Barna Group’s Bill Denzel on the State of Faith in America

By Kelly Russell, October 13, 2017

By night, Barna Group Vice President Bill Denzel can be found reading a “Star Wars” book as he tucks his 10-year-old daughter into bed. By day, he trades in old Jedi tales for overseeing the company’s marketing, new ventures, strategic initiatives and alliances. With skillsets mirroring Yoda and Lando Calrissian, Denzel is the creative driver behind Barna’s product development, positioning, branding, design and content.

Barna Group is a resource for keeping faith-based organizations and places of worship well informed of the religious landscape in the United States. Headquartered in Ventura, California, the 30-year-old organization has conducted more than a million interviews for hundreds of studies to strategically track the role of faith in America. In a candid discussion with Connect Faith, Denzel shares his insights on how it all relates to event professionals, and what challenges lie ahead.

Barna recently released a study on those who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” aka SBNR. How can planners attract this segment of people to their faith-based events?

First, it’s important to realize this group simply may not be the audience for your events. For perspective, this group only accounts for 10 percent of the adult population in the country. Of that 10 percent, only 2 to 3 percent say they attend groups or retreats (versus 24 percent of practicing Christians and 31 percent of evangelicals).

The SBNR group reported spending time in nature for reflection as a spiritual practice. That’s a beautiful way to experience and appreciate God’s power and creativity. Try offering ways to experience God’s presence during your gathering by encouraging time in nature for reflection.

Considering the current state of faith in our country, what do you think the future holds?

Most indicators point toward a rapidly secularizing, post-Christian culture. We hear a lot about the rise of the “nones” (those who say they have no faith affiliation), and the increased prominence of atheists and agnostics. However, the reality is most Americans still believe in God and claim they’ve decided to follow Jesus, and that decision is still relevant in their lives today. Though they may not be attending church (in 2016, only 35 percent said they attended church in the past week), they are still choosing to practice faith outside church walls. People are considering new ways to live out their faith and, in many instances, taking more personal ownership in finding God through prayer, time in nature and even yoga.

How do you predict faith-based events will change?

I predict “nichification.” Gatherings will become smaller and more focused on specific affinity groups. That’s how we are living today. We want unique offerings that appeal to our narrow interests. Niche events can be better than huge ones, because as conferences get smaller, we have more opportunities for high-touch, high-relationship experiences. The downside is we could potentially lose the chance to discover new ideas outside of our narrow interests. Perhaps that is an opportunity for planners to create focused events, but to always work to include new thinking. Concepts coming from outside the niche often foster creative thinking and breakthrough ideas.

In the midst of it all, how can faith-based event professionals serve their attendees well?

We’re experiencing an information overload. More than seven of 10 adults say they feel overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them. People want and need help curating it. An innovative event professional can play a role in providing focused, helpful and accurate information to attendees. Streamline, simplify and make the promise that your event will provide just the material that your specific audience needs today.

Do you participate in any faith-based conferences?

I enjoy attending Q, Exponential, BookExpo and Catalyst. I love the fun, unexpected surprises at Catalyst, from a guy diving into a shallow pool from 100 feet to hot air balloon rides. There’s always something crazy happening at that conference.

This year I spoke at Jubilee, a great conference for college students held in Pittsburgh every February. I talked about becoming a culture- shaper and the importance of people of faith being present in creative fields. I think there are few greater contributions to the cause of Christ than creating great art: literature, music, canvas, film—whatever medium points people toward the true and the beautiful.

Are there any particular Barna studies that affect the way you go about your personal life?

A few years ago, Barna did a study on how “outsiders” (non-Christians) view Christianity today. The findings showed the most common perceptions of Christians among outsiders ages 16 to 29 were that Christians are anti-homosexual, judgmental and hypocritical. Ouch. Understanding that this is how the majority of non-Christian young people see Christians (or me, when they discover I am a Christian) has caused me to be more intentional about communicating an attitude of love and transparency to everyone I meet. I’m not always successful, but I continue to try to make my interactions be as Christlike as possible and to represent Jesus in a way that’s true to how I see him in the Bible.

How does your job affect your family?

I know the rate at which young people drop out of the church. Millions of young Christians are disconnecting from church as they transition to adulthood. I have a 10-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son, so those numbers can be haunting—but they make me intentional in helping my kids own their faith. I want their relationships with Christ to be firm in their hearts when they hit those 20-something years when many are disengaging from the faith.


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Denzel’s Reading List

An avid reader, Denzel says he’s always working his way through a tower of tomes. Take a page from his book and check out these titles.

“Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance
“The Benedict Option,” Rod Dreher “Know Your Why,” Ken Costa
“Save the Cat,” Blake Snyder
“Culture Care,” Makoto Fujimura
“A Hidden Wholeness,” Parker Palmer “Desert Solitaire,” Edward Abbey

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