What issues most concern U.S. pastors in 2020?

February 21, 2020

What issues are most concerning pastors in America? To answer that question, Barna Research conducted online interviews with 547 Protestant senior pastors and asked them about possible challenges facing both their own congregations and the broader church in the U.S.

The most concerning challenge facing all churches, according to the pastors surveyed, is “watered down gospel teachings.” Overall, almost three-fourths of pastors (72%) consider this the largest issue, though non-mainline pastors (78%) were much more likely to agree with this statement than were mainline pastors (59%).

A majority of pastors (66%) also consider “culture’s shift to a secular age” to be a major concern for the church today, though it’s considered more of a problem by older pastors who have spent more years in ministry. Pastors under the age of 45 were much less likely than their older counterparts (50% compared to 73%) to consider this a pressing concern. Pastors who have been in ministry longer are also more likely than those just entering ministry to agree (71% of those who had 20+ years in ministry compared to 65% for those with 10-19 years, and 47% for those with 1-9 years).

Other issues that had a majority of pastors concerned are poor discipleship models (63%), addressing complex social issues with integrity (58%), prosperity gospel teachings (56%), reaching a younger audience (56%), and political polarization in the church (51%). A previous Barna study found that exactly half of clergy reported frequently (11%) and occasionally (39%) feeling limited in their ability to speak out on moral issues because people will take offense. Another 40% said they frequently (6%) or occasionally (34%) feel pressure to speak out on moral and social issues that they’re not comfortable discussing, such as homosexuality/LGBT (44% limited; 37% pressured), same-sex marriage/legalizing gay rights (22% limited; 32% pressured) and abortion/pro-life issues (18% limited; 17% pressured).

Issues for the broader church that did not elicit as much worry included challenges to the traditional church model, such as house churches (11%), and keeping up with the latest digital and technological trends (7%).

Within their own churches, a majority of pastors consider reaching a younger generation (51%) and declining outreach and evangelism (50%) to be major concerns. One-third of pastors are also concerned about declining or inconsistent volunteering (36%), stagnating spiritual growth (34%), and declining attendance, while one-fourth are concerned about biblical illiteracy (29%) and declining/unpredictable giving patterns. Nearly 1 in 4 U.S. pastors (23%) also believe “lack of leadership training and development” to be a major concern facing American churches.

Challenges that did not elicit as much worry included divisions within the church (12%), their church’s “economic model” (10%), “multi-campus management” (3%) and either acquiring (8%) or reducing (1%) space.