Jul 2, 2002

From the Archives

Christian Mass Media Reach More Adults With the Christian Message Than Do Churches

Many Americans assume that the most common way of experiencing the Christian faith is by attending a church service. A new nationwide survey by the Barna Research Group, of Ventura, California, reports a different conclusion. A greater number of adults experience the Christian faith through Christian media, such as radio, television or books, than attend Christian churches.

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The new study states that slightly more than six out of ten American adults (63%) attended a church service during the past month. In contrast, two out of every three adults (67%) used at least one of three forms of religious media – radio, television or books – for a dose of the Christian faith in the past month. In raw numbers, about 132 million adults have been to a church service compared to 141 million using Christian media.

Christian Radio

Overall, slightly more than half of the nation’s adults said they had tuned in to a Christian radio program of some type during the past month. The most prolific Christian programming is teaching, preaching and talk shows. Just less than four out of ten adults (38%) had tuned in to hear such programming during the previous month. In contrast, the fastest-growing type of Christian broadcasting – Christian music – has already surpassed the talk-driven formats. Just more than two out of five adults – 43% – said they had listened to a station airing Christian music during the past month. The expansion in both the number of radio stations adopting a Christian music format and in the size of the listening audience helps to explain why the Christian music genre has been one of the fastest-growing categories in the music industry during the past two years.

When both Christian radio formats are combined, all Christian radio programming reached 52% of the nation’s adults in the prior month. That translates into 109 million adults exposed to Christian radio content. Both formats skewed older, downscale, black, Protestant, and politically conservative.

Christian Television

Christian television may not make the headlines like it did in the Seventies and Eighties, but it draws a larger audience these days, thanks in part to a greater number of networks, programs and greater audience targeting. The Barna survey showed that 43% of all adults had watched some Christian programming on television during the past month.

The growth of the Christian television audience is reflective of the splintering of the TV audience, in general. Whereas the three largest broadcast networks formerly controlled the airwaves, claiming more than 90% of the audience, the advent of countless cable and satellite channels has utterly fragmented the audience these days. The aggregate adult audience for Christian programming during the past month was 90 million people – approximately the same number who attend Christian churches in any given week.

Christian Books

One out of every three adults (33%) claimed to have read a Christian book, other than the Bible, during the past month. This total includes both fiction and non-fiction titles. Projected over the entire adult mass, that represents 70 million people reading Christian books in the past month. Realize that among the country’s top-selling books are several Christian titles, including the latest offering in the Left Behind series by Jerry Jenkins and Timothy LaHaye, books in the Jabez series by Bruce Wilkinson, and business books by former pastor John Maxwell.

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Niche Analysis

One of the striking outcomes of the research was the consistency of Christian media usage across demographic and lifestyles segments. The use of Christian media, regardless of type, increased with age until the mid-seventies, at which point usage dropped off somewhat. Women were generally more likely than men to use Christian media, while blacks were substantially more likely than any other ethnic segment to incorporate such media into their life. Households making less than the national income average were the most prolific users of Christian media; adults from households at the higher end of the income scale were the least common users. Individuals who described themselves as politically conservative were generally twice as likely as the self-described liberals to be within the audience. Similarly, Protestant adults were twice as likely to use any one of the four media tested than were Catholics. Residents of the South were much more likely to use any of the Christian media evaluated than were residents of the Northeast or West.

In relation to the spiritual inclinations of the public, the survey found that 96% of evangelicals had been exposed to Christian media, ranging from the 84% who listen to Christian radio to two-thirds who watched Christian TV or read a Christian book. Four out of five non-evangelical born again Christians had some exposure to Christian media. They were generally twice as likely to use these media as were people who called themselves Christian but had not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior (i.e., “notional Christians”). Half of the notional Christians had exposure to Christian media. Surprisingly, 44% of Americans who are associated with a non-Christian faith had interaction with Christian media in the prior month, and even one-third of those who described themselves as either “atheist” or “agnostic” (37%) admitted to listening, watching or reading something related to the Christian faith.

Researcher George Barna pointed out that surprisingly large proportions of the atheists, agnostics and adults aligned with non-Christian faiths intentionally absorb information from the Christian media. More than one-fourth of that group listened to Christian radio, one-quarter watched Christian TV, and one-seventh read a Christian book. In other words, of the 50 million adults who are not aligned with Christianity, there were more than 15 million who had some degree of exposure to Christianity through these media.

Barna also provided figures indicating that among the 65 million unchurched adults in the United States – that is, adults who have not attended a church service during the past six months other than for a holiday service or special event such as a wedding or funeral – an unexpectedly large 42% had been exposed to Christianity through these media in the past month. That translates to roughly 27 million individuals who are disconnected from bricks-and-mortar churches, but who access Christian content through radio, television or books. The medium most commonly used by unchurched individuals was Christian radio, which was listened to by one-quarter (27%) of all unchurched adults.

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Thoughts On Exposure

The results are consistent with an emerging trend identified by Barna of Americans adopting new forms of faith expression. “Increasing numbers of people are involved in informal discussion groups regarding faith matters, participate in faith forums and in-home worship activities, or use the Internet for faith exploration and communications,” the researcher explained. “As our culture continues to embrace new forms of education, interaction and relationships, while maintaining a felt need for connection to God, it is important to recognize that traditional Christian activities such as evangelism, worship and discipleship may happen outside of a church building for many people – including millions of individuals who have no interest or intention of visiting a church.”

The study shows that three-quarters of all churched adults (78%) supplement their church experience with exposure to Christian media. Among adults who have what Barna described as an “active faith” – that is, they read the Bible, attended a church service and prayed during the past week, a group representing 30% of adults – 93% used one or more of the Christian media during the past month.

Barna, who has written several best-selling books regarding the role of faith in American culture, indicated that the appeal of the Christian media is based on the degree of quality, variety and convenience offered through such means of communications. “Great strides have been made in these media in the past decade or two,” he noted. “But adults have standard qualifications for any media they will accept, whether it has a Christian orientation or not. The content must meet their personal needs, the quality must be up to the standards of the day, and the medium must fit into hectic, fast-paced, unpredictable schedules. The Christian media industry has come a long way from the days when it simply aired or transcribed sermons. Much of the substance now available directly addresses the felt needs of contemporary society, using the technology and information that makes the presentations interesting and relevant.”

Despite the gaudy numbers of people reached via the Christian media, however, Barna sounded a challenge to the Christian community. “In essence, Christianity is about relationships – a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ that is fostered through supportive relationships with other Christians. The Christian media are helpful in focusing people’s attention on things that matter. That focus is greatly enhanced when impersonal media presentations are made practical through supportive community. Unless there is a degree of personal accountability upheld through loving and focused relationships, Christianity becomes only an intellectual faith, and Christians run the danger of becoming modern-day Pharisees. The people factor must always be incorporated if Christianity is to be a genuine expression of God’s intent.”

Research Methodology

The data described above are from telephone interviews conducted in April 2002 among a nationwide random sample of 1007 adults. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. (The sampling error for subgroups would be higher because the sample size of those segments is smaller. There are other types of error besides sampling error that may be present in surveys.) All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults.

“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.”

“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; 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; believing 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 has no relationship to church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984 it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of the social, religious and political state of the nation and its churches.

If you would like to receive a bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service by typing your e-mail address in the field above located at the top of this page on the left-hand side.

Who Uses the Christian Media in a Typical Month
All adults
Listen to preaching, teaching talk-oriented Christian radio
Listen to Christian-music radio
Listen to Christian radio, any format
Watch Christian television
Read Christian books, other than the Bible
Used any of these three Chrisian media
Attended a Christian church service

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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