Mar 5, 2001

From the Archives

Annual Study Reveals America Is Spiritually Stagnant

The only constant in our society is change – unless, that is, you’re studying faith. The annual State of the Church survey, a representative nationwide study of the nation’s faith practices and perspectives by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California was released today, showing that while Americans remain interested in faith and consider themselves to be religious people, little has changed in relation to the religious practices of Americans in recent years.

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Minor Changes in Behavior

In the past twelve months, twelve of the thirteen factors tracked have experienced no change, and one factor underwent a marginal decline. The one behavioral change identified was a four-percentage-point drop in adults who said they had spent time by themselves during the past week praying and reading the Bible or devotional literature (i.e. a “quiet time”).

There was surprisingly little difference in the ten measures that have been tracked in the past five years. Among those behaviors, eight remained stable while just two showed a significant shift – and even those changes were marginal. Specifically, since 1995 there has been a five-point increase in the percentage of adults who say they are “absolutely committed” to the Christian faith, and a five-point drop in the proportion who had attended church in the past seven days.

When the current statistics are compared to those of a decade ago, a greater number of transitions are evident. Five of the seven measures that were examined in 1991 have experienced statistically significant change. Those included a small increase in the percentage of adults who can be classified as “born again” Christians (based upon their beliefs, not self-identification as “born again”), rising from 35% in 1991 to 41% in 2001. The four behaviors that declined in frequency – each measured in terms of participation in the previous week – were Bible reading (down from 45% to 37%); church attendance (down from 49% to 42%); volunteering at church (down from 27% to 20%); and adult Sunday school attendance (down from 23% to 19%).

Born Again Christians Differ

There were ten measures in the 2001 study on which born again Christians and non-Christians could be compared – and on all ten, the Christians were notably different. The most noteworthy distinctions were:

  • Christians were more than twice as likely as others who attend a Christian church to say they are “absolutely committed” to the Christian faith (71% vs. 28%);
  • believers were nearly three times as likely to read the Bible during a typical week (60% vs. 22%);
  • the born again segment was twice as likely to attend church in a typical week (61% vs. 29%);
  • Christian adults were four times as likely as were non-Christians to attend a Sunday school class (34% vs. 9%);
  • believers were three times as likely to have attended a small group during the week (28% vs. 9%) and to have volunteered at their church in the past seven days (33% vs. 11%);
  • born again adults were more than twice as likely as were their non-born again counterparts to have had a “quiet time” during the past week (72% vs. 34%);
    In addition adults who were not born again were four times as likely to be unchurched (47% vs. 12%).In spite of these distinctions, the survey pointed out areas for potential growth within the population of born again adults. For instance, four out of ten born again Christians do not attend church or read the Bible in a typical week, three out of ten say they are not “absolutely committed to the Christian faith” and seven out of ten are not involved in a small group that meets for spiritual purposes. The data also confirmed that there are more than ten million born again Christians who are unchurched. The profile of unchurched adults and their reasons for rejecting the Christian Church – and how they might be attracted back to a local church – is the subject of a recently released book (Re-Churching the Unchurched) by George Barna, the researcher whose firm conducted the national survey.

The Catholic-Protestant Divide

Differences in religious behavior between Catholics and Protestants remain significant. The survey found that both groups have a similar incidence of church attendance and prayer in a typical week, but Protestants are significantly more likely than Catholics to read the Bible (47% vs. 25%), attend a Sunday school class (28% vs. 3%), participate in a small group (22% vs. 9%), have a quiet time (58% vs. 46%), and volunteer at their church (25% vs. 15%) during a typical week. A bare majority of Protestants (53%) described themselves as “absolutely committed to the Christian faith” while only a minority of Catholics made the same claim (39%). Protestants were also somewhat more likely to have shared their faith in Jesus Christ with a non-Christian during the previous year. However, the twelve-point margin (56% vs. 44%) represents a smaller gap than has traditionally been the case.

Following a long-time trend, Protestants are more than twice as likely as Catholics to be born again Christians (57% vs. 22%). However, about one out of every five Catholics is born again, meaning that one out of every eight born again adults is affiliated with a Catholic church. That leaves Catholics as the second-largest group of born again adults in the U.S., trailing Baptists, but more numerous than born again adults associated with Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal or Assembly of God churches.

The Generation Gap Persists

People’s age is clearly related to their religious activities. There were two general patterns in relation to faith and age. One trend shows that the younger a person is, the less likely he/she is to engage in the religious behavior being evaluated. For instance, the study showed that 34% of Baby Busters (people ages 18 to 35) say they are “absolutely committed to the Christian faith,” compared to 52% of Baby Boomers (ages 1946-64), 63% of the Builders (ages 55 to 73), and 70% of the Seniors (ages 74 and older). The same pattern exists in connection to reading the Bible and having a quiet time.

A second, even more common age-related pattern was for the three older generations (Seniors, Builders and Boomers) to have similar incidence levels in relation to a particular religious measure, but for Baby Busters to lag significantly behind their elders. Examples of this pattern were evident in relation to prayer, church attendance, and volunteerism. In a similar way, Baby Busters had the highest percentage of unchurched individuals.

Among the surprises regarding the generational data were the low involvement levels of the Baby Busters regarding prayer and small groups. Busters have typically indicated their interest in spirituality and prayer, yet their self-reported participation in prayer (76% within the past week) is considerably lower than that of any other generation (85% among older adults). Similarly, while Busters tend to be the most relational generation and prefer dialogical instructional approaches to lecture-driven methods, only 14% of Busters are currently involved in a small group, compared to 19% of older adults.

