Jan 27, 2003

From the Archives

Half of All Americans Read Christian Books And One-Third Buy Them

Although Americans are twice as likely to say that religion is losing influence than they are to perceive religion to be gaining influence in our society, Christian books continue to have an impact on people’s lives. A new study from the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California shows that half of all U.S. adults (48%) and teenagers (51%) reported reading at least one Christian book in the past year, other than the Bible. Moreover, one-third of all U.S. adults (35%) and teenagers (34%) purchased at least one Christian book (not including the Bible) in that same time period.

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The nationwide book-buying study, partially commissioned by Regal Books, the book imprint of Gospel Light, also indicated that Protestant Senior Pastors are one of the most active book-buying segments in the U.S. Nearly all Protestant pastors (98%) purchased at least one book in the past year. The typical Protestant pastor bought 20 books last year (about four times as many as the typical adult).

Most Americans Buy Books

Despite the onslaught of DVDs, the Internet and videos, books remain a popular item. Seven out of ten adults (70%) purchased at least one book last year, with the typical adult having purchased five books during that time.

Book buying was even more common among teens than adults: 75% of all 13 to 18-year olds reported buying at least one book in the last year. However, teens tend to purchase fewer books per capita than do adults: the typical teenager purchased just three books in the last year.

Christian Book Purchasing

As a subset of all books sold, Christian books had a strong showing last year. Half of all adult book buyers (50%) and nearly half of all teen buyers (44%) had purchased at least one Christian book title in the last year. According to adults, nearly one out of every five books they purchased last year (19%) were Christian volumes, while teens indicated that about one out of every seven of their book purchases (15%) in the last year were Christian.

The most devoted fans of Christian literature were the 8% of adult book purchasers and 5% of teen book buyers who exclusively bought Christian books. Other noteworthy devotees included the three out of every ten adult book buyers (28%) who purchased three or more Christian titles in the past year. In addition, evangelicals emerged as the subgroup most likely to have acquired at least one Christian book in the prior year: 75% had done so, exceeding the penetration of the next most prolific segment of Christian book buyers by a margin of 27 percentage points.

Other segments who were above average consumers of Christian books included political conservatives (48%), non-evangelical born again Christians (47%), churched adults (46%), blacks (45%), women (44%), divorcees (44%), Boomers (43%), those that that have more than a high school degree (41%), and married adults (41%). Protestants (43%) were more likely than were Catholics (32%) to purchase a Christian title in the past year.

Among teens, the most likely buyers of Christian books were born again Christians (48%), those who attend a church-based youth group (48%), teens who explain their faith to others (47%), and teens who attend church services (45%). The younger a teen was, the more likely they were to buy Christian books, and teen girls outpaced teen boys in number of titles purchased. Protestant teens (41%) were more likely than were Catholic teens (25%) to have purchased a Christian book.

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Surprising Readers

In addition to studying book-buying habits, the project also explored what types of material people read. The results showed that evangelical adults (86%) and evangelical teens (97%) were the groups most likely to read Christian literature. Other segments with deep penetration by Christian publications included teens and adults who attend a Christian church regularly (65% and 71%, respectively).

Unexpectedly, the study discovered that many people not connected to the Christian faith indicated that they had read at least one Christian book (other than the Bible) in the past year. For instance, one-sixth of atheist/agnostic adults (17%); one-fifth of unchurched adults (20%); one-third of non-born again adults (34%); and nearly half of all adults associated with a faith other than Christianity (46%) indicated that they had read a Christian book in the last year (other than the Bible).

Among teenagers, Christian book readers represented nearly one-eighth of all atheist/agnostic teens (13%); almost one-fifth of teens of other faiths (18%); one-third of unchurched teens (35%); and nearly two-fifths of non-born again Christians (38%).

Pastors and Books

Although the typical Protestant pastor makes less than the average household income, that does not stand in the way of their purchasing of books. Overall, the typical Protestant pastor ranks among the top 10% of book buyers in America. Almost all of them (98%) had purchased at least one book in the last year and the typical pastor bought 20 volumes in the stretch. In fact, one out of every five pastors (19%) purchased 50 or more titles in the last year – an average of at least one book per week!

About three-quarters of pastors’ book purchases related to ministry or topics related to their professional interests as church leaders (equaling 15 books per year for the typical pastor). Pastors who purchased at least 24 ministry-related books – an average of two or more per month – represented about one-third of pastors (35%).

The Protestant pastors most likely to have acquired Christian books in the past year included non-whites, those with incomes of $60,000 or more, pastors from large churches, those from charismatic churches, pastors with ten years or more experience, and clergy serving in the South and in non-rural locations. Surprisingly, Buster pastors were more likely than Boomer pastors and Elder pastors (ages 56+) to buy 24 or more ministry-related books in the past year (46% of Busters were active book buyers, compared to just 38% of Boomers and only 20% of Elders).

As prolific consumers of Christian books, it is not surprising that many Protestant clergy spread their purchases around among different retail channels. They were much more likely to purchase books from a store that specializes in Christian products and books than to have purchased such products from non-religious bookstores (88% to 52%, respectively). Roughly two-fifths of pastors have