Dec 17, 2002

From the Archives

Barna Identifies Seven Paradoxes Regarding America’s Faith

After reviewing three dozen survey-based reports he wrote during 2002, researcher George Barna noticed a pattern running through most of the studies. That pattern was one of paradoxes, contradictions and deception in people’s attitudes, opinions and beliefs related to their faith. Until these misunderstandings and misperceptions are addressed, he contends, it will be difficult for churches and individuals to focus effectively on faith development.

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The Success Paradox

In one national study Barna discovered that people’s views of success had little to do with their faith and spiritual wholeness. People focused on personal accomplishments, family solidarity and emotional fulfillment.

Barna notes that only 7% identified spiritual wholeness and development as the factor that will produce a successful life. “The Christian faith commends sacrifice, servanthood and sharing as the means to significance,” he noted. “How is it possible to have more than 120 million adults attending Christian churches on a regular basis, but only 15 million who grasp the message that success is not about personal accomplishment or material possessions?”

The Commitment Contradiction

Various studies conducted by Barna during 2002 pointed out how much Americans identified faith as a key factor in their life. Large majorities claimed that their “religious faith is very important” in their life and described themselves as “deeply spiritual.”

Yet, those same studies revealed that less than half of the people who describe themselves as Christian also described themselves as “absolutely committed to the Christian faith.” Less than one out of every ten regular attenders of Christian churches give 10% or more of their income – a “tithe” – to their church. A majority of teenagers attend a Christian church today, but only one-third is likely to do so once they reach adulthood. The persecution delivered by the terrorist attacks has produced no increase in spiritual practices, such as attending worship services, reading the Bible, praying, or serving the needy. Giving levels have actually decreased this year. In fact, not even half of Americans indicated that their faith had been an important factor in helping them process the effects of the terrorist attacks.

Barna suggested that many Americans may have fallen in love with faith rather than the object of their faith. “It’s much less demanding to be devoted to the idea of faith than to invest yourself in a true relationship with the living God. The data raise the question of just what people have become infatuated with: the idea of being a person of faith or the reality of having an intimate, growing relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Deceptions Regarding Truth

Almost everyone in the U.S. believes that truth exists. However, a large majority of both adults and teenagers, Christian and non-Christian, contends that there is no absolute moral truth. More than two out of three adults and more than four out of five teenagers argue that truth is always relative to the individual and the circumstances. While most of these people describe themselves as followers of Christ and say that the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings, they nevertheless believe that truth is based on feelings, experience or emotion.

“This is one of the great deceptions of our age,” Barna pointed out. “Embracing relativism under the guise of Christian faith facilitates comfort with sin. By claiming the authority to determine right from wrong, we crown ourselves the kings and queens of reality, yet we have no such authority and we constantly pay the price for the arrogance of believing and acting like we are in control of our destiny and experience. What an affront it is to God for us to claim His name and protection but to resist His moral truths on the basis of human feelings.

The Deception of the Worship Wars

In a study conducted for Baylor University’s Hearn Symposium on Music in the Church, the contours of the worship wars were evaluated. While many people believe that churches throughout the country are paralyzed by infighting over the style of music to use in worship services, the study found relatively few churches experiencing such angst. The bigger issues were people not understanding what worship is and who it is for – resulting in the failure to connect with God through genuine worship – and the widespread use of “blended worship,” which winds up hindering rather than helping people’s worship.

“The worship wars research is another example of the media creating a false reality on the basis of anecdotal analysis,” commented Barna. “The most important issues are sometimes the ones we’re most likely to ignore. In this case, the fact that most churches assume people know what worship is, that it is for God’s benefit and pleasure, and how to engage with God through worship has left millions of individuals spiritually crippled rather than spiritually empowered. Study after study emphasizes that we make assumptions about people’s spiritual understanding that are unjustified. The American Church desperately needs a back-to-basics movement to fill in the cracks in our spiritual understanding.”

The Contradictions Regarding Religious Beliefs

More than four out of five Americans claim to be Christian and half as many can be classified as born again Christians. Nine out of ten adults own a Bible. Most adults read the Bible during the year and a huge majority claims they know all of the basic teachings of the Bible. How, then, can most people say Satan does not exist, that the Holy Spirit is merely a symbol, that eternal peace with God can be earned through good works, and that truth can only be understood through the lens of reason and experience? How can a plurality of our citizens contend that Jesus committed sins and that the Bible, Koran and Book of Mormon all teach the same truths?

