Apr 11, 2005

From the Archives

Annual Barna Group Survey Describes Changes in America’s Religious Beliefs and Practices

More than nine out of ten American adults engage in some type of faith-related practice during a typical week. This is one of the numerous findings revealed in a new report by researcher and author George Barna, drawn from the national survey of religious beliefs and practices that his company has been conducting every January since 1991. The report provides information concerning 45 different faith-related beliefs, behaviors and perspectives.

Your Leadership Toolkit

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

The data for 2005 were generated from a study in January by The Barna Group based on a nationwide survey of a random sample of 1003 adults. That survey asked the same questions about religious practices and perspectives that his company has been tracking in national surveys each January for the last fifteen years. With the release of the report, entitled The State of the Church: 2005Barna revealed several of the outcomes described in greater detail in the research.

Bible Reading Increases

One outcome described is the small but noteworthy increase in Bible reading. Currently, 45% of adults read the Bible during a typical week, not including when they are at church. That figure represents a minimal increase over the past few years, but a significant rise from the 31% measured in 1995, the lowest level of Bible reading recorded by Barna in the past 15 years. The current statistic is still below the levels achieved in 1980s and early 1990s, but the report shows that the trend is upward.

The rise in Bible reading is largely attributable to increases in this behavior among Baby Busters and residents of the western states. In the early Nineties, about three out of ten Busters read the Bible in a given week; today that ratio stands at four out ten. Meanwhile, just one-third of people in the West read the Bible in the early and mid-Nineties, whereas close to half of them do so these days (47%). Not surprisingly, born again adults have led the return to God’s Word since 1990. After hitting a low of just 54% in 1997, the percentage of born again individuals who have read from the Bible in the past seven days has returned to a full two-thirds of that group (67%).

The group whose people are most likely to read the Bible during the week are evangelicals. Nearly nine out of ten (88%) explore God’s Word during a typical week.

Evangelical and Born Again Christians

Despite the media frenzy surrounding the influence of evangelical Christians during the 2004 presidential election, the new study indicates that evangelicals remain just 7% of the adult population. That number has not changed since the Barna Group began measuring the size of the evangelical public in 1994.

Barna surveys do not ask people to define themselves as “evangelical” but instead categorize people as such based on their beliefs. In this approach, evangelicals a subset of born again Christians. In addition to meeting the born again criteria (described below) evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; contending that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; stating that Satan exists; maintaining that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not by being good or doing good deeds; asserting that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; saying that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. In this framework, being classified as “evangelical” is not dependent upon any kind of church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

Several segments of the population are more likely than average to be found within evangelical circles. The vast majority of evangelicals are Protestant; less than 1% of Catholics fit the description. Similarly, adults who describe themselves as conservative on social and political matters are much more likely to fit the definition than are those who say they are liberal in their thinking on such matters (17% versus 1%, respectively). The largest concentration of evangelicals lives within the South; the most limited number resides in the Northeast. Even though all evangelicals are born again Christians, less than one out of five born again adults (18%) meet the evangelical criteria.

The report also illustrates the comparatively enormous size of the born again constituency. As with the term “evangelical”, the phrase “born again Christian” is not assigned to those people who call themselves by that name. Barna’s surveys categorize people as born again if they say they “have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in my life today” and also contend that after they die they will “go to Heaven because I have confessed my sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as my savior.” Four out of ten adults fit this definition.

When all of the atheists, agnostics and adults associated with non-Christian faith groups are combined, they are only half as numerous as the born again segment (21% compared to 40% respectively). The remaining body of people – 39% of the nation’s adult population – is what Barna categorizes as “notional Christians” – people who consider themselves to be Christian but are not born again. For more than a decade, the sizes of the born again and notional segments have been roughly equivalent.

Your Leadership Toolkit

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

Other Measures

Among the nearly four-dozen religious measures reported in The State of the Church: 2005 are church attendance, the percentage of unchurched people, prayer, donating to churches, use of Christian media, accountability relationships, core beliefs, perceived purpose of life, the highest priority in life, and perception of self as a full-time servant of God and being deeply spiritual.

George Barna, who has overseen the measurement of these factors since the tracking process began in 1991, noted that religious change generally occurs at a glacial pace. “The meter hasn’t budged for most of the trends we have been following over these 15 years,” the researcher noted. “The only discernible increases have been in the number of unchurched adults, those who are participating in small groups or cell groups, and the percentage of born again Christians who share their faith with non-Christians. The decreases relate to church attendance, Sunday school involvement, the percentage of people who align with Catholicism, and the number who have a biblical view of God’s character. In general, predicting next year’s religious statistics is safer than foretelling whether the Cubs will win the World Series.”

The report on faith in America is Barna’s first published overview of the state of the nation’s faith since 2002. It not only shows the general trends related to the various measures of faith but also describes the demographics underlying each measure. In the final section of the report Barna provides a series of reflections on the meaning of the information.

“You cannot make good strategic decisions without reliable information about the people or situations you hope to change,” the California-based researcher explained. “This document is designed to help leaders within the faith community reconsider the strategies they have been pursuing toward introducing significant spiritual change. The long-term absence of real change on key measures of religious belief and behavior screams for a change of direction and a more radical approach to spiritual growth amidst a population that clearly has settled into comfortable spiritual routines and perspectives.

“Bringing about genuine and lasting religious transformation,” the author continued, “requires leadership that is more aggressive than simply constructing bigger buildings, replacing the overhead projector with a big-screen projection system, and introducing a few new programs. Our era is noted for distractions, stress, technology, choice, busyness, information overload and mistrust. Effective leaders must spearhead a thoroughly conceived and highly targeted plan that runs a significant level of risk and promises attractive returns on people’s investment of themselves. Merely tinkering with the existing system is a recipe for irrelevance and abandonment.”

Research Source and Methodology

The data reported in this summary are based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1003 adults conducted in late January of 2005 by The Barna Group. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Similar surveys have been conducted every January since 1991 by the company with random samples of adults ranging from 1001 to 1205 people. All non-institutionalized adults in the 48 contiguous states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents in the survey sample corresponds to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. The data were subjected to slight statistical weighting procedures to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative distribution of adults.

Your Leadership Toolkit

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

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.

Get Barna in your inbox

Subscribe to Barna’s free newsletters for the latest data and insights to navigate today’s most complex issues.