Mar 17, 2008

From the Archives

Americans Identify Their Most Important Relationships

Americans have a global reputation for being religious people, but a new study from The Barna Group indicates that people’s most important personal relationship is not with God. Family surpassed their Heavenly Father as the key personal connection. However, when asked to identify the most important group or network in their life, colleagues from their church topped the list, mentioned by three out of every ten adults.

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Most Important Relationship

Adults are clearly most focused on their family in terms of important relationships. Overall, seven out of ten adults mentioned family or family members as their most significant connection. One-third said their entire nuclear family is tops, while one-quarter (22%) named their spouse and one-sixth (17%) identified their children. (An additional 3% mentioned their parents as their key relationship.)

The only other relationship mentioned by at least 3% was various iterations of people’s deity. God, Jesus Christ, Allah, and the Trinity were among the names listed by one out of every five adults (19%).

Surprisingly, just 2% of adults said a specific friend represented their most important personal relationship.

Among the related findings were:

  1. The people most likely to list God were 40 or older.
  2. Political conservatives were almost three times as likely as political liberals to identify God as their most important relationship (33% vs. 12%, respectively).
  3. People in the Midwest were only half as likely as residents of the West and Northeast to say their children are their most important relationship.
  4. The only subgroup for which at least one-third said God was their most significant relationship was evangelicals, among whom 70% listed God.
  5. Thirty percent of Protestants listed God as their most important connection. In contrast, just 9% of Catholics did so.
  6. Blacks were about twice as likely as all other Americans to describe their bond with God as their most important relationship.
  7. Women were nearly twice as likely as men to list their children as their most important relationship.

Most Significant Groups

Although adults listed numerous groups or networks that they deem to be most important, those groups generally fit into five categories. Three out of every ten adults (29%) said their church was the most significant group affiliation. The people they affiliate with at their place of work represented the top choice for two out of every ten people (18%), followed by loose associations of friends that regularly gather together (14%), a hobby club or social group (12%) and interaction with people in the neighborhood (7%).

Various subgroups displayed divergent priorities.

  1. People 25 or younger listed friends as their most critical network; church ranked fifth on their hierarchy. In contrast, adults over 25 ranked church as their key social group, followed by their work relationships.
  2. Three-quarters of evangelicals (74%) said their church was their main social network. They were the only population segment from which half or more identified a given network. Atheists and agnostics were most likely to rate their workplace as their top network. Notional Christians were evenly divided, with one-fifth identifying work, one-fifth mentioning their church, and one-fifth listing friends.
  3. Unexpectedly, residents of the West were more likely to list their church group than any other group.
  4. While 44% of Protestants said their church was the prime social group in their life, only 16% of Catholics concurred. Among Catholics, their church ranked as the third most significant social group.
  5. Political conservatives were more than twice as likely as political liberals to position their church as their central social group. Liberals were nearly evenly divided among work, social clubs, friends and church as their dominant social associations.

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Interesting Patterns

George Barna, leader of the company that conducted the research, highlighted several intriguing outcomes.

“People were more than 50% more likely to say that their church’s congregation is their most significant group than to say that God represents their most important personal connection. That certainly reflects the interpersonal comfort that millions of people have developed at their church, but also indicates that people may have forgotten the ultimate reason for belonging to a Christian church.”

The author of more than three-dozen books about faith, culture and lifestyles also noted that most Americans – even a large majority of born again Christians – struggle to think of God as a living partner in their life. “There’s an intellectual and even theological assent to the notion that God is real, He’s alive, He influences their life, and that they owe their eternal security to Him,” Barna commented. “But when you get people at ease, rather than in a religious setting or in a theological context, and explore the relationships that define and direct their life, the born again public does not seem to share much intimacy with God. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts Christians could get this Easter is a deeper or renewed sense of connection with God, and a passionate determination to make more of the opportunity they have to know and be known by the living God.”

About the Research

This report is based upon a telephone survey conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1004 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, in July 2007. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

“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 are 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.”

“Notional Christians” are people who consider themselves to be Christian but do not meet the born again criteria described above.

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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