Jan 28, 2009

From the Archives

Christianity Is No Longer Americans’ Default Faith

For much of America’s history, the assumption was that if you were born in America, you would affiliate with the Christian faith. A new nationwide survey by The Barna Group, however, indicates that people’s views have changed. The study discovered that half of all adults now contend that Christianity is just one of many options that Americans choose from and that a huge majority of adults pick and choose what they believe rather than adopt a church or denomination’s slate of beliefs. Still, most people say their faith is becoming increasingly important as a source of personal moral guidance.

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Choosing a Faith

The survey shows half of Americans believe the Christian faith no longer has a lock on people’s hearts. Overall, 50% of the adults interviewed agreed that Christianity is no longer the faith that Americans automatically accept as their personal faith, while just 44% disagreed and 6% were not sure.

Two-thirds of evangelical Christians (64%) and three out of every five Hispanics (60%) embraced that position, making them the groups most convinced of the shift in America’s default faith. The study also showed that residents of the Northeast and West were much more likely than those from the South and Midwest to assert that Christianity has lost its place as the first faith option people consider. People who said they are politically conservative, however, saw things differently than did the rest of the country: a slight majority of conservatives claimed that Christianity remains the natural choice of most Americans.

Faith and Moral Guidance

By an overwhelming margin – 74% to 23% – adults agreed that their religious faith was becoming even more important to them than it used to be as a source of objective and reliable moral guidance.

This perspective was championed by born again Christians: 91% concurred with the survey statement. In contrast, just two-thirds of the people who consider themselves to be Christian but are not born again (67%) embraced this view, and only four out of every ten Americans (39%) who do not affiliate with Christianity also said their faith has increasing influence on their moral judgments.

A sizeable majority of almost every subgroup of the population accepted this perspective as an accurate representation of their personal experience. African Americans were the ethnic group most supportive of the notion (84%). Conservatives (84%) were far more likely than either political moderates (70%) or liberals (65%) to agree – although comfortable majorities of those segments adopted the same view as conservatives.

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Choosing Specific Beliefs

The United States has well over 200 different Christian denominations, a testimony to the historic importance people have attached to doctrinal accuracy. But things have changed dramatically in recent decades. The Barna survey underscored the fact that people no longer look to denominations or churches to offer a slate of theological views that the individual adopts in its entirety.

By a three to one margin (71% to 26%) adults noted that they are personally more likely to develop their own set of religious beliefs than to accept a comprehensive set of beliefs taught by a particular church. Although born again Christians were among the segments least likely to adopt the a la carte approach to beliefs, a considerable majority even of born again adults (61%) has taken that route. Leading the charge in the move to customize one’s package of beliefs are people under the age of 25, among whom more than four out of five (82%) said they develop their own combination of beliefs rather than adopt a set proposed by a church.

Evidence of people’s willingness to part with church teaching was shown in other data from the survey regarding what people believe. Among individuals who describe themselves as Christian, for instance, close to half believe that Satan does not exist, one-third contend that Jesus sinned while He was on earth, two-fifths say they do not have a responsibility to share the Christian faith with others, and one-quarter dismiss the idea that the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches.

Implications of the Research

Asked to describe what the research means for American society today, researcher George Barna offered several insights.

  1. The Christian faith is less of a life perspective that challenges the supremacy of individualism as it is a faith being defined through individualism. Americans are increasingly comfortable picking and choosing what they deem to be helpful and accurate theological views and have become comfortable discarding the rest of the teachings in the Bible.
  2. Growing numbers of people now serve as their own theologian-in-residence. One consequence is that Americans are embracing an unpredictable and contradictory body of beliefs. Barna pointed out, as examples, that millions of people who consider themselves to be Christian now believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the lessons it teaches at the same time that they believe Jesus Christ sinned. Millions also contend that they will experience eternal salvation because they confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior, but also believe that a person can do enough good works to earn eternal salvation.
  3. In the past, when most people determined their theological and moral points of view, the alternatives from which they chose were exclusively of Christian options – e.g., the Methodist point of view, the Baptist perspective, Catholic teaching, and so forth. Today, Americans are more likely to pit a variety of non-Christian options against various Christian-based views. This has resulted in an abundance of unique worldviews based on personal combinations of theology drawn from a smattering of world religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam as well as secularism.
  4. Faith, of whatever variety, is increasingly viral rather than pedagogical. With people spending less time reading the Bible, and becoming less engaged in activities that deepen their biblical literacy, faith views are more often adopted on the basis of dialogue, self-reflection, and observation than teaching. Feelings and emotions now play a significant role in the development of people’s faith views – in many cases, much more significant than information-based exercises such as listening to preaching and participating in Bible study.

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Related Resources

Tyndale House Publishers has just released a new book by George Barna and Bill Dallas, entitled Lessons from San Quentin. This book describes the journey taken by Dallas, a young, aggressive entrepreneur who quickly built a highly successful career – and just as quickly wound up in prison because of his illegal financial dealings. As his self-indulgent, no-holds-barred lifestyle came to a crashing end, so did his self-reliance and moral certainty. Lessons from San Quentin describes not only Dallas’s rise from rags to riches and then his crash and burn phases, but also his restoration through his exploration of Christianity and the tutelage of a group of men sentenced to life imprisonment in San Quentin. During those years, Dallas discovered, experimented with and ultimately embraced a body of biblical principles that have served him well ever since, particularly in his current role as founder and president of Church Communication Network (CCN), the largest satellite-based church training network in North America.

About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1,004 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, in August 2008. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

“Born again Christians”{ were defined as people who said they had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that was still important in their life today and who also indicated they believed 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” 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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