Dec 21, 2004

From the Archives

Barna’s Annual Review of Significant Religious Findings Offers Encouragement and Challenges

After a year of interviewing thousands of adults, ministers, and young people, many insights into the spiritual contours of Americans emerged from the studies conducted by The Barna Group. In his annual yearend summary of some of the highlights and lowlights from his company’s research, cultural analyst George Barna noted that there is reason to be encouraged – and concerned.

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Reflecting on the more than 10,000 interviews his firm completed during 2004, Barna identified some of the outcomes he felt were most noteworthy. Those facts were divided into four types: the most encouraging outcomes, the most surprising   findings, the most disappointing   revelations, and the most significant challenges.

Ten Encouraging Outcomes

In a year when the presidential election focused the spotlight on people’s faith, various Barna studies gave reasons to be encouraged about the faith of Americans. He offered these ten outcomes as particularly hopeful signs.

  • Most Americans want their faith in Christ to be reflected in public symbols and language, as evident in public places and policies. Consequently, they support retaining statements such as In God We Trust and One Nation Under God, displays of the Ten Commandments, and teaching creationism in schools.
  • A large majority of adults reject the idea of active homosexuals being ordained or retained within the clergy. For related information, see Public Divided on Marriage Amendment.
  • Most Americans – nearly two-thirds of them – continue to give significant amounts of money to churches and houses of worship. Not only did the dollar amount of donations rise, but about three out of every four dollars contributed to a non-profit entity was given to a church last year. For related information, see Giving to Churches Rose Substantially in 2003.
  • Born again Christians played a huge role in the outcome of the presidential election. They not only turned out in record numbers – they were a majority of the voters participating on election day – but their solidarity provided President Bush with the margin he needed for re-election.
  • Despite numerous economic, political and social challenges, African-Americans remain firmly committed to their Christian faith. They were more likely than people from white, Hispanic or Asian backgrounds to exhibit evidence of Christian practice and Christian belief. For related information, see Ethnic Groups Differ Substantially on Matters of Faith.
  • Thanks to the continued growth of the nation’s population, an estimated 22 million adults have been added to the numbers of churched individuals in the U.S. during the past decade.
  • The number of adults involved in small groups has jumped from 12% to 20% since 1994.
  • America’s youngest pastors are more aware of, and responsive to, the battle for the minds and hearts of children than are the older pastors.
  • Evangelicals stepped up and blended their faith with political action this year. Not only were they boldly in favor of seeing evidence of their faith in all walks of American life, but their unified presence during the election was a key to the outcome.
  • Half of all born again adults have endeavored to share their faith in Christ with a non-believer in the past year. Although a large share of those efforts are indirect – such as “lifestyle evangelism” – and few believers are aware of anyone accepting Christ as a result of their efforts, there is a veritable army of Christians who understand and accept the importance of bringing the good news to the world. For related information, see Evangelism is Most Effective Among Kids.

Ten Surprising Findings

Barna indicated that based on the comments he has received from people in response to various findings this year, he selected some survey results that were most likely to surprise people.

  • Hundreds of thousands of Americans embrace Jesus Christ as their savior for the first time in any given year. However, only 7% of those are likely to do so in direct response to the outreach efforts of a minister, whether it be through preaching, teaching, or a more personal form of interaction. For related information, see Evangelism is Most Effective Among Kids.
  • Although the West is often maligned as a spiritually bankrupt region, it is the area of the nation that has experienced the greatest increases in Bible reading, church attendance and small group participation in the past decade.
  • Baby Busters and Mosaics – i.e., people from the two youngest generations, under the age of 40 – are renowned for the emphasis they place upon the importance of personal relationships. However, when asked to identify the most satisfying element of their spiritual life, these people were the least likely to mention their relationships with other believers.
  • Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, was a stunning film that generated hundreds of millions of dollars and attracted millions of viewers. However, despite its undeniable emotional and spiritual force, few people accepted Jesus Christ as their savior as a result of watching that movie; few changed any of their religious beliefs or practices as a result; and less than one-half of one percent of the audience said the movie motivated them to be more active in evangelism.
  • For many years, the long-term commitment to Christ by people who were saved as children has been questioned. A national survey revealed, however, that people who embrace Christ before the age of 13 are more likely to remain absolutely committed to Christ in their adult years than are people who accept Christ in their teenage or adult years. For related information, see Evangelism is Most Effective Among Kids.
  • Churches and parachurch ministries have made divorce a widely-discussed matter in the past two decades. Yet, a majority of born again adults do not believe that divorce is a sin (excluding cases in which adultery is involved).
  • Public opinion was evenly divided on the Federal Marriage Amendment. The underpinning of this division was the notion that there is no moral truth on which to base such a law, and therefore people ought to be free to make their moral choices without legal intervention. For related information, see Public Divided on Marriage Amendment.
  • Two-thirds of all evangelicals support a constitutional amendment to establish Christianity as the official religion of the United States. Evangelicals are not alone in that desire, although they are the most prolific supporters. In total, one-third of all U.S. adults support the idea.
  • For the typical adult in America, the number of movies they watch during the year is greater than the number of worship services they attend.
  • Adherents of non-Christian faiths are twice as likely as born again Christians to engage in fasting for religious purposes.


Ten Disappointing Realities

Faith provides people with hope. Unfortunately, not all of the signs regarding the faith of Americans and the state of their churches are hopeful.

