America’s Faith Is Changing – But Beneath the Surface


Research Releases in Faith & Christianity • March 18, 2003

Less than one month after releasing a report suggesting that various measures of religious behavior show remarkable stability and little evidence of change, religious researcher George Barna released a new report today that examines a different series of measures — and again found that the national averages for almost all of the 17 measures examined have not changed in recent years. However, Barna discovered that beneath the surface, there is a substantial swirl of change occurring in relation to people’s faith that has gone unnoticed because the changes across people groups cancel each other out, resulting in stable national norms.

Although the nation’s religious habits and perspectives appear to be no different than they were five or ten years ago, Barna points out that discernible transitions have occurred across various age, ethnic and geographic subgroups. Among the changes he identified were a substantial redefinition of faith among blacks, with many traditional Christian beliefs and practices losing ground; the slow but steady acceptance of organized religious activity and Christian orthodoxy among Baby Busters; the gradual departure from organized religious activity by the two oldest generations, the Builders and Seniors; the dissipation of evangelical beliefs in the South; and the increase in liberal theological perspectives held by the nation’s Catholics.

These insights were drawn from a comparison of the Barna Research Group’s annual faith tracking survey to past studies. Each year’s survey, conducted the last week of January and first week of February, consists of interviews with more than 1000 randomly chosen adults from across the 48 continental states. The surveys are analyzed in relation to more than sixty subgroups of the population, permitting a more detailed understanding of the nation’s faith dynamics.

Young Adults Changing

Over the past century, sociologists have noted that when young adults enter a new life stage – such as one’s initial marriage or parenthood – religious faith often becomes a more central and stabilizing factor in their lives. That pattern is evident among the Baby Busters, the country’s second-largest generation ever, born between 1965 and 1983. Often described as pessimistic, self-centered and brooding, the generation is now becoming more family-oriented (more than twice as many Busters are married today as was true just ten years ago, and millions more have children today than a decade earlier), producing a slow but growing acceptance of more traditional Christian activity. Among the changes seen in the Busters is a seven percentage point increase in Sunday school attendance since 1996; a six-point rise in church volunteerism since 1998; a four-point increase in church attendance; a six-point jump in participation in small groups that meet during the week for Bible study, prayer and fellowship; and a seven-point hike in Bible reading.

The new survey also highlights a few shifts in core beliefs. Busters are seven percentage points more likely to say they are “absolutely committed” to the Christian faith today than they were to make that same claim five years ago. They are seven points more likely to strongly disagree that Jesus Christ sinned while on earth; and six points more likely to accept personal responsibility for sharing their religious faith with others who believe differently.

Older Americans Dropping Out of Church

What was bound to happen is now a noticeable pattern: older Americans are dropping out of organized faith activity in significant numbers. This move is a result of two converging trends: the limited mobility and declining health of the spiritually-devout Seniors generation and the erosion of commitment among the less faith-driven Builders generation.

The survey data show that these two generations – together labeled the Elders by Barna Research – are decreasing their involvement in organized faith endeavors such as church attendance (down by six percentage points in the past five years), evangelizing (down eight points since 1997) and volunteering at their church (off by seven points in the past decade). However, Barna pointed out that there is no indication that the intensity of their personal faith is fading, since faith measures undertaken in private, such as prayer and Bible reading, have shown no decline. Further, the nature of their core beliefs has remained unaffected during the past decade.

Blacks Entertaining Serious Reconsideration

The most frenetic transformations are occurring within the African-American community. Trend lines tracking the faith of blacks during the past decade register continual surges and retreats in both practices and beliefs. This may be evidence of a seismic faith reorientation within the black community, or it may be a reflection of faith that has been passed down from generation to generation without sufficient depth of understanding and acceptance to withstand personal life struggles and cultural challenges.

Compared to just three years ago, blacks are ten percentage points less likely to read the Bible and six points less likely to share their faith with non-believers than they were just three years ago. They are also four points less likely to attend a Sunday school class than they were in 1996.

Religious convictions are also shifting among African-Americans. Belief in God as the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe who rules that universe today has dipped by nine points since 1996. The number of black adults who strongly disagree that Jesus Christ sinned while He was on earth has declined by eleven points since 1997. Further, there has been a nine-point drop in the percentage of blacks who strongly disagree with the widely-held notion that Satan does not exist but is simply a symbol of evil.

The South Is Abandoning Its Spiritual Heritage

The South is not only the nation’s most populous region but also that which has traditionally been the bastion of evangelical Protestant faith. Yet, half of the six religious behaviors examined have changed significantly among southerners in recent years, each of them shifting to become less biblical in orientation. Although residents of the South are still more likely to attend church services during a typical week than are people from any other region, the weekly attendance figure in the South has fallen by six points since 1997. Church volunteerism has dropped by eight points since 1998. Sharing one’s faith in Christ with a non-believer has diminished by seven points in the past three years.

