Even though George Barna has been conducting national public opinion surveys for a quarter-century, surprises emerge each year from those studies. The California-based researcher traditionally ends each year by identifying some of the unexpected and most significant findings of the passing year. Barna released his list of the twelve most noteworthy results of 2006, and described a few themes that ran through this year’s surveys.
Barna selected the following dozen outcomes as the most significant findings of 2006.
- Although large majorities of the public claim to be “deeply spiritual” and say that their religious faith is “very important” in their life, only 15% of those who regularly attend a Christian church ranked their relationship with God as the top priority in their life. As alarming as that finding was, its significance was magnified by research showing that on average pastors believe that 70% of the adults in their congregation consider their relationship with God to be their highest priority in life. For related information, see the January 10th Barna Update.
- Three out of every four teenagers have engaged in at least one type of psychic or witchcraft-related activity. Among the most common of those endeavors are using a Ouija board, reading books about witchcraft or Wicca, playing games involving sorcery or witchcraft, having a “professional” do a palm reading or having their fortune told. Conversely, during the past year fewer than three out of every ten churched teenagers had received any teaching from their church about elements of the supernatural.
- The notion of personal holiness has slipped out of the consciousness of the vast majority of Christians. While just 21% of adults consider themselves to be holy, by their own admission large numbers have no idea what “holiness” means and only one out of every three (35%) believe that God expects people to become holy. For related information, see the February 20th Barna Update.
- The growing movement of Christian Revolutionaries in the U.S. distinguished themselves from an already-select group of people – born again Christians – through their deeds, beliefs and self-views. Revolutionaries demonstrated substantially higher levels of community service, financial contributions, daily Bible study, personal quiet times each day, family Bible studies, daily worship experiences, engagement in spiritual mentoring, and evangelistic efforts. They also had a series of beliefs that were much more likely than those of typical born again adults to coincide with biblical teachings. Their self-perceptions were also dramatically different than that of other born again adults.
- Involvement in a house church is rapidly growing, although the transition is occurring with some trepidation: four out of every five house church participants maintain some connection to a conventional church as well. For related information, see the June 19th Barna Update.
- Evaluating spiritual maturity remains an elusive process for clergy as well as individuals. Across the nation, the only measure of spiritual health used by at least half of all pastors was the extent of volunteer activity or ministry involvement. Adults were no more consistent in their self-examination of their spirituality. For related information, see the January 10th Barna Update
- Most Americans have a period of time during their teen years when they are actively engaged in a church youth group. However, Barna’s tracking of young people showed that most of them had disengaged from organized religion during their twenties.
- A comparison of people’s faith before and after the September 11 terrorist attack showed that five years after the momentous day, none of the 19 faith measures studied had undergone statistically significant change. Those measures covered aspects such as religious behaviors, beliefs, spiritual commitment and self-identity.
- Seven out of ten parents claim they are effective at developing the spiritual maturity of their children, but the Barna survey among 8-to-12-year-olds discovered that only one-third of them say a church has made “a positive difference” in their life; one-third contend that prayer is very important in their life; most of them would rather be popular than to do what is morally right. In fact, “tweeners” (those ages 8 to 12) deem their family to be vitally important in their life, but just 57% said they look forward to spending time with their family and only one out of every three say it is easy for them to talk to their parents about things that matter to them.
- Relatively few people – just one out of every six – believe that spiritual maturity is meant to be developed within the context of a local church or within the context of a community of faith.
- Five of the highest-profile Christian leaders – Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, James Dobson, Tim LaHaye and T.D. Jakes – were unknown to a majority of the population. Most of those leaders were also unknown to most born again Christians. For related information, see the November 27th Barna Update.
- The faith contours of America continue to shift substantially over the course of time. The proportion of adults who are born again has risen dramatically in the past quarter century, from 31% to 45%. During the past two decades, every spiritual behavior has fluctuated significantly, with recent upsurge in Bible reading, church attendance, and small group involvement.
Patterns That Were Visible
George Barna noted that there were four themes that consistently emerged from the various surveys his firm conducted throughout the year.
“First of all,” noted Barna, “Americans are very comfortable with religious faith. Most adults and even teenagers see themselves as people of faith. Toward that end, they have definite opinions about religion, they possess well-honed beliefs, and invest substantial amounts of their time, money and energy in religious activities. Faith and spirituality remain hot issues in people’s lives. The mass media, through news and feature stories, also play a role in keeping spiritual issues in the forefront of people’s minds.” Barna identified some of the most prolific news stories of the year that involved religion: the role of evangelicals in the mid-term elections, Hollywood’s pursuit of the Christian audience, scandals concerning priests and ministers, the shooting of five Amish school children and their community’s response, the internal politics of the Episcopal Church, and the controversy involving Muslims and the Pope.
