As people in the United States increasingly embrace elements of postmodern philosophy, Christian evangelism could become an endangered behavior. Despite the emphasis that postmodernism places upon tolerance and diversity of opinions, it also says that there are no absolute moral or spiritual standards that are appropriate for everyone and thus rejects aggressive evangelistic efforts as an attempt to “impose” one person’s view others.
According to a new study from the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California, there are nearly 50 million born again adults who shared their faith in Jesus Christ with non-believers during the past year. That constitutes 60% of the born again adult population, which itself represents 38% of all adults. The evangelistic efforts of this group span the gamut from street preaching and door-to-door witnessing to evangelistic conversations and counseling with personal friends.
Overall, slightly less than one out of every four adults who attend a Protestant or Catholic church (23%) are both born again in their faith and have shared their faith in Jesus Christ with a non-Christian in the past twelve months.
Attitudes About Life
A comparison of nearly two-dozen attitudes about life shows that there are several areas of divergence between evangelizers and non-evangelizers, although the magnitude of those differences is small. The groups are equally likely to agree that religion is losing influence in our society, to contend that life is getting too complex to understand, to admit that they are experiencing more stress with each passing year, to submit that the moral condition of the nation is declining, to feel completely satisfied with their life, and to claim that they are in excellent physical condition. There was also consistency related to feeling stressed out, lonely, having family-oriented values, and being seen as a leader by others.
Evangelizers, however, were somewhat more likely to claim primary responsibility for the spiritual development of their children (86% did so, compared to 71% of non-evangelizers); more likely to disagree that an individual is powerless to do anything regarding poverty in underdeveloped nations; more likely to claim to be very happy with their life (74% of evangelizers versus 63% of non-evangelizers); to indicate that religion is very important in their life (94% versus 81%); to say their religious faith is constantly growing deeper (78% versus 60%,); and to feel personally connected to other people (75% versus 62%). Non-evangelizers were more likely to say that they are “totally committed to getting ahead in life.” Three out of four non-evangelizers strongly confirmed that sentiment, compared to two-thirds of the evangelizers.
Evaluating Their Lifestyles
In general, evangelizers were more wired than their counterparts (i.e., a higher likelihood of owning a desktop computer, cell phone, DVD player, home theatre system, and having used the Internet in the past week). They were also more likely to engage others in discussions related to the social no-no’s – politics, religion and morality – although they were no more likely to engage people in conversation regarding sports, parenting, media content or money.
Among the surprising findings from the study are the areas of behavior in which both groups are nearly identical. For instance, there were no differences regarding community volunteerism, struggling with “serious debt,” dealing with a personal addiction, attending formal educational classes, attending a recovery group, reading for pleasure, viewing pornography, getting drunk, consulting a psychic, religious-oriented fasting, illegally downloading music on the Internet, and engaging in adultery.
Non-evangelizers stood out as slightly more likely to smoke and to attend a movie at a theatre in the past week. Evangelizers were somewhat more likely to visit a pornographic website.
The demographic profile of born again adults who share their faith – a group known as evangelizers – is very similar to that of born again adults who do not evangelize. The only noticeable differences are that evangelizers are somewhat less common in the Midwest; whites are somewhat less likely than ethnic Christians to share their faith; evangelizers are slightly more likely to be married; and non-evangelizers have a higher average household income.
The area displaying the most consistent differences between the two groups is that concerning religious beliefs and practices.
In a typical week, evangelizers were more likely to attend church services (72% versus 52%); volunteer at their church (47% versus 28%); attend a Sunday school class (47% versus 24%); participate in a small group or cell group for spiritual purposes during the week (41% versus 22%); and read from the Bible other than while at a church service or class (74% versus 47%). Donation patterns were also notably different, resulting in a substantial gap in the average amount of money donated to their church in the past year: evangelizers gave an average of $801, which was more than three times the average among born again non-evangelizers ($250).
Evangelizers were more likely to attend a church of 300 or more people (36% vs. 28%) while non-evangelizers were twice as likely to be unchurched (12% vs. 6%) despite being born again. Evangelizers were also four times more likely to anticipate using the Internet for religious purposes during the coming five years.
