Dec 3, 2007

From the Archives

Barna Finds Four Mega-Themes in Recent Research

A high-profile research firm has published a description of the four most salient trends that emerged from its studies throughout 2007. The Barna Group continually tracks cultural changes, especially in relation to matters of faith, entertainment, lifestyles and values. A special analysis of thousands of interviews the company conducted during 2007 identifies several patterns that are significantly affecting the development of American culture. Those transformations were described as Americans’ unconditional self-love; nouveau Christianity; the five Ps of parenting; and designer faith with rootless values.

Barna Access Plus

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

Americans Accept Themselves Unconditionally

Barna studies underscored the fact that Americans have a high opinion of themselves – and lingering reservations about others. Despite their self-satisfaction, many Americans want to continue to change and grow.

Among the terms that more than four out of five adults selected to describe themselves were loyal, reliable, independent thinker, supportive of traditional family values, clear about the meaning and purpose of their life, making a positive difference in the world, and well-informed about current events. More than two out of three also noted that they are open to new ideas and easily adapt to change.

The prevailing paths to maturation, however, are usually not characterized by planned or intentional development; instead, engagement in a series of adventurous experiments seems to be the norm. When it does occur, growth takes place rather unpredictably, and the changes accepted are typically adopted on the basis of feelings. Most Americans, it seems, are willing to change as long as the pathway promises benefit and enjoyment, and generally avoids pain, conflict and sacrifice.

The data also indicated that Americans increasingly require unique personal applications for the things they experience. Somewhat paradoxically, they also want to be seen as being in the mainstream of what’s happening in society. It seems that many Americans are seeking to be viewed as individuals distinct from the ever-growing masses.

Another oddity observed through the research is that adults – especially those under 30 – regularly strive to be connected to a substantial number of other people and yet possess a nagging sense of loneliness, isolation and restlessness. The constant involvement with social networking via the Internet, text messaging and phone calls via mobile devices, and frequent appearances at common hangouts (think Starbucks, movie theaters and favorite restaurants) are manifestations of the investment in relationships and connections that are important but somehow not as fulfilling as desired.

Barna Access Plus

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

Nouveau Christianity

The research discovered that people are reframing not just faith in general, but Christianity in particular. While slightly fewer adults – and many fewer teens – are identifying themselves as Christians these days, the image of the Christian faith has taken a beating. This battered image is the result of a combination of factors: harsh media criticism, “unchristian” behavior by church people, bad personal experiences with churches, ineffective Christian leadership amid social crises, and the like. The result is that those who choose to remain Christian – however they define it – are also reformulating the popular notion of what “Christian” and the Christian life mean. Some of those changes are producing favorable outcomes, while others are less appealing.

For instance, a generational analysis of the Barna data showed that spiritual practices among those who claim to be Christians are shifting dramatically. New practices are in vogue: embracing racial diversity and tolerance within congregations; pursuing spiritual diversity in conversations and relationships; valuing interpersonal connections above spiritual education; blending all forms of the arts and novel forms of instruction into religious events; and accepting divergent forms of spiritual community (e.g., house churches, intentional communities, marketplace ministries). Traditional ventures such as integrating discipline and regimen in personal faith development are becoming less popular. Repeating the same weekly routines in religious events is increasingly deemed anachronistic, stifling and irrelevant. Rigidity of belief – which includes the notion that there are absolute moral and spiritual truths – perceived by a large (and growing) share of young people to be evidence of closed-mindedness.

The result is a nouveau form and structure for the Christian faith that will have broad-based consequences on the practice of Christianity for years to come.

The 5 Ps of Parenting

Most parents want to do a great job of raising their children. However, Barna studies conducted throughout the year among parents of children under 18 revealed that few parents have a strategy or plan for how they will accomplish that goal. There are, however, five primary outcomes that most parents have focused upon and serve as a de facto strategy. George Barna, author of the book Revolutionary Parenting, about parenting strategies, called them the “five P’s of parental hope.”

1. Preparation. Millions of parents enroll their youngsters in numerous and varied activities in order to prepare their children for success. Most parents do not see themselves as the key to grooming a well-rounded child; they believe their role is to place their child in developmental environments and under the tutelage of those who can take their prodigies to the next level of proficiency.

2. Performing well. Parents look for measures of productivity that indicate how their child is doing on the path to success. Good grades in school, scoring in sports, and performing well in artistic endeavors are among the measures parents rely upon, as well as feedback from other parents, teachers, coaches, pastors and other experts.

3. Pressure management. Amidst significant parental expectations, stiff academic standards and peer pressure, many kids struggle to stay healthy and balanced. Parents who are cognizant of these mounting pressures attempt to help their offspring learn how to manage stress, competition and disappointments.

4. Protection. The age-old problem of bullies – still considered by kids, parents and teachers to be a significant issue – can be added to such parental fears as kidnapping, drugs, and sexualization, making the security of children one of the top priorities of parents.

5. Public perception. In a society where image is reality, and parents are as anxious about their image as a parent as they are about their child’s image in their peer group, influencing public perceptions is a major concern among parents. Like politicians, many parents hone their skills in spin control and positioning in order to place them and their children in the best possible light.

Barna’s surveys point out that most parents underestimate the influence they can exert on their children. Consequently, they often focus on the 5 Ps but neglect emphasis upon activities that would strengthen their relational bond with the children. Many parents, even those who are born again Christians, also overlook the need to foster deeper a connection between their children and God, or to enhance the child’s worldview as a critical component of their decision-making skills.

Designer Faith, Rootless Values

As young adults, teenagers and adolescents have become accustomed to radical individualism, they have introduced such thinking and behavior into the faith realm, as well. Faith is an acceptable attribute and pursuit among most young people. However, their notions of faith do not align with conventional religious perspectives or behavior. For instance, young people are still likely to claim the label “Christian,” but the definition of that term has been broadened beyond traditional parameters.

In fact, the values that young people are prone to embrace are often consistent with Christian beliefs but are not based on biblical foundations. For instance, while young Americans have adopted values such as goodness, kindness and tolerance, they remain skeptical of the Bible, church traditions, and rules or behaviors based upon religious teaching.

A Challenging Future

As 2008 looms on the horizon, George Barna, chairman of the company that conducted the research projects throughout the year, encouraged people to approach the future with purpose and creativity.

“It is a well-established fact that our society is continually re-inventing itself. The outcome of such innovation and change, however, is largely dependent on the guidance provided by cultural leaders,” Barna noted. “It is the core function of a leader to help people apply their creative ideas and energy to reinvigorating society in alignment with a positive and preferable vision of the future. Without a shaping influence that produces a common good, we devolve into anarchy.

“Each of us has an obligation to do what is best not just for ourselves but for others in the world, too,” Barna cautioned. “Our society is running the risk of becoming so independent and self-absorbed that we will abandon our responsibility to society and to making the world a better place. 2008 will be an important year as America chooses future political leaders, pursues new spiritual forms, and shapes critical social policies. The choices will greatly influence the character of America for years to come. Hopefully, Americans will choose to apply their levels of personal influence in ways that generate social good, not just personal security and satisfaction. Identifying what each of us can do to avoid radical self-interest in favor of a more compassionate and collaborative society should find a place on everyone’s list of New Year’s resolutions.”

Additional Reading and Resources

Barna Access Plus

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

About the Research

This report is based upon a year’s worth of national telephone and online surveys among adults, teenagers and adolescents conducted by The Barna Group. Each of the surveys included a minimum of 600 respondents and a maximum of 2000, all randomly selected from the general population.

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.