Nov 30, 1999

From the Archives

Americans Have Commitment Issues, New Survey Shows

More than seven out of ten Americans (72%) claim they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today. But a survey examining some of the other commitments that adults make – and avoid – suggests that people are inconsistent in their spiritual perspectives.

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Lowering the Bar on Church Commitment

While nearly half of the adult population attends religious services during a typical week, people’s conceptual bond to the local church remains tenuous. Fewer than one out of every five adults firmly believes that a congregational church is a critical element in their spiritual growth and just as few strongly contend that participation in some type of community of faith is required for them to achieve their full potential.

Only 17% of adults said that “a person’s faith is meant to be developed mainly by involvement in a local church.” Even the most devoted church-going groups – such as evangelicals and born again Christians – generally dismissed that notion: only one-third of all evangelicals and one out of five non-evangelical born again adults endorsed the concept. Only one out of every four adults who possesses a biblical worldview (25%) agreed with the centrality of a local church in a person’s spiritual growth.

Just as few adults (18%) firmly embraced the idea that spiritual maturity requires involvement in a community of faith. The subgroup that showed the greatest devotion to spiritual growth through belonging to a faith community – Revolutionaries – is, ironically, the group often accused of seeking to grow independent of community ties. Adults who possess a biblical worldview were twice as likely as those who do not have such a perspective to acknowledge the importance of community in spiritual growth. Even so, only one-third of those who see life through a biblical lens embrace the necessity of growth in the company of other believers.

Commitment to Changing Lives

While most Americans contend that they want their lives to matter, a minority (44%) strongly affirms their commitment to “personally make the world and other people’s lives better.” One unexpected outcome was that such a commitment was more evident the older a person was: one-third of those under 40, half of Baby Boomers, and nearly three out of five people 60 or older felt strongly about this duty. Revolutionaries (59%) and evangelicals (57%) led the way among the religious segments studied. In comparison, barely one out of every four atheists and agnostics (27%) were committed to improving the world.

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Devotion to God

A slight majority of Americans (54%) said they are so committed to “having a deeper connection with God” that they would “do whatever it takes to get and maintain that deeper relationship.” Adults 40 and younger were the least devoted to this outcome: less than half (44%) strongly affirmed such a commitment, compared to 58% of Boomers and 63% of older adults.

Among the religious subgroups, Protestants were much more likely than Catholics to have such a mindset (66% versus 50%, respectively). However, within the Protestant sector there was a huge gap between those who attend mainline churches (49% of whom were so committed) and those who attended non-mainline Protestant churches (76% were strongly committed to such an effort).

African American adults also distinguished themselves from people of other backgrounds. Eight out of ten black adults were firmly committed to deepening their ties with God, compared to just 58% of Hispanics, 50% of whites and 20% of Asians. Also, those who are mostly conservative on political issues were twice as likely as those who are mostly liberal on such matters to affirm their investment in their relationship with God.

Soft Christianity

To some observers, the recent barrage of faith-affirming statistics seems to clash with these measures of limited commitment to faith. George Barna, who conducted the study, felt that the numbers are consistent with the wealth of data on spirituality he has analyzed over the past quarter century.

“These figures emphasize how soft people’s commitment to God is,” Barna explained. “Americans are willing to expend some energy in religious activities such as attending church and reading the Bible, and they are willing to throw some money in the offering basket. Because of such activities, they convince themselves that they are people of genuine faith. But when it comes time to truly establishing their priorities and making a tangible commitment to knowing and loving God, and to allowing Him to change their character and lifestyle, most people stop short. We want to be ‘spiritual’ and we want to have God’s favor, but we’re not sure we want Him taking control of our lives and messing with the image and outcomes we’ve worked so hard to produce.”

Barna pointed out that one of the challenges these figures present to church leaders relates to building a more positive community experience. “It is obvious that most Christians in the U.S. do not see much value in a communal faith experiences,” commented the author of more than three-dozen books on faith and culture. “Even though the Bible is unambiguous about the importance of experiencing God through a shared faith journey, and Jesus’ example leaves no room for doubt about the significance of involvement in a faith community, Americans remain unconvinced of the necessity of the collective faith experience. This is partially because the typical church model esteems attendance rather than interaction and immersion, partially due to the superficial experiences most believers have had in cell groups or Christian education classes, and partially attributable to our cultural bias toward independence and fluid relationships. Developing a biblical understanding of the preeminence of community life will take intentional leadership, strategic action and time.”

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Research Description and Definitions

The data in this report are based on interviews with 1003 adults from across the nation. These telephone surveys were conducted by The Barna Group, during January 2006, based upon a random sample of people 18 years of age and older living within the 48 continental states. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. In the research, the distribution of survey respondents corresponded to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

“Born again Christians” are defined 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.”

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus  seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

“Revolutionaries” were classified on the basis of meeting 11 specific criteria. They have a clear sense of the meaning and purpose of their life; describe their relationship with and faith in God as the top priority in their life; consider themselves to be “Christian”; read the Bible regularly; pray regularly; deem their faith to be very important in their life; contend that the main objective in their life is to love God with all their heart, mind, strength and soul; describe God as the “all-knowing, all-powerful being who created the universe and still rules it today”; have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today; believe that when they die they will go to heaven only because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior; and say that their faith in Christ has “greatly transformed” their life.

The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a privately held, for-profit corporation that conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, weekly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website

About Barna

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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