“In a sound bite society you get sound bite theology,” Barna lamented. “Americans are more likely to buy simple sayings than a system of truth that takes time and concentration to grasp. People are more prone to embrace diversity, tolerance and feeling good than judgment, discernment, righteousness and limitations. People are more focused on temporal security than eternal security and its temporal implications. Hopefully, once Christian leaders and teachers comprehend this we can be more devoted to effectively challenging the superficial spirituality of our nation. As Paul wrote in the letter to the Galatians, we are only fooling ourselves; God will not be mocked.”

The Paradox of Ineffective Outreach

A survey among Protestant pastors showed that evangelism and outreach ranked as the top priority of churches. Another survey indicated that Christian churches would raise and spend more than $50 billion on domestic ministry in 2002. Pastors also suggested that the September 11 attacks had created a new spiritual awareness among non-Christians.

However, Barna says that his latest surveys show that the proportions of both non-Christian adults and unchurched adults have remained unchanged since 2000. “In fact, because our population has increased, the number of unchurched and non-Christian people in the nation has actually grown.” The researcher also noted that a recent study showed that ministers, born again Christians and evangelicals do not enjoy a positive image in the eyes of non-Christian Americans. In fact, lawyers, real estate agents, and actors all have a better image than do evangelicals.

The year’s research also underscored the fact that half of the people who attend Christian churches on any given weekend are not Christian – that is, they do not trust in Christ alone for their eternal salvation. The vast majority of those people have been attending Christian churches for more than decade.

“Regardless of its true character and intent, the Christian community is not known for love, nor for a life transforming faith,” explained the researcher. “Outdated means of outreach, inappropriate assumptions about people’s faith, and a lack of passion for helping non-believers to receive God’s love and acceptance are hindering the Church from fulfilling its mandate. America remains one of the largest mission fields in the world, and the American Church remains the most richly endowed body of believers on the planet. There is no lack of potential.”

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The Deception of Effective Leadership

Most pastors are content with the way things are going in their ministry. A national survey among pastors revealed that a majority feels they are doing an excellent or good job in leading people spiritually in relation to 12 of the 13 areas of performance evaluated. (The exception was in the area of raising money for ministry.) In fact, the larger the church is, the more likely the pastor is to feel pleased with his performance as its leader.

Barna confessed confusion over that outcome. “Pastoring is a difficult job,” he acknowledged, “and it’s important not to become discouraged by the magnitude of the spiritual battle in which we are engaged – after all, we know that we are aligned with the winning camp. However, it’s a bit troubling to see pastors feel they’re doing a great job when the research reveals that few congregants have a biblical worldview, half the people they minister to are not spiritually secure or developed, kids are fleeing from the church in record numbers, most of the people who attend worship services admit they did not connect with God, the divorce rate among Christians is no different than that of non-Christians, only 2% of the pastors themselves can identify God’s vision for their ministry they are trying to lead, and the average congregant spends more time watching television in one day than he spends in all spiritual pursuits combined for an entire week. “Pastors, alone, cannot be held accountable for the spiritual disrepair of America. But it’s worrisome when there is a strong correlation between church size and self-satisfaction, because that suggests that attendance and budget figures have become our mark of success. It’s troubling when our spiritual leaders cannot articulate where we’re headed and how the Church will fulfill its role as the restorative agent of our society. Maybe the comfort afforded by our buildings and other material possessions has seduced us into thinking we’re farther down the road than we really are.”

Additional Reading and Resources

Research Methodology

The data described in this report are based on a dozen national telephone surveys conducted during the previous 12 months among nationally representative samples of adults, teenagers, and Protestant pastors. The surveys ranged in size from 301 to 1012, providing a maximum margin of sampling error that ranged from ±3.2 to ±5.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. (The sampling error for subgroups may be higher because the sample size of those segments is smaller. There are other types of error besides sampling error that may also be present in surveys.) All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. The distribution of the survey respondents coincided with the geographic dispersion of the survey population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable sample of adults.

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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