I first saw it on Twitter – “Big differences in what small churches believe vs. big churches” – or something like that. Then, I saw it again a couple of days later. So I clicked the link and found myself staring at a Barna Group survey turned into a nice bar graph, compliments of Church Relevance.

Normally, I like Barna’s stuff. I’ve got some of his books. Generally the Barna folks provide some helpful insights into the world of church and opinion. But the more I looked at their survey, How Faith Varies By Church Size, the more concerned I became. In short, Barna bungled this one.

The survey summary runs like this:

  • Of 17 questions about belief and behavior, there were significant differences between those surveyed who attended churches of 100 or less and those who attended churches of 1,000 or more.
  • Both groups had in common that they prayed during the week.
  • Barna states: “On all nine of the belief statements tested, attenders of large churches were more likely than those engaged in a small or mid-sized congregation to give an orthodox biblical response …”
  • And again: “On seven of the eight behavioral measures, attenders of large churches were substantially more likely than those of small churches to be active.”

Implication: People who attend small churches aren’t “orthodox” in their faith and aren’t as involved as people who attend large churches.

But here’s the kicker: Barna acknowledges that “six out of 10” demographic attributes were not alike at the small versus large church. Small-church members were older; large-church members were significantly younger. Small-church members were less educated while large-church members had more college graduates. Large-church members had 16 percent more registered Republicans than small-church members.

Barna states that “3,014 interviews were conducted” but the total respondent numbers in each column add up to only 1,334. What happened to the other 1,680?

But wait, there’s more! Barna uses the term “Protestant” to identify both small and large churches. Well, that covers a lot of territory. I would expect to see some theological and behavioral differences in my church (100) versus Joel Osteen’s church (30,000), and we’re both Protestant in some loosey-goosey sort of way. My point is that if Barna had compared small United Methodist churches to large ones, or small Baptist churches to large ones, or small Assembly of God churches to large ones, his survey might (I think definitely would) have yielded a different picture.

Also, Barna doesn’t disclose the real questions, only his “description” of the actual survey questions, but they do admit that non-sampling errors could arise from question wording, question sequencing and even the recording of responses.

To top it off, the survey is not reported by age or other personal profile markers like education, that is, respondents from both small and large churches who are 40 years old. So, you can’t compare what one demographic in the small church believes versus the same demographic in the large church. Barna is comparing apples to oranges to use a well-worn cliché.

Why am I so lathered up about this? Because this survey implies that small churches aren’t as orthodox in the faith as large ones, based on Barna’s own definition of orthodoxy. It’s a disparaging view of small churches, casting suspicion on them for belief and behavior of their members, and that aspersion from a flawed survey that is not fully disclosed.

The interesting footnote to all this is that house churches – less than 20 in attendance – have results similar to mega-churches. Barna has a dog in the house church “revolution” fight with his book by the same name, so I question the validity of this conclusion, especially since he provides no place on his chart for detailing other house church responses.

One has to wonder what the point of this survey was if it does not provide any helpful comparison of large church versus small church life due to its flawed design. Either Barna rushed this one out the door too fast, or there’s another shoe about to drop on small churches.

Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Va. He blogs at Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.

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