  • Born again adults who have been married are just as likely as non-born-again adults who have been married to eventually become divorced. Because the vast majority of born again marriages occurred after the partners had accepted Christ as their savior, it appears that their connection to Christ makes less difference in the durability of people’s marriages than many people might expect.
  • Faith has had a limited affect on people’s behavior, whether related to moral convictions and practices, relational activities, lifestyle choices or economic practices. Evangelical Christians, who are just 7% of the national population and less than 10% of those who consider themselves to be Christian, are the exception.
  • The sources of people’s greatest spiritual fulfillment are relatively bland in nature. Elements that reflect more intense personal involvement in faith or a relationship with Christ are among the least common sources of people’s spiritual fulfillment.
  • Just half of all Protestant Senior Pastors (51%) meet the criteria for having a biblical worldview. The criteria are believing that God is the all-knowing and all-powerful creator of the universe who still rules it today; that Jesus Christ never sinned; that Satan is real; that salvation is received through faith in Christ, not by good deeds; that every follower of Christ has a responsibility to share their faith with non-believers; that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; that absolute moral truth exists; and that absolute moral truth is described in the Bible.
  • Most adults admit that children do not get adequate spiritual and moral preparation in life, yet there is no aggressive or strategic effort being made to alter that unfortunate circumstance.
  • Only 8% of teenagers consider music piracy – defined as copying their CDs for friends and making unauthorized downloads of music from the Internet – to be morally wrong. For related information, see Fewer Than 1 in 10 Teenagers Believe that Music Piracy is Morally Wrong.
  • The good news is that most born again Christians donate money to religious causes. The bad news is that their generosity is limited. A mere 7% of born again adults tithed last year. For related information, see Giving to Churches Rose Substantially in 2003.
  • Churches are difficult to reach. Only 55% of Protestant churches provided telephone callers with a human response to their call attempt after multiple attempts made at different times of the day on a succession of days – during the holiday season!
  • Born again Christians and adults who attend Christian churches are more likely than atheists, agnostics, and adherents of non-Christian faiths to buy lottery tickets.
  • There seems to be a consistent degree of attrition of men from the Christian faith. The numbers of men who are unchurched is rising, while the numbers of men who are”deeply spiritual” and those who possess an active faith (attend church, pray and read the Bible during the week) is declining.


Ten Challenging Conditions

The various studies conducted during 2004 also revealed various conditions that are challenges to the Christian community for the days ahead.

  • Half of all adults are so satisfied with their spiritual life that there is nothing at all they wish to change or improve in the future. Another one-quarter listed changes that were quite general or not personally challenging.
  • Catholics lag significantly behind Protestants in most measures of spiritual practice and belief. For example, Catholics are less likely to read the Bible, contribute to their church, attend religious education classes, participate in a small group for religious purposes, share their faith in Christ with others, and volunteer at their church. They’re also less likely to be born again, to believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life, to believe that Satan is real, to contend that salvation is by faith alone, and to say that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches. Catholics are also less likely to have a biblical worldview.
  • Most evangelistic funding, events and programs emphasize reaching adults with the gospel. However, two-thirds of all Americans who accept Jesus Christ as their savior do so before they reach the age of 18. For related information, see Evangelism is Most Effective Among Kids.
  • Most Americans do not accept the notion that they are engaged in a spiritual battle. This is fueled by the widespread rejection of the notion that Satan is real, that salvation is by faith alone, and by the common acceptance of the idea that there are multiple paths to salvation. This also partially explains why only half of all self-described “Christians” are not “absolutely committed” to the Christian faith. For related information, see Religious Beliefs Remain Constant but Subgroups are Quite Different.
  • People who accept Christ as their savior when they are adults are less likely to embrace biblical theology than are those who accept Christ when they are children. For related information, see Evangelism is Most Effective Among Kids.
  • The number of unchurched adults in the United States has doubled since 1991. That growth has been especially pronounced among men, people under 40, singles, and people living in coastal states.
  • Tithing is pitifully uncommon. However, it is almost non-existent among people under the age of 40. For related information, see Giving to Churches Rose Substantially in 2003.
  • Female pastors are substantially different in their theological beliefs than are male pastors. They tend to be much more liberal in their views, are less likely to have a biblical worldview, are less likely to be born again, and more likely to have been divorced.
  • Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S. They are also the ethnic group least likely to possess biblical perspectives, to be Christian, and to engage in religious activity related to Christianity. For related information, see Ethnic Groups Differ Substantially on Matters of Faith.
  • Four out of ten adults have seen a movie in the past two years that has caused them to think more seriously about their faith. As the mass media and customized media capture an increasing share of people’s attention, Christians are challenged to figure out how to harness or address the power of such communication vehicles for the advancement of Christianity.


The Future of the Christian Church

Reacting to what he jokingly called his company’s “annual greatest hits compilation,” Barna stated that the research conducted during the past year shows that there is still much to discover about the role of faith in people’s lives. “People’s religious beliefs change very little, if at all, after the age of 12,” the California-based researcher noted, “but the way in which they apply those beliefs to their lifestyle and societal situations, and the degree to which they allow their faith to affect their behavior, is constantly shifting. Staying informed about the relationship between faith and lifestyle is a never-ending process. Having some influence on the faith-related choices that drive behaviors is similarly challenging.”

The leader of The Barna Group also indicated that during 2005 his company will study the newly-emerging forms of the Christian faith. “During this past year we learned that there is a rapidly growing contingent of the population for whom the typical forms of worship, faith formation, engagement and spiritual community do not work well. This group is already multiple millions strong and is developing and embracing new approaches to being the Church. Research we are conducting related to this re-engineering of the Christian faith in American society promises to be some of the most interesting work we have done to date.”

Research Methods

The data described in this report are based on a nationwide telephone surveys conducted throughout 2004 by The Barna Group. In each survey, a minimum of 1000 adults were interviewed, providing a maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults of ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

People in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those individuals coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. The data were subjected to minimal statistical weighting to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the telephone sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

“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.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

“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; contending that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; stating that Satan exists; maintaining that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; asserting that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; saying that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Further, respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.” Being classified as “evangelical” is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

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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