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Study finds similarities between 'churched,' 'unchurched' people

April 28, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*

A study to better understand the needs of those who are spiritual but absent from church has concluded that fewer differences exist between "churched" and "unchurched" people than one might think.

The United Methodist Board of Discipleship and United Methodist Communications participated in a joint research project to better understand the needs, preferences, motivations and behaviors of "spiritual seekers" in two age groups: 21-40 and 41-60.

The Rev. Dan Dick, research manager at the Board of Discipleship, said people both inside and outside the church desire connection, feel something missing in their lives, contemplate a "higher power" and want their lives to have meaning and purpose.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
The Rev. Dan Dick

"There are fewer differences between 'churched' and 'un-churched' people than we are often led to believe," he said.

The research focused on people who are spiritually open and receptive, have no strong opposition to a mainline Protestant denomination, feel something missing in their lives, and seek deeper meaning and purpose. Dick, along with the Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston, another board staff member, provided an overview of the study at a meeting of the agency's directors in March.

The discipleship agency's primary focus was on the spiritual condition of seekers who have no affiliation with an organized church. United Methodist Communications wanted information for the continued development of the denomination's advertising and welcoming campaign and the brand of "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors." The communications agency wanted to learn what people appreciate about the United Methodist Church. The agency performed an initial study in 2000 and launched another in 2004 to see if seekers' attitudes had changed since Sept. 11, 2001 and the Iraq war.

Barna Research Group and Harris Interactive did the research.

Stop and listen

The study, "For Those Who Have Ears To Hear: Listening Outside the Church," showed the church was missing information that it needs for meeting Christ's challenge to reach out to people, Dick said.

"Much of our 'knowledge' of the un-churched is based on assumptions and poor information," he said. "Leaders of many denominations claim that we can't learn anything from those outside the church, (and) I believe that many of the observations, comments and criticisms of those outside the church have great value for those of us 'on the inside,' if only we will stop to listen."

Dick said that before the 21st century, the terms "churched" and "unchurched" existed to explain those who attended church and those who did not. Another term, "seeker," has come into wide use in recent years. "Spiritual seeker" has become an "industry standard" popularized by researchers to designate people who prefer the term "spiritual" to "religious" and who generally stay away from traditional church settings.

A related study released by Barna Research Group in March found that "absence from church life does not indicate a lack of commitment to the Christian faith." The research, found at, indicated that three out of four unchurched adults who consider themselves Christian (77 percent) said they are either absolutely or moderately committed to the Christian faith."

Active seekers, Dick said, "are very good at articulating what they believe, what they want, and what they think." Spiritual seekers are as well-read, biblically literate and theologically aware as most people in churches — and often more so, he added.

What do seekers seek?

The study indicates spiritual seekers want:

• Full immersion experiences in which they can investigate the "deep places"
of life in Christ.
• To be able to make a concrete, tangible difference in people's lives.
• To love, serve and help.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

A United Methodist-sponsored study shows people desire connection, contemplate a "higher power" and want their lives to have meaning.

"Seekers are their own harshest critics; they want to be better," he said. "They are deeply committed to continuous improvement and learning, (and) want to connect with others that will challenge them and nurture ongoing spiritual development."

In looking at the two age groups — 21-40 and 41-60 — the study shows both are seeking meaning, purpose, acceptance, respect, a chance to make a difference and hope for the future, Dick said.

People 21-40 place a higher value on pushing limits, exploration, taking risks, and wanting to be accepted for who they are, he said The 41-60 group places a higher value on fitting in, understanding why things work the way they do, the meaning and purpose of life, and comfort and security issues.

Other conclusions found in the study show faith issues are very important to people, whether they attend church or not, and that there are many actively practicing Christians in the world who do not attend church — not because the church demands too much, but because it demands too little, he said.

"Most leaders in the United Methodist Church are surprised to find that so many of the unchurched are active spiritual practitioners," he said.

The study indicated three fundamental reasons people don't attend church: they don't like/agree with the church, they are apathetic/unmotivated to go to church, or they find that the church does not offer them anything meaningful.

"Many of these people still consider themselves Christian," Dick said, "and these are the people we want to understand better."

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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