“Second,” he continued, “people do not have an accurate view of themselves when it comes to spirituality. American Christians are not as devoted to their faith as they like to believe. They have positive feelings about the importance of faith, but their faith is rarely the focal point of their life or a critical factor in their decision-making. The fact that few people take the time to evaluate their spiritual journey, or to develop benchmarks or indicators of their spiritual health, facilitates a distorted view of the prominence and purity of faith in their life.”
Barna’s third theme was that if people’s faith is objectively measured against a biblical standard of how faith is to be practiced, Americans are spiritually lukewarm. “Very limited effort is devoted to spiritual growth. Most Americans experience ‘accidental spiritual growth’ since there is generally no plan or process other than showing up at a church and absorbing a few ideas here and there. Even then, few people have a defined understanding of what they are hoping to become, as followers of Christ.” Barna attributed much of this to the numerous distractions common in most people’s lives.
Finally, the bestselling author of nearly 40 books contended that the most intriguing blip on the radar screen is the growth of various converging movements of deeply spiritual people who are departing from the conventional forms and communities of faith. “The Revolutionary community – which incorporates divergent but compatible groups of people who are seeking to make their faith the driving force in their life – is reshaping American faith in ways which we are just beginning to understand.” Few researchers and journalists are tracking the behavior and beliefs of those nascent segments.
The Future of American Faith
When asked what he saw on the horizon regarding Americans’ faith, Barna described findings from some research currently in process related to the future of faith. He listed three general patterns he expects to gain prominence in the coming years.
Diversity. There will be new forms of spiritual leadership, different expressions of faith, and greater variety in when and where people meet together to be communities of faith. Ecumenism will expand, as the emerging generations pay less attention to doctrine and more attention to relationships and experiences. Barna predicted that there will be a broader network of micro-faith communities built around lifestyle affinities, such as gay communities of faith, marketplace professionals who gather for faith experiences, and so forth.
Bifurcation. Barna expects to see a widening gap between the intensely committed and those who are casually involved in faith matters. The difference will become strikingly evident between those who make faith the core of their life and those who simply attach a religious component on to an already mature lifestyle.
Media. Spiritual content and experiences will be increasingly related to the use of media. New technologies that will gain market share over the coming decade will significantly reshape how people experience and express their faith, and the ways in which they form communities of faith.
During the past year Barna formed a company (Good News Holdings) with a group of media professionals to approach the faith community not only with facts and figures drawn from research but also with stories and imagery conveyed through media. Asked why he took this new approach, he stated that the job of a servant of God is to be an obedient missionary. “It’s important to go where the people are whom you wish to reach with your message, and then to communicate that message through the language and symbols that they understand,” he explained. “The typical American spends roughly twenty times more hours each week engaged with media than involved with all forms of traditional religious activity. In our society there is a false barrier between those two worlds, and we’re trying to bridge the gap.”
The data in this report are from a series of national surveys conducted by The Barna Group during the past 14 months with random samples of various population groups. Among those sample groups were adults (age 18 and older); teenagers (ages 13 through 18); tweeners (ages 8 through 12); and Protestant church Senior Pastors. Each survey included a minimum of 600 respondents, with most of the studies incorporating more than 1000 randomly-sampled, qualified individuals.”Born again Christians” are defined 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 are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.””Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus 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; asserting 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 is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.””Revolutionaries” were classified on the basis of meeting 11 specific criteria. They have a clear sense of the meaning and purpose of their life; describe their relationship with and faith in God as the top priority in their life; consider themselves to be “Christian”; read the Bible regularly; pray regularly; deem their faith to be very important in their life; contend that the main objective in their life is to love God with all their heart, mind, strength and soul; describe God as the “all-knowing, all-powerful being who created the universe and still rules it today”; have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today; believe that when they die they will go to heaven only because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior; and say that their faith in Christ has “greatly transformed” their life.
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.
Copyright Disclaimer: All the information contained on the barna.org website is copyrighted by The Barna Group, Ltd., 2368 Eastman Ave. Unit 12, Ventura, California 93003. No portion of this website (articles, graphs, charts, reviews, pictures, video clips, quotes, statistics, etc.) may be reproduced, retransmitted, disseminated, sold, distributed, published, edited, altered, changed, broadcast, circulated, or commercially exploited without the prior written permission from The Barna Group, Ltd.