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Is the Church out of Touch?

  • Baptist Press Staff
  • Published Nov 14, 2006
Is the Church out of Touch?

PHOENIX -- “In general, pastors are less informed about the culture in which they live than are the people in their churches,” according to research released by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Research released in the November/December edition of LifeWay’s Facts & Trends magazine delves into how informed Protestant ministers and laypeople see themselves in regard to 12 facets of today’s culture: books, music, sports, celebrities, television programs, politics, magazines, radio & TV talk shows, movies, the Internet, video & computer games, and clothing & fashion.

Two studies were conducted for Facts & Trends by Ellison Research in Phoenix: a representative sample of 797 Protestant church ministers nationwide and a companion survey of 1,184 adults who attend Protestant churches at least once a month. The studies asked each group to rate whether they are very informed, somewhat informed, not very informed or actively avoid the various facets of popular culture.

Not one of the 12 categories registered a majority of clergy or laity as very informed about culture. Pastors and churchgoers rarely try to avoid popular culture, but they tend to see themselves as relatively uninformed.

Ministers tend to stay most informed about politics, with 36 percent saying they are very informed about the subject and another 55 percent saying they are somewhat informed. This is the only category in the study about which ministers feel better informed than the laity, with 29 percent of all churchgoers feeling very informed about politics and another 47 percent feeling somewhat informed.

Pastors and laypeople feel about equally informed on sports. Twenty-four percent of clergy feel very informed about sports and another 44 percent are somewhat informed about this topic, with similar percentages stated by churchgoers.

On each of the other 10 topics, ministers feel significantly less informed about the culture surrounding them than do churchgoers. Twenty percent of ministers feel very informed about the Internet compared to 43 percent of laity; 19 percent of ministers feel very informed about what’s on television today compared to 31 percent of laity; 18 percent are very informed about books compared to 27 percent of laity; and 16 percent are very informed about movies today compared to 24 percent of laity.

Pastors rarely feel very informed about the other culture topics on the survey: radio and TV talk shows (12 percent versus to 20 percent among laity); music (11 percent versus 28 percent among laity); magazines (11 percent versus 17 percent among laity); clothing and fashion (7 percent versus 16 percent among laity); video and computer games (5 percent versus 16 percent among laity); and celebrities (4 percent versus 10 percent among laity).

The areas where the greatest gaps exist between pastors and churchgoers are in video & computer games, and fashion & celebrities. Fifty-nine percent of ministers are uninformed about fashion compared to 37 percent of the people in the pews; 69 percent are uninformed about celebrities compared to 49 percent of laity; and 71 percent are uninformed about video and computer games compared to 49 percent of laity.

Among ministers, there were no dramatic differences among denominational groups (Methodists, Baptists, etc.). In general, mainline ministers tend to feel slightly more informed about books and movies than do evangelical pastors, but the other findings are quite similar.

There are some differences according to age, however. Younger ministers (under 45) feel more informed about sports, the Internet, music, clothing and fashion, celebrities and video and computer games than do older ministers. However, this is also true among the people attending their churches – younger churchgoers feel much more informed about these areas and others in today’s culture than do older people.

Among the laity, how informed they are about the culture does not vary significantly according to how long people have attended their current church, whether they are involved in a mainline or evangelical congregation, how often they attend or whether they are in a volunteer leadership position within the church.

Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, pointed out that the survey raises the question of whether churches are having an impact on how people interact with culture.

“There’s a long-term debate within Christendom about what is an appropriate level of involvement in popular culture. Some Christians believe separation from the world is part of godly behavior, while others believe involvement in the world is necessary in order to reach out to the world,” Sellers observed. “Either way, one might logically expect church involvement to change how a person looks at culture – either becoming more involved in order to have more effective outreach, or becoming less involved as they seek to lead a less worldly lifestyle.

“But the data shows no difference in cultural awareness according to how frequently people attend church, how long they’ve been there, or whether they are in a leadership position,” Sellers said. “This raises the question of how much churches actually impact how people live their daily lives.”

Sellers also noted that one criticism people often have about churches is that they are out of touch with the world around them. “The data shows ministers are, generally speaking, not all that informed about the culture in which they seek to minister. The people in the pews feel much more informed about the Internet, movies, videogames and other expressions of popular culture than do their pastors. People are definitely impacted by the culture they consume – the websites they visit or the music they listen to, for instance. Pastors need to be informed about what’s out there in order to understand how the culture is influencing the people they are trying to reach,” Sellers said.

Copyright © 2001 - 2006 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press

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