One of the most important differences was the percentage of born again Christians by age group. Again, Busters were at the low end of the scale: just one-third of Busters (33%) were born again, compared to 49% of Boomers, 44% of Builders, and 36% of Seniors.

Ethnic Disparities Evident

Age was not the only factor that produced significant differences in people’s spiritual behavior: ethnicity also generated some considerable distinctions. Most notably, whites and blacks had unique profiles. Whites and Hispanics were unexpectedly similar in their faith profiles.

Blacks were much more likely than either whites or Hispanics to read the Bible, pray to God, attend Sunday school, participate in a small group, and have a quiet time during a typical week. Church attendance levels were the same among all three groups, and the likelihood of born again individuals sharing their faith with non-believers was also equivalent across all three of the major ethnic groups.

Hispanic adults were distinct in that they were by far the least likely to say they were “absolutely committed to the Christian faith” – only 30% said so, compared to 51% of blacks and whites. Although blacks and whites had a similar likelihood of being born again, Hispanics had a much lower probability: just 27% of Hispanics were born again, compared to 42% among whites and 45% among blacks. This, of course, is closely related to the fact that a much higher percentage of Hispanics than either whites or blacks are aligned with the Catholic church.

Gender Inequalities

Women proved to be much more spiritually inclined than men in relation to most of the religious measures examined. Females were more likely to say they were absolutely committed to Christianity (10 percentage points higher), read the Bible (+10 points), attend church (+11 points), pray to God (+13 points), participate in a small group (+7 points), and have a quiet time (+14 points). The differences between the two genders were statistically insignificant regarding volunteering at church, attending Sunday school and sharing their faith. Men were much more likely to be unchurched (38% vs. 29%), meaning that they had not attended a church service other than for a special event such as a wedding or funeral at any time in the past six months.

Women were also more likely than were men to be born again by a 45%-to-36% margin.

Distinctions by Region

The comparatively extensive spiritual commitment among residents of the Bible Belt lives on, in spite of the mobility of America’s population and the common information sources that influence our nation. The spiritual zeal of southerners, however, is not as prolific as in the past. Currently, the South outranks the other three regions on six of the thirteen factors, and along with the Midwest, surpasses the spiritual involvement of the Northeast and West on three others.

People in the South are more likely to report being absolutely committed to Christianity, reading the Bible, attending Sunday school, and having a quiet time. They are also more likely to be born again (50% vs. 39% in the rest of the nation) and to be an evangelical (10% vs. 5% in the rest of the country).

On all thirteen of the faith factors tested the lowest ranked region was either the Northeast or the West. The Northeast had the lowest scores regarding the number of people who described themselves as Christians; the percentage who had read the Bible during the past week; and the proportion who were born again (28%). The West fared worst on volunteerism. The two regions shared the honors of coming in last on each of the other nine factors examined.

America Needs a Spiritual Shake-Up

The annual survey produced some other noteworthy insights, according to George Barna, president of the company that conducts the survey. “In a typical week, 41% of the adults attending Christian churches are not born again. Although the figures are substantially higher in Catholic churches, more than one-third of the Protestant church-goers are not born again. Most of those people have been attending Christian churches for years and years, without really understanding the foundations of the Christian faith and its personal implications. You have to wonder if we are sufficiently connected to the people attending our churches to know where they stand spiritually, and sufficiently concerned about their spiritual condition to share the fundamental truths and principles of Christianity in ways they can understand and embrace.”

Barna suggested that the nation seems mired in spiritual complacency. “America certainly did not experience the spiritual revival that many Christians hoped would emerge as the new millennium began. In fact, Americans seem to have become almost inoculated to spiritual events, outreach efforts and the quest for personal spiritual development. There are magnificent exceptions throughout the country, but overall, Christian ministry is stuck in a deep rut. Our research continues to point out the need for behavioral modeling, strategic ministry and a more urgent reliance upon God to change people’s lives. Like the churches of Laodicea and Sardis, described in the Bible as distasteful to God because of their complacency and spiritual deadness, too many Christians and churches in America have traded in spiritual passion for empty rituals, clever methods and mindless practices. The challenge to today’s Church is not methodological. It is a challenge to resuscitate the spiritual passion and fervor of the nation’s Christians.”

Survey Methodology

The data described above are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1005 adults. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The data for previous years’ surveys was conducted in the same manner, using the same sampling techniques and survey questions, and also based on samples of 1000 or more randomly selected adults. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults.

“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; 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.”

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984 it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of attitudes, values and behavior.

If you would like to receive a bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna Research home page.


The State of the Church in America
(based on national random samples of 1000+ adults)
ACTIVITY 2001200019961991
consider themselves to be Christian85%86%84%82%
born again Christian41413935
evangelical Christian07080907
“absolutely committed to the Christian faith”*494944NA
activities in the past 7 days:
read the Bible, other than at church37403445
attended a church service42403749
volunteered at a church20212127
prayed to God828383NA
attended a Sunday school class19191723
participated in a small group that met for religious
purposes (Bible, prayer, etc.)
had a private time to pray and read the
Bible/devotional literature
shared faith in Christ during past year**5958NANA
* indicates asked only of people who said they are “Christian”
** indicates asked only of people who are born again Christians


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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