America's Religious Activity Has Increased Since 1996, But Its Beliefs Remain Virtually Unchanged


Articles in Faith & Christianity • June 17, 2002

In its annual release of data tracking America’s religious practices and beliefs, Barna Research notes that things have improved in terms of spiritual practices since the mid-Nineties, but that there has been virtually no change in people’s core theological beliefs during the past decade. In an interview discussing his latest book, The State of the Church: 2002, researcher George Barna also explained some of the religious trends that he has seen unfold during the two decades that he has been engaged in religious research. One of the most provocative statements addressed the increase in born again Christians since the early Eighties, and why so many Baby Boomers have transitioned from eschewing religion to embracing it.

Some Religious Activities Have Increased

The annual tracking study of 1001 adults by Barna Research shows that in 2002 there was no discernible change in the seven core religious behaviors tracked from year to year. However, Barna identified three small upticks in religious behavior since the mid-Nineties.

“In retrospect, we can now suggest that 1996 was perhaps the spiritual low point of the nation during the past decade and a half,” Barna explained. “In the past seven years we have seen proportionately small but statistically significant growth in church attendance, Bible reading, and Sunday school attendance. For the most part, the current figures related to those activities have simply been restored to the levels of the late Eighties and early Nineties. However, any improvement is welcomed, even if it only represents recovering lost ground.” He went on to state that there has been no change in the proportion of adults who volunteer at a church, who pray, who attend a small group that meets for religious purposes (other than a Christian education class) and who engage in personal evangelism.

Among the factors that have changed, the most closely watched is church attendance. Currently 43% of adults attend a church or religious service during a typical week. That figure has not budged by more than three percentage points, either up or down, since 1992 – with the exception being the low mark of 37% measured in 1996.

Bible reading has undergone a similar pattern. The 42% of adults who read the Bible during a typical week, excluding while they are at a church or religious center, is the highest the figure has been since the early Nineties. The current level also reflects a small but statistically significant rise from 2001 (when the figure was 37%).

Adult Sunday school attendance reached 25% this year – the highest it has been since the late Eighties. Again, the current mark is a small but statistically significant rise from the 19% level measured in 2000 and 2001.

Religious Beliefs Remain Stable

Only one of the ten religious beliefs and attitudes tracked each year by Barna Research since the mid-Nineties has shown a statistically significant change. In 1996, less than half of all adults (44%) who described themselves as “Christian” said that they were absolutely committed to Christianity. Today, half of all individuals who say they are “Christian” claim to be absolutely committed (50%).

The other nine attributes have changed little since the mid-Nineties. Included is a pair of faith-related attitudes regarding the personal significance of religious faith and having made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. The other seven factors that stayed stable related to beliefs about the nature of God, the character of Christ, the existence of Satan, the accuracy of the Bible, the means to eternal salvation, the responsibility to evangelize, and the percentage of adults who can be classified as born again according to their beliefs.

The new book from Barna indicates that during the past decade there has been a noticeable decline in adults who are Protestant, and small but meaningful dip in the percentage of evangelicals, and a stable proportion of adults who can be classified as born again. Protestants still outnumber Catholics by a wide margin, but the former are now barely more than half of the population (53%), which is a huge decline from the seven out of ten identified just a quarter-century ago.

 

Conclusions Raise Controversy

Barna acknowledged that in spite of providing a range of statistics about religious practices and beliefs, analyzed by a variety of population segments, there has been one particular conclusion in his book that has already raised heated discussion among religious leaders. “Twenty five years ago, Baby Boomers wanted nothing to do with institutional religion and generally felt that Christians were hypocrites. Today, Boomers are half of the born again population. You have to wonder what caused such a massive turnaround. It was not simply because they had children and wanted their offspring to have religious training.

“After pouring over numerous national studies we have conducted since the early Eighties, I believe that the issue is the way in which we have proposed Christianity to the Boomer generation. At heart, Boomers are consumers. The way we presented Christ to most Boomers struck a resonant chord with them from that mindset. We told them all they had to do was say a prayer admitting they made some mistakes, they’re sorry and they want to be forgiven. Boomers weighed the downside – which really amounted to nothing more than a one-time admission of imperfection and weakness in return for permanent peace with God – and figured it was a no-brainer, a can’t-lose transaction. The consequence has been millions of Boomers who said the prayer, asked for forgiveness and went on with their life, with virtually nothing changed.

“Sadly,” the researcher continued, “they misunderstand the heart of the matter. They saw it as a deal in which they could exploit God and get what they wanted without giving up anything of consequence. But very few American Christians have experienced a sense of spiritual brokenness that compelled them to beg God for His mercy and acceptance through the love of Christ. We have a nation of ‘Christians’ who took the best offer, but relatively few who were so humiliated and hopeless before a holy and omnipotent God that they cried out for undeserved compassion. That helps to explain why in practical terms it’s hard to tell the difference between those who have beliefs that characterize them as born again and those who don’t; the difference between the two groups is based on semantics more than a desperate plea for grace that triggered an intentional effort to live a transformed life.” In his book, Barna encourages church leaders to reconsider how we present the gospel to America and to examine the impact that current spiritual approaches are having upon self-satisfied, spiritually complacent people.

Additional Details in the Book

The State of the Church: 2002 is another addition to a line of data-based books that Barna began writing in 1991 which describe the details of his annual religious tracking data. Barna has not written an annual report of this nature since the publication of Virtual America in 1995. In the new volume, each chapter explores one of the tracking factors, providing historical comparisons for the measure as well as an analysis of the attitude, belief or behavior according to subgroups (such as gender, age, ethnicity and region). The new book is available only through the Barna Research Group. More information about the book and the research on which it is based can be obtained through the Barna Research website (www.barna.org) or by calling 1-800-55-BARNA.

“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.”

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet 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; believing 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 has no relationship to church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

Key Religious Trend Data for 2002
 
%
Church attendance, typical week
43%
Bible reading, typical week
42%
Pray to God, typical week
81%
Attend a small group, typical week
18%
Attend a Sunday school class, typical week
25%
Religious faith is very important in your life
66%
Strongly disagree: Jesus Christ committed sins
40%
Strongly disagree: Satan is just a symbol of evil
24%
Born again Christian (based on beliefs)
40%
Evangelical Christian (based on beliefs)

 

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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