May 21, 2007

From the Archives

Barna’s Annual Tracking Study Shows Americans Stay Spiritually Active, But Biblical Views Wane

It is hard to miss Americans’ comfort with and interest in spirituality. Most adults say that their religious faith is very important in their life. Two-thirds of the nation’s adult population firmly embraces the idea that their most important purpose is to love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength. However, a deeper look at people’s full array of spiritual beliefs and behavior calls into question the sincerity of their commitment.

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Every year, The Barna Group explores the state of America’s faith, examining various facets of people’s spiritual activity, faith identity, commitment and religious perspective. According to the 2007 survey, while their spiritual activities and religious identity have changed little compared to recent years, the area undergoing the most change is what Americans believe.

The Barna study, which began exploring the nation’s religious behavior and beliefs in 1984, shows that commitment to orthodox biblical perspectives is slipping in a number of areas.

How Beliefs Have Changed

It is not unusual to spot minor ebbs and flows in what adults believe. However, the 2007 study of the nation’s core beliefs found that five out of six theological perspectives have shifted in recent years away from traditional biblical views. This includes perspectives about three spiritual figures: God, Jesus, and Satan.

Most Americans still embrace a traditional view of God, but they are less likely than ever to do so. Currently two-thirds of Americans believe that God is best described as the all-powerful, all-knowing perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today (66%). However, this proportion is lower than it was a year ago (71%) and represents the lowest percentage in more than twenty years of similar surveys.

Few adults possess orthodox views about Jesus and the Devil. Currently, just one-third of Americans strongly disagree that Jesus sinned (37%) and just one-quarter strongly reject the idea that Satan is not a real spiritual being (24%). Each of these beliefs is lower than last year and among the lowest points in nearly two decades of tracking these views.

The other changes in beliefs include greater reluctance to explain their faith to other people (just 29% strongly endorse this view, compared with 39% in 2006) and the willingness to reject good works as a means to personal salvation (down to 27% from 31%).

Given these shifts, it is ironic that the only religious belief that was unchanged from previous years was the belief that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches. Not quite half of Americans (45%) strongly assert this perspective.

American Spiritual Activity – More of the Same

The Barna study also examined 10 areas of religious engagement. Involvement levels for eight of those activities were statistically no different than 2006. The two activities that had changed included the following: Americans were less likely to volunteer at church and less likely to read the Bible. Although these had declined from the participation norms measured in 2006, they were not statistically distinct from the engagement levels of a decade ago. In other words, even in those areas where there has been recent fluctuation in religious behavior, the net effect of those changes has done very little to alter the overall religious engagement of Americans.

The 2007 study showed that among the ten activities studied, Americans are most likely to pray. More than four out of every five Americans (83%) said they had prayed in the last week. This was followed by attending a church service (43%) and reading the Bible outside of church worship services (41%). Notably, just one-quarter of adults possess an active faith, meaning they engage in all three of these activities (pray, attend church, and read the Bible in a typical week).

Slightly less than one-quarter of adults had volunteered free time to help a church (22%) or some other type of non-profit (23%) in the last week. About one-fifth of all adults had attended Sunday school (20%), while a similar proportion had participated in a small group for Bible study, prayer and Christian fellowship (19%). The survey showed that half of all adults (50%) said they had donated money to a congregation in the past year.

Another element of spiritual engagement is evangelism. While most Americans are more skittish than usual about explaining their faith to others who hold different religious views, among born again Christians a majority (61%) said they had personally explained their faith to someone else in the past year with the hope that the person would accept Jesus Christ as their savior. This was on par with previous tracking data from the California-based firm.

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Identity and Commitment

The study also examined people’s spiritual identity. For instance, 83% of Americans identified as Christians, yet only 49% of these individuals described themselves as absolutely committed to Christianity. The remaining portion of the adult population (about 17% of Americans) was split almost equally between those who aligned with another faith and those who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. These indicators of faith identity are also on par with earlier Barna research.

In terms of denominational affiliation, one-quarter of adults identify as attenders of Catholic churches (23%), which is about half the size of the Protestant-attending segment (49%).

The Barna survey categorizes people based upon their convictions about life after death and creates two additional faith segments: born again and evangelical Christians. These are not based upon self-identification or denominational attendance, but based upon their personal commitment to Christ as well as their theological perspectives. The percent of Americans whose beliefs are categorized as “born again” has tapered off somewhat: currently, 40% are born again Christians compared with 45% in last year’s study and 43% in 1997. Despite the slight decline in numbers, this still represents 90 million born again believers nationwide.

Within the born again group, there are an estimated 16 million evangelical Christians, who also embrace an additional set of beliefs in addition to their profession of faith in Christ and confession of personal sinfulness. The 2007 study found that 7% of adults qualify as evangelical Christians, which is statistically consistent with prior levels.

Perspectives on the Research

David Kinnaman, who directed the study, indicated that “most Americans do not have strong and clear beliefs, largely because they do not possess a coherent biblical worldview. That is, they lack a consistent and holistic understanding of their faith. Millions of Americans say they are personally committed to Jesus Christ, but they believe he sinned while on earth. Many believers claim to trust what the Bible teaches, but they reject the notion of a real spiritual adversary or they feel that faith-sharing activities are optional. Millions feel personally committed to God, but they are renegotiating the definition of that deity.

“In fact, one reason why beliefs fluctuate is that most Americans’ hold few convictions about their faith. For instance, even among those who disagree with orthodox views, many do so while hedging their bets. Most Americans have one foot in the biblical camp, and one foot outside it. They say they are committed, but to what? They are spiritually active, but to what end? The spiritual profile of American Christianity is not unlike a lukewarm church that the Bible warns about.”

Kinnaman, the president of the research firm, suggested that the shift away from biblical perspectives is like moving the foundation of a building. “We are likely to see more significant alterations to the spiritual landscape, since what a person believes dictates a great deal about their behavior and allegiance. To give purpose to the spiritual lifestyle of Americans, there are few tasks more important than helping Americans develop a biblical view of life. Otherwise, millions of people, including many within the youngest generations, will conclude the Christian faith does not represent deep, consistent truths about the spiritual and natural world.”

Research Details

This report is based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide survey by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1006 adults, age 18 and older, conducted in January 2007. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

“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” are people who 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.”

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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