The presidential election has focused attention on the born again population of the country. Currently representing 38% of all adults and one-third of all teenagers, there are an estimated 98 million adults and children who have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. A substantial majority of the people who accept Jesus Christ as their savior do so before reaching their 18th birthday. This insight comes from a new research study from The Barna Group, based on interviews with 992 born again Christians nationwide. The survey also revealed that young people respond more positively to different outreach influences than do people who embrace Christ later in life.
Most Christians Were Young When Saved
For years, church leaders have heard the claim that nearly nine out of ten Christians accept Jesus as their savior before the age of 18. If that statistic was accurate in the past, it no longer depicts U.S. society. The current Barna study indicates that nearly half of all Americans who accept Jesus Christ as their savior do so before reaching the age of 13 (43%), and that two out of three born again Christians (64%) made that commitment to Christ before their 18th birthday. One out of eight born again people (13%) made their profession of faith while 18 to 21 years old. Less than one out of every four born again Christians (23%) embraced Christ after their twenty-first birthday. Barna noted that these figures are consistent with similar studies it has conducted during the past twenty years.
The survey data show that Catholics who become born again are even more likely than Protestants to do so before reaching high school. Among those currently associated with a Catholic church and who are born again, two out of three (66%) accepted Christ before age 13; one-fifth (21%) did so from 13 to 21; and the remaining 13% made that decision as an adult. In contrast, born again people aligned with a Protestant church make that choice at an older age: 40% did so as children, 35% during the 13-to-21-age span, and one-quarter (25%) as adults.
Means to Salvation Vary By Age of Commitment
The precipitating event for someone to accept Christ as his or her savior varied by the age of the individual making that spiritual commitment.
For instance, among Christians who embraced Christ before their teen years, half were led to Christ by their parents, with another one in five led by some other friend or relative. Comparatively few accepted Jesus in response to a minister’s personal prompting (7%) and only one out of eight cited a special event as the turning point in their journey. Among those who mentioned events, about half identified a church service. Just 1% mentioned media evangelism or other special situations as being responsible for their conversion.
Among people who accepted Christ when they were age 13 through 21, the process was much more diverse. One out of five credited a friend with bringing them to Christ, and a similar proportion said their parents were responsible for their decision. One-fifth also recalled an event as the trigger for their commitment. One-sixth of the people saved as teens (16%) listed a relative other than their parent as the primary influencer. Ministers were cited by one out of every ten Christians who accepted Christ during the 13-to-21-age bracket, while media and special personal situations were listed by only 1%.
Adults who accepted Christ as their savior generally responded to different stimuli than did younger people. The most common precipitant was a friend (19%), followed by mass media experiences (14%), a live event (14%) or a relative (13%). Ministers were responsible for leading one out of every ten adult converts to Christ while parents of adults were named as the evangelistic influence by one in twelve (8%) of these believers.
Age of Acceptance Impacts Faith
The research indicates that the age at which a person accepts Christ as savior is related to various attributes of their spiritual life.
People who become Christian before their teen years are more likely than those who are converted when older to remain “absolutely committed” to Christianity. However, they are also less likely to believe that a profession of faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to get to Heaven and they are less prone to watch Christian television. While they are just as likely as other believers to share their faith in Christ with non-Christians, they are less likely to do so through exploratory dialogue with their friends.
Americans who embraced Christ during their high school or college years (i.e., ages 13 through 21) are less likely than other believers to describe themselves as “deeply spiritual.” They donate substantially less money to churches than do other Christians, are less likely to be charismatic or Pentecostal, and are less likely to engage in lifestyle evangelism. Hispanics are much more likely than are people from other ethnic groups to come to Christ during these years: half of all Hispanics who are born again made their commitment to Christ during this time frame, compared to just one-third of all whites and blacks.
Those who accepted Christ as savior during their adult years are notably different from their younger-faith peers. Theologically, they are a mixed bag. They are less likely to have a biblical view of God, less likely to believe that divorce without an instance of adultery is sin, and more likely to believe the Bible is accurate in its teaching and that both Christians and Muslims believe in the same God.
Further, individuals who embraced Christ after their 21st birthday are only half as likely as other believers to be unchurched. These people are not only more likely to contend that they have a responsibility to share their faith, but use a wider variety of methods to convey the gospel message. They are also more likely to consume Christian media, are more apt to attend church services and read the Bible in a typical week, and are more likely than other Christians to be politically conservative.
Sharing the Christian Faith
The survey discovered that slightly more than half of all born again adults shared their faith in Christ with others during the past twelve months. That represents roughly 43 million evangelizers. A series of studies conducted by Barna regarding evangelistic efforts portrays those efforts as a mixture of methods designed to reach different people in different ways.
The most popular methods of evangelizing are praying for others’ salvation (undertaken by 43%), living in such a way as to encourage questions about their faith (40% engaged in “lifestyle evangelism”) and interactive conversations about moral and life issues that hopefully lead to spiritual conclusions (38%). Less common approaches included bringing non-Christians to church services (27% had done so), challenging a non-believers’ behavior on biblical grounds and suggesting alternatives (27%), bringing non-believers to evangelistic events (24%) and handing out evangelistic literature (19%). The least widely used forms of outreach included sending letters or e-mail that encourage readers to accept Christ (sent by 11% of believers) and public preaching (6%).
Perspectives on the Conversion Process
George Barna underscored some significant insights from this research. “Just as our nation’s culture has changed dramatically in the last 30 years, so has the way in which people come to Christ,” he explained. “The weekend church service is no longer the primary mechanism for salvation decisions; only one out of every ten believers who makes a decision to follow Christ does so in a church setting or service. On the other hand, personal relationships have become even more important in evangelism, with a majority of salvation decisions coming in direct response to an invitation given by a family member or friend.”
The California-based author also pointed out some of the challenges faced by those who come to Christ later in their life. “Notice that when someone is born again during their adult years, their beliefs are an inconsistent blend of biblical and non-biblical ideas that lead to some unusual lifestyles and some questionable evangelistic explanations. However, those adult converts are also more likely to be involved in church activities and to be serious about sharing their faith with non-believers.”
Perhaps the most significant outcome of the research, in Barna’s eyes, is the prevalence of decisions made during childhood. “Families, churches and parachurch ministries must recognize that primary window of opportunity for effectively reaching people with the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection is during the pre-teen years. It is during those years that people develop their frames of reference for the remainder of their life – especially theologically and morally. Consistently explaining and modeling truth principles for young people is the most critical factor in their spiritual development.”
The data described in this report are based on two nationwide telephone interviews conducted earlier this year by The Barna Group (in January and May) and a national online survey (also in May). In total, 2632 adults were interviewed, of which 992 qualified as “born again Christians.” The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±2.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The maximum sampling error associated with the 992 registered voters is ±3.2 percentage points.
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.
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. If you would like to receive regular e-mailings of a brief overview of each new bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna Research web site (www.barna.org).
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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