Aug 23, 2005

From the Archives

Godless Hollywood? Bible Belt? New Research Exploring Faith in America’s Largest Markets Produces Surprises

Godless Hollywood? Lost Angeles? Bible Belt? Texas: God’s Country? These and many other stereotypes that blend faith and geography are put to the test thanks to statistics in a new report from The Barna Group, a research and media development organization located in southern California. Based on a nationally representative base of interviews with more than 24,000 adults, the report examines 28 faith factors among people in the 86 largest metropolitan areas and 27 most populous states. The results confirm some of the existing faith-and-geography perceptions while discrediting others, and show that the mobility of America’s population is producing significant changes related to location and faith.

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Evangelicals In America

Seven percent of the adult population of the U.S. is evangelical. Those 15 million adults are not equally distributed across the country, but the report shows that their distribution forms a different pattern than many political and demographic analysts have suggested.

For instance, the market with the highest percentage of evangelicals is Little Rock, Arkansas, where better than one out of every five adults (22%) met the survey criteria for “evangelical Christian.” (That is not a self-defined category; it is based upon people’s responses to nine survey questions about their religious beliefs. See the Research Methodology section of this report for the description of those factors.) Of the 86 largest metropolitan areas in the nation, those with the lowest proportion of evangelicals were Salt Lake City, Utah; Hartford, Connecticut; and Providence, Rhode Island.

However, when determining which metropolitan area has the greatest number of evangelical adults, the outcome will shock many people: Los Angeles. The city that produces the media often criticized or boycotted by evangelicals is also home to nearly one million of those deeply devout Christians. In fact, there are more evangelical adults in the Los Angeles market than there are in the New York, Chicago and Boston metropolitan areas – combined! The Barna Group’s analysis showed that although the evangelicals living in the ten most populous markets account for only 6% of the adults in those markets, that group represents one out of every four evangelicals (24%) in the United States.

The report also explores the faith of residents in the 27 most populous states. The state with the highest percentage of adults who are evangelical is Alabama (at 13%, nearly double the national average). Its polar opposite – i.e., the state with the lowest incidence of evangelicals – is Connecticut.

Taking into account each state’s aggregate adult population, the area with the greatest number of evangelicals is California, which is home to nearly two million of them. Connecticut retains the bragging rights to having the fewest adults who are evangelical, with just 26,000 of them in a state of more than two and a half million adults.

The Presence of Born Again Christians

Nationally, four out of every ten adults is a born again Christian. (This measure is based on people’s beliefs, not a self-definition. The two questions that qualify people are described in this report’s Research Methodology section.) But there is a wide range of incidence levels related to the location of born again adults. For instance, the market with the largest percentage of its adults classified as born again – by a large margin – is Jackson, Mississippi, where 83% of adults meet the criteria. There are ten markets in which at least six out of every ten adults are born again – and each of them is located in the South.

There were also six out of the 86 markets studied that had fewer than 25% of the adult public satisfying the born again standard. The lowest of those were Boston (21%), Providence (21%) and New York (22%). Of the six lowest-ranked markets, five are in the Northeast.

The market with the greatest number of individuals who are born again was, once again, the City of Angels (Los Angeles) with 3.6 million born again believers in the metro area. Surprisingly, there are 20 metropolitan areas that have one million or more adults who are born again.

The statewide data showed that Alabama earned the top ranking for the percentage of residents who are born again: 67%. Overall, nine states had 50% or more of the adult population who were born again. Among the 27 most populous states, the one that emerged with the lowest percentage who are born again, by far, was Massachusetts (17%). The four states with the lowest percentages of adult Christians were all in the Northeast.

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The Most – and Least – Christian Markets

One of the measures developed by George Barna for the Faith By Market report estimates how Christian-oriented a market’s population is, based upon a combination of faith factors. The top market was Jackson, Mississippi, whose indexed score was 46% higher than the national norm. Close behind were Little Rock and Birmingham. Barna noted that in relation to this composite rating, the 16 highest-rated markets were all located in the South.

The markets whose indexed score was at the bottom of the list were Boston and Providence, whose scores were 35% below the national norm.

In a similar manner, the state whose population generated the highest Christian-orientation score was Alabama.

