Jan 11, 2009

From the Archives

Donating, Drinking, Depression and Devotion – Barna Survey Explores Changes in People’s Holiday Behaviors

The Christmas season is deeply embedded into the consciousness and lifestyles of Americans. It alters people’s schedules, spending patterns and family experience, but it may not have as dramatic an effect on lives in other dimensions as you might imagine. Five seasonal behaviors were evaluated in a new nationwide survey by The Barna Group regarding the impact of the end-of-year holidays, producing some surprising results.

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Listening to Carols

Of the five behaviors explored in the survey, the only one which a majority of people acknowledged as a change they make during the holidays was listening to Christmas carols in their home. Six out of ten adults (59%) said they will definitely do so this holiday season. Those songs are most likely to be played in the homes of evangelicals (82%). Overall, 70% of all born again Christians (including evangelicals) will play carols at home, but just 50% of the non-born again population will join in. That latter segment includes just one-third (34%) of atheists and agnostics who will play carols. There was also a racial correlation discovered: 63% of whites, 55% of African Americans, and 48% of Hispanics and of Asians said they would listen to carols at home.

Christmas and Church Life

Many churches and other religious centers see a spike in attendance during the holiday season attributed largely to the return of CEOs – Christmas and Easter Only attenders.

The Barna study discovered that there will be an upturn in attendance again this season – but more from the more consistent attendance of regulars than absentees. In total, one out of every five adults (20%) said they will attend more religious services at a church, synagogue or other place of worship during the holiday season than they normally would. However, the promised increase in attendance will be more common among regular attenders (27% of whom said they will definitely attend more often than usual during than holidays) than among people who normally do not attend (4%). Among those who normally avoid church, an additional one-eighth (13%) said they might attend a church service or event during the season. Past Barna studies have shown that less than one-half of those individuals who are open to attending more often but uncertain about the likelihood will actually follow through on such a possibility.

The kinds of people who said they would attend more services than normal included evangelicals (32%), upscale adults (25%), residents of the South (25%) and conservatives (24%). Groups that were less likely than average to attend more often included atheists and agnostics (1%), liberals (12%) and 18-to-25-year-olds (13%).

The research also revealed that about one out of five adults (18%) said they would definitely donate more money to their religious center during than holidays than they do at other times of the year. This surge of generosity was led by evangelicals (30%), African Americans (29%) and Catholics (24%).

Drinking and Depression

Small but significant percentages of people said they would engage in a pair of other behaviors during the holidays. Seven percent of the public admitted that they would drink more alcoholic beverages during the holidays, led by the under-25 crowd (12%), atheists and agnostics (11%) and liberals (11%).

Four percent said that they would definitely struggle with loneliness or depression during the holidays. The group that stood out as the most likely to suffer through the holidays was downscale adults, 11% of whom said they would definitely confront depression or loneliness. The people least likely to confront these emotions and experiences were evangelicals and atheists, among whom less than one-half of one percent of each group said they would endure such a struggle. Otherwise, the expectation of being lonely or depressed was consistent across demographic segments.

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Groups That Stood Out

Two people groups emerged from the research as handling the holidays quite differently from other people. Adults in the 18 to 25 age bracket were comparatively less likely than others to listen to Christmas carols at home and to attend church more often, and were more likely to increase their alcoholic consumption during the season.

The other distinctive segment was adults who live in the western states. Those people, who represent nearly one-quarter of the nation’s population, were significantly less likely than average to attend religious services more often, to increase their giving to a religious center, and to listen to Christmas carols at home. They were also more likely than people in other regions to struggle with depression or loneliness.

Christmas and Church Visitation

George Barna offered additional insights into the findings of the research his company conducted. “The holidays are an especially difficult time for people who are not connected to the world through a community of faith or through other civic attachments. People who are generally detached – as indicated by their not being part of a faith community, not being registered to vote, or typically feeling isolated or lonely – find the holidays to be especially depressing. Experiences that bring joy and hope to those with broader attachments – such as giving gifts, singing or listening to carols, attending holiday parties, and participating in religious events – simply heighten the sense of isolation that detached individuals feel. This is a large swath of the population; roughly one out of every eight adults feels as if he or she is on the outside looking in.”

Attracting outsiders to church services and events is a challenging task, even during the holidays. “In past decades there was an assumption that the holidays were a time when outsiders might explore church life,” explained the author of more than 40 books regarding faith dynamics and cultural change. “These days, however, churches and other religious institutions are not seen as safe or value-adding places by most outsiders. They see little reason to attend seasonal events, especially since those events often highlight their outsider status.”

The research revealed that most of the spike in church attendance during the holidays is likely to be attributable to the increased participation of people who are already part of the church community. Barna also noted that due to financial constraints, many churches are cutting back on the number and scope of outreach events offered this holiday season.

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About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1,203 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, November 1-5, 2008. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±2.9 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” 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” 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.”

“Downscale” individuals are those whose annual household income is less than $20,000 and who have not attended college. “Upscale” people are those whose annual household income is $75,000 or more and they have graduated from a four-year college.

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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