One of the most-quoted Bible verses by Christian parents and educators is “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). A new nationwide survey provides some statistical support for that notion, showing that adults who regularly attended church as children are much more likely than their unchurched peers to be involved in church-based and personal spiritual activities.
The study, conducted by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California, found that roughly seven out of ten Americans adults (71%) had a period of time during their childhood when they regularly attended a Christian church. Apparently, old habits die hard: a majority of those who attended church as a youngster still attend regularly today (61%), while a large majority of those who were not church-goers as children are still absent from churches today (78%).
Young Adults Avoiding Church
Church attendance is declining by generation, regardless of childhood church experience. However, the decline is steeper among adults who did not go to church as a child. Among adults 55 and older who attended church regularly as a child, two-thirds still attend regularly (68%). That proportion drops to just half of adults under 35 who were churched when young (53%). However, among adults who now attend a Christian church even though they did not do so as a youngster, more than one-third of the 35-and-over segment presently attends a Christian church, compared to only 16% among those under 35 years of age.
Church growth experts have long held that one of the major reasons why unchurched people return to a church is to give their children meaningful religious experiences. While there is clearly merit to that argument, the research suggests that this benefit may not be as substantial as in the past. Overall, just less than two out of three adults (63%) who were churched as children take their own children to a church. That’s double the proportion among adults who were not churched and who now have kids of their own (33%).
“Attending a church appears to be more a function of one’s personal experience when young than a sense of responsibility to one’s own children,” explained George Barna, president of the research company that conducted the study. “There is no difference in the likelihood of attending a church these days among those who were churched as a child, regardless of whether they presently have children of their own or not.”
Types of Churches Preferred
Denominational loyalty has remained unexpectedly strong among those who were attending church during their early years. None of the seven Christian denominational groups studied experienced a statistically significant change in attendance among people who attended church when they were young. However, the church preferences of the adults who did not attend a Christian congregation when young were somewhat different than those of their churched-as-children peers. The unchurched-as-children adults who now attend a church are relatively less likely to attend Catholic, Methodist and any mainline Protestant church than are their churched-as-children peers, and comparatively more likely to attend Baptist churches. Adults under 35 who had been unchurched when young reflected a particular disinclination to attend mainline Protestant churches: only 9% currently attend such religious bodies, compared to 21% of the adults who were church-going children.
Barna’s research also noted that adults who are new to church attendance are more likely than adults who were churched as kids to associate with churches of less than 100 adults. Whereas just one-quarter of the churched-as-children crowd affiliates with one of the nation’s 340,000 Protestant or Catholic congregations that claims less than 100 adults, one-third of the unchurched-as-a-child group does so. People under 35 and women were among those most inclined to attend such congregations.
Religious Practices Affected
Attending church over the course of years appears to have affected the religious practices of people, too. The survey discovered that adults who attended church as a child are twice as likely to read the Bible during a typical week as are those who avoided churches when young; twice as likely to attend a church worship service in a typical week; and nearly 50% more likely to pray to God during a typical week. Once again, the generation gap was evident: adults under 35 who were unchurched children were relatively less likely to engage in any of these common religious activities than were their churched-as-children adult counterparts.
Barna stated that he was not surprised by the generational divergence. “We have been tracking the religious behaviors and inclination of teenagers for two decades and have seen a pronounced growth in the notion among young people that involvement in organized religious activity is optional and, in many cases, of no personal value.” The researcher recalled that in his newly-released book, Real Teens, church leaders are warned that the high levels of current religious involvement among teens in misleading. “Millions of teenagers are involved in church-related activities each week, but their motivation is relational rather than spiritual. Once their relational networks change upon graduation from high school and college, we expect a continued decline in church attendance among the emerging generation unless churches revamp their ministries to reflect the unique cultural customs and expectations of the new breed of young people.”
Beliefs Not Influenced As Anticipated
Perhaps the most shocking outcome of the research was the limited affect long-term church attendance has had on the theological beliefs of Americans. The survey revealed that adults from both the churched-as-children and unchurched-as-children segments held similar views – often at odds with biblical teaching – regarding the existence of the Holy Spirit, the reality of Satan, the means to eternal salvation, the perceived accuracy of the Bible, and the holiness of Jesus Christ. “People who were churched as youths were much more likely to state that their religious faith is very important in their life today, but there was not much evidence that such faith had made much of an impact on their belief structure,” indicated Barna.
While churched-as-children individuals were twice as likely as the unchurched-as-children niche to be born again Christians (44% versus 24%, respectively), and significantly more likely to hold an orthodox view of God’s nature (74% versus 54%), a minority of both groups believe in the existence of the Holy Spirit and of Satan, and a majority believe that eternal salvation can be achieved by doing enough good deeds. Also, only a minority of both camps strongly believed that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches.
The data on which this report is based are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1003 adults conducted in May 2001. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The survey population included 711 adults who had attended a Christian church as a child for some period of time, and 292 who did not. The maximum sampling error associated with these segments is (4 percentage points and (5 percentage points, respectively, based on the 95% confidence level.
All of the survey 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 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” or if they considered themselves to be “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. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of the social, religious and political state of the nation.
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Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.
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