kinnaman also noted that most Americans don't seem to connect serving the community with telling individuals about Christ.
"Ministry-related goals such as teaching the Bible, introducing people to Christ and bringing people to salvation are infrequently viewed as a primary way to serve the community," he said. "Even among many churchgoers, contributing positively to the community is perceived to be the result of offering the right mix of public service programs. Yet, this seems to miss an important biblical pattern: you change communities by transforming lives."