Aug 4, 2011

From the Archives

Barna Study of Religious Change Since 1991 Shows Significant Changes by Faith Group

There are many ways of categorizing people’s faith these days. In a new report from the Barna Group that is part of the State of the Church – 2011 annual tracking study, George Barna examines changes in 14 religious attributes in relation to some of those religious categories as they have unfolded since 1991. The four segments studied in the latest of the six newly-issued summaries are Catholics, Protestants, born again Christians, and self-identified Christians. Barna also offered commentary on the results in a new blog posting (

Your Leadership Toolkit

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


Self-Identified Christians

Most Americans – roughly four out of five – consider themselves to be Christians. For that majority, the past two decades have been a time of substantial religious change. Just as American society itself is in a state of substantial upheaval, so are those who declare themselves to be Christian redefining the core practices and beliefs of Christianity in America. Five of the six religious behaviors tracked underwent statistically significant changes since 1991, and five of the seven belief measures also changed notably.

The five transitions in religious behaviors included the following:

  • Attendance at a church service in any given week has declined among self-identified Christians by nine percentage points since 1991. Now only a minority of this group – 47% – can be found in church events during a typical week.
  • Adults from this segment are currently eight percentage points less likely to attend Sunday school in a typical week than was true twenty years ago. Less than one out of five (18%) now attend during a typical week.
  • Whereas 30% of the self-identified Christians volunteered at a church during a typical week back in 1991, that figure has declined to 22% today.
  • Bible reading dropped slightly over the last 20 years within this segment, going from 51% to 46%. This is another marker in which a majority of this group no longer participates.
  • Those who embrace the label “Christian” for themselves are now ten percentage points more likely to be unchurched than was true in 1991. The 31% who fit this profile have not attended any church service during the past six months, excluding special services such as weddings or funerals.

Among the belief measures tested, the following showed significant changes since 1991:

  • Three of the variables tracked reflected marginal change – five percentage points. There was a five-point increase in the self-identified Christians who claimed to have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ (up to 75% in 2011); a five-point drop in the proportion who contend that that “God is the all-knowing, all-powerful and perfect Creator of the universe who still rules the world today” (now down to 77%); and a similar decline among those who believe that Satan is a symbol of evil but not a living entity (now standing at 53%).
  • The largest change in beliefs was the ten-point decline in those who firmly believe that the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches. Only 43% of self-identified Christians now have such a strong belief in the Bible.
  • The percentage of self-identified Christians who meet the “born again” criteria – that is, those who contend they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today, and who also believe they will enter Heaven solely because they have confessed their sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior – jumped by seven percentage points, to 48%.

This group’s views about personal responsibility to evangelize and the importance of religious faith in their life did not budge over the past twenty years.

Born Again Christians

This category is comprised of people whose beliefs characterize them as born again; it is not based on people calling themselves “born again.” This segment, which now stands at 40% of all adults in the U.S., experienced significant changes in relation to all six religious behaviors tracked by the Barna Group.

  • The largest shifts in behavior pertained to the 14-point decline in adult Sunday school attendance (now 26%) and the 12-point drop in volunteering at church (down to 29%).
  • Attendance at church services in any given week decreased by seven percentage points over the last two decades among born again Christians, falling from 66% to 59%.
  • The proportion of born again adults who read the Bible during a typical week, not including when they are at a church event, has decreased by nine percentage points since 1991. The weekly average now resides at 62%.
  • Two behavioral statistics increased since 1991, one for the worse and the other of little consequence. The unfortunate shift is the increase in the unchurched among born again adults, which has risen by five percentage points to 19%. The neutral transition is the eight-point increase in born again adults who attend a large church (600 or more people).

Only one of the seven religious beliefs measured among born agains shifted significantly in the last two decades. That was the nine-point drop in the percentage of those who firmly believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches. In 1991, three-quarters of born again adults held that view, but it has declined to two-thirds of them today (65%).

Roman Catholics in the U.S.

Roman Catholics continue to represent the largest religious denomination in the United States, at about one-fifth of the adult population. The Catholic population has experienced three statistically meaningful changes in religious behaviors and three in religious beliefs since 1991.

  • Catholics are now 10 percentage points less likely to attend church services than they were in 1991 (down to 49%) and 10 points less likely to volunteer at their church (down to only 9%). They are also more likely to be unchurched now than they used to be, increasing in this behavior from 20% to 29%.
  • The beliefs that have shifted in the minds of Catholics include an eight-point decline in those who firmly believe the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches. That position has diminished among Catholics from one-third (34%) to one-quarter (26%). The other shifts were growth in the number who say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today (up seven points to 60%) and an eight-point increase in the proportion of Catholics who meet the born again criteria (now up to 24%)

Your Leadership Toolkit

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

Changes among Protestants

Protestants are also redefining the nature of their faith, as seen in the fact that all six religious behaviors changed significantly, and five of the eight religious beliefs tracked followed suit.

  • The four major church-related behaviors have all suffered in the past two decades. Church attendance in a typical week has dropped by five percentage points (down to 52%); adult Sunday school attendance has declined 11 points, to 25%; volunteerism is off by 11 points (now standing at 26%); and being unchurched has risen from 17% to 24%.
  • The likelihood of attending a large church (600 or more people) grew by seven percentage points. Fourteen percent of Protestant adults now align with such a church. That’s double the proportion discovered in 1991, but unchanged from a decade ago.
  • Personal Bible reading undertaken apart from church events has dipped by seven percentage points since 1991, now down to 57%. The good news is that this represents a rebound from the 48% registered in 2001.

Perhaps surprisingly, four of the five changes in the religious beliefs of Protestants represent change for the better.

  • The number of Protestants who have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that they consider to still be important in their life today has risen by eight percentage points, to 86%.
  • Protestants are eight points less likely to agree that Satan is merely a symbol of evil, not a living entity, than they were in 1991. About half of them (47%) accept that characterization of Satan.
  • Adopting a personal responsibility for evangelism has increased slightly among Protestants, from 33% to 38% over the past 20 years.
  • The proportion of Protestant adults that meets the “born again” criteria has risen from 53% to 65%.
  • The notion that the Bible is completely accurate in all of the principles it teaches is less popular among Protestants today. In 1991, 61% strongly believed that notion; today, 56% hold that belief.

In addition to analyzing the research for this Update, George Barna has also posted further commentary on these findings on his blog site (, as he has done in conjunction with the release of each of the five prior Updates on the state of the Church during the past week.

These six Updates about the faith changes in America closely follow the publication of George Barna’s latest book, Futurecast. A major release from Tyndale Publishers, this is Barna’s third decadal trends book, in the tradition of The Frog in the Kettle and Boiling Point. This latest entry describes national trends in a wide array of areas including family, lifestyles, entertainment, technology, values, attitudes, demographics, and media consumption, in addition to religious beliefs and behaviors.

Additional Reading and Resources

  • To read additional commentary about these trends, and to leave your own thoughts, go to

About the Research

The data from which the trends are drawn is based on the annual OmniPoll™ survey conducted by the Barna Group each January of 1,000 or more adults. The 1991 survey included 1,005 adults randomly selected from across the United States. The comparable 2011 survey included 1,621 randomly chosen adults. Although the Barna Group has been conducting such research since 1984, it was not until 1991 that many of the core tracking questions used by the company were developed and then followed annually.

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.