Other Highlights From the Report

The Faith By Market report explores 40 different factors among the adults located in each of the markets and states studied. Those factors include a dozen religious beliefs, ten religious practices, various religious commitments and affiliations, and a dozen demographic attributes.

Among the many intriguing insights from the report are the following:

  • Just 3 of the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas have a born again majority. However, 15 of the 27 mid-sized markets (adult population of a half-million up to one million) have a born again majority.
  • The market with the highest percentage of adults who volunteer at a church during an average week is Salt Lake City. The market with the lowest rate of church volunteerism is Buffalo.
  • Sunday school attendance among adults is most common in Salt Lake City, and least common in Portland, Maine.
  • Involvement in an adult small group is most prolific in Shreveport, Louisiana. The three markets with the lowest rates of small group participation are Albany (NY), Boston and Providence.
  • The market with the highest percentage of adults who consider themselves to be Baptist is Shreveport. The market with the highest percentage that claims allegiance to the Catholic church is Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The connection to the Methodist church is highest in Wichita, Kansas. Affiliation with a Lutheran church was greatest in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
  • People are most likely to attend a large church in Houston. They are most likely to attend a church of less than 100 adults in Lexington, KY.
  • Adults are most likely to claim they have a responsibility to share their religious beliefs with other people if they live in Birmingham, Alabama. That perspective is least common in Providence and Green Bay.
  • The metro area in which adults are most likely to believe that Satan is a symbol of evil but not a living presence is the Brownsville-McAllen-Harlingen market in Texas.
  • People are most likely to believe that they can earn their salvation if they live in Salt Lake City.
  • The highest percentage of adults who believe that Jesus Christ sinned during his life on earth is in Des Moines, Iowa.
  • Believing that God is “the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe who still rules it today” is most common in Tulsa. It is least predominant in Boston and San Francisco.
  • The state with the highest percentage of its residents attending large churches is Arizona. Such behavior is least common in Missouri.
  • The states with the lowest proportion of born again residents having shared their faith in Christ with a non-believer in the past year were Massachusetts and Tennessee. Personal evangelism efforts were most common in Alabama and Louisiana.
  • The largest percentage of adults who are “notional Christians” – that is, those who consider themselves to be Christian but are not born again – are found in Massachusetts and Wisconsin.
  • One out of every six residents of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Washington are atheist or agnostic – nearly double the national average. Atheists and agnostics are hardest to locate in Louisiana and Missouri.

Commentary On the Findings

Asked to explain the utility of the study, author George Barna described its potential value for ministries and Christians seeking to understand the “faith factor” of different areas of the country. “Many Christian ministries say they want to be effective in ministry, but it’s difficult to maximize one’s impact without a realistic sense of the spiritual climate of an area. The implications of this information affect every dimension of ministry. Churches that wish to pray for or partner with other congregations might wish to target churches in areas that are spiritually struggling. Denominations seeking to plant churches to reach non-Christians could select areas more exactly by using such information. Parents who want their children in an environment in which Christian values are most accepted might find the data informative. Marketers of resources for ministry could gain a deeper understanding of how to allocate marketing budgets by seeing where their market is – and is not. There are dozens of potential applications for this kind of information.”

Noting the surprising emergence of Los Angeles as a market with so many born again and evangelical Christians, Barna cautioned readers to place matters in perspective. “Keep in mind that the metropolitan LA market is huge; it contains more than 10 million adults. Even though its percentage of Christians is below the national average, its population is so massive that it emerged has the largest accumulation of believers. However, looking at its aggregate score as a Christian place, LA is 13% below the national average. It is not exactly a Christian commune,” he laughed, “but like many metropolitan areas, Los Angeles has a significant remnant of believers who can exert tremendous, positive influence on their culture if they so choose.”

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Research Methodology

The data in this summary are drawn from a syndicated report, Faith By Market  , produced by The Barna Group. The report is based on 24,147 telephone interviews with a representative nationwide random sample of adults. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±1.4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All non-institutionalized adults in the 48 contiguous states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents in the survey sample corresponds to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative 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.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

“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; contending that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; stating that Satan exists; maintaining that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; asserting that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; saying that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Further, respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.” Being classified as “evangelical” is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

Notional Christians” are individuals who consider themselves to be Christian but who are not born again, based on the criteria described above.

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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