There was no distinction in terms of the likelihood of praying to God during a typical week: more than nine out of ten adults in each group claimed to have done so.
The research examined eight religious beliefs and found significant differences related to seven of those views. For instance, evangelizers were more likely to strongly assert that:
- the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings (77% versus 57%);
- they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs (67% vs. 38%);
- Satan is not just a symbol of evil (44% vs. 26%);
- a person cannot earn a place in Heaven through good behavior (56% vs. 34%);
- Jesus Christ did not sin during His time on earth (74% vs. 45%);
- every word in the Bible is true and can be trusted (81% vs. 61%);
- public schools should teach creationism (54% vs. 36%).
There was no real difference concerning beliefs surrounding the nature of God. However, evangelizers were more likely to assert that they are “absolutely committed to the Christian faith” (74% vs. 55%), they are “deeply spiritual” (79% vs. 67%) and to describe themselves as “evangelical” (78% vs. 51%).
The church affiliation of evangelizers shows that nearly one out of every three evangelizers is aligned with a Baptist church – almost 16 million of the 49 million adult evangelizers. The next largest evangelistic groups were those associated with non-denominational Christian churches (about 6 million evangelizers) and Catholic churches (about 5.3 million born again Catholics shared their faith in the past year).
The research revealed that there were only three church groups among the nine studied for which at least half of the adherents were born again and had shared their faith in the past year. Two-thirds of the individuals associated with an Assemblies of God church (67%) met both criteria, as did 51% of those who regularly attend a non-denominational Christian church. Half of the people in Pentecostal churches, other than Assemblies of God congregants, were born again evangelizers. The rates were lower for those connected to Baptist (40%), Presbyterian (31%), Lutheran (24%), Methodist (21%), Episcopal (13%) and Catholic (10%) churches.
Making Sense of the Data
The survey data are both encouraging and challenging, according to George Barna, who directed the study. “A veritable army of Christians is still active in spreading the good news about what Jesus Christ has done for all people,” commented the researcher. “Believers use a range of approaches to share the message of Christ’s love and forgiveness with people regardless of the social restrictions and legal barriers to making Jesus known.
“The research also suggests that churches hoping to increase their evangelistic presence might be better served by affecting people’s spiritual beliefs than by offering evangelism training programs and motivational events,” the California-based author continued. “We know that people’s behavior is driven by their beliefs, and the research showed that the most significant distinction between those who share Christ with the culture and those who don’t relates to their religious beliefs. Providing motivation and behavioral training are helpful, but the factor that seems most likely to stimulate Christians to bring the truths and love of Jesus into the marketplace are what they believe about sin, surrender and salvation.” The author of a newly released book on worldview development, entitled Think Like Jesus, Barna concluded that helping Christians to better understand the core teachings of the Bible and to see life and daily opportunities through a faith lens would increase the prevalence of interpersonal evangelistic activities.
Barna also noted that the evangelistic frustration that many believers experience may be related to the fact that their lifestyles are not more readily distinguished from that of non-Christians. “The lives of millions of evangelizers are characterized by involvement in ‘at-risk’ behaviors such as substance addiction, consumption of pornography, adultery, illegally downloading music from the Internet and reliance upon guidance from psychics,” he pointed out. “While the rates of involvement in these behaviors by evangelizers is somewhat less than that of the population overall, non-believers are seeking evidence that Christianity is truly life transforming. Naturally, none of us, no matter how committed we are to Christ, will live a perfect life, but the research encourages believers to allow God to change us from the inside out so that our lives will substantiate the difference that following Christ makes.”
Research Source and Methodology
The data described above are from telephone interviews with several nationwide random samples of adults conducted during the past twelve months, from August 2002 through May 2003. In total 4265 adults were interviewed in studies that explored evangelistic engagement, identifying some 972 individuals who were involved in personal evangelistic activity. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level; the maximum sampling error for the sample of evangelizers is ±3.2 percentage points. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults.
“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”
The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984, it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. If you would like to receive regular e-mailings of a brief overview of each new bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna Research web site (www.barna.org).
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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