One of the most eye-opening transitions has been the nine-point decline since 1997 in the proportion of adults in the South who can be classified as born again Christians based upon their alleged commitment to Christ and their confidence that they will go to Heaven after they die because they have confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior. While the South remains the region with the greatest number of born again adults, the proportion of born again people in the Midwest is statistically similar to that of the South for the first time since such tracking has been in place. That is a reflection of both the decline in the South and a small increase in the Midwest over the past two decades.

Southerners are also much less likely to strongly reject the argument that Satan is merely a symbol of evil. That sentiment has dropped by seven points since 1998.

Evangelicals Coming On Strong

The one group that has demonstrated a more intense faith commitment in recent years is the evangelicals. Distinguished from non-evangelical born again Christians by their commitment to biblical theology, evangelicals are the most spiritually-inclined subgroup of the population on virtually every measure evaluated. They are three times more likely than the national average to attend Sunday school (58% do so), three-and-a-half times more likely to share their faith in Christ with others (75% have done so in the past year), are three times as likely to belong to a small group (58%), three times as likely to volunteer at their church (63%), and twice as likely to attend church services in a typical week (79%). Their small numbers suppress their impact on the religious community – they represent just 6% of the adult population – but if actions speak louder than words, they are a virtual rock concert sound system.

Evangelicals have upgraded their volunteerism to the point that almost two-thirds are helping out at their church these days, up ten points since 1996. And even though evangelicals have the highest rate of church attendance of any subgroup studied – it is currently 25 percentage points higher than the attendance figure among non-evangelical born again Christians, the group that is next most likely to attend church – their level of attendance has dropped by ten points since 1997.

Catholics Adopting Liberal Theology

Roman Catholics remain the largest denomination in America by a huge margin. Presently one-quarter of the adult population, the most notable behavioral change among Catholics is the increase in attending Sunday school. Traditionally a Protestant activity, the percentage of Catholics attending a Sunday school class has doubled since 1996 while Protestant participation in such classes has remained constant during that time period. Even so, Protestant adults are more than twice as likely as Catholics to be active in a Sunday school class.

Perhaps the most amazing changes have been in the theological views of Catholics. There has been a four percentage point loss in belief in God as the all-powerful, all-knowing creator, a six-point drop in the number of Catholics who strongly disagree that Satan is just a symbol of evil, and an eight-point dip in the number who strongly disagree that Jesus Christ sinned.

Influence Amidst Complexity

According to George Barna, whose company has been conducting the annual tracking study of religious beliefs and practices since 1984, the below-the-radar changes in the nation’s religious contours reflect the complexity of cultural realignments these days. “Americans are seeking the usual life outcomes – security, comfort, significance, belonging and meaning. To accomplish those ends, they are reaching out for connections and insights that will enhance their life. But consider the competing forces that make their choices so difficult: transitions in life stages, geographic mobility, influence by the media and public policy, economic shifts, ethnic diversity and history, and even the conflicts within the religious community. It’s no wonder that most adults confess to being confused about truth and meaning.”

The California-based researcher noted that the present cultural turbulence is a time of opportunity for faith groups. “Americans have not abandoned the importance of religious faith in their lives. More than four out of five adults claim that their religious faith is very important in their life today and most Americans try to integrate elements of faith-based decision-making into their daily experience. Faith groups who can read the culture, translate core faith principles into relevant practices, and provide valued guidance without compromising their fundamentals will be taken seriously by Americans. The more effective Christian communities become at tying their faith principles to lifestyle choices, the more appealing they will be to the millions of Americans who are drowning in the whirlpool of cultural change.”

Research Source and Methodology

The data in this report are based on a nationwide telephone survey conducted by the Barna Research Group from its interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. The OmniPollSM survey involved interviews among 1010 adults during the last week of January and first week of February. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. People in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those individuals coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.
 

“Tracking of Religious Behavior”
Behavior in past seven days
2003
2002
2001
2000
1999
1998
1997
Attended a religious service
43%
43%
42%
40%
41%
43%
43%
Attend Sunday school class
20%
25%
19%
19%
19%
23%
23%
Participate in small group
20%
18%
16%
17%
18%
18%
18%
Volunteered to help at church
21%
24%
20%
21%
24%
25%
24%
Read from the Bible, other than while at church
39%
42%
37%
40%
36%
38%
36%
Prayed to God
82%
81%
82%
83%
NA%
80%
NA%
Shared faith in Christ, past year
22%
23%
24%
24%
23%
21%
26%
Born again Christian
38%
40%
41%
41%
40%
39%
43%

 

The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research on a wide range of issues and products, produces resources pertaining to cultural change, leadership and 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, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources, both free and at discounted prices, are also available through that website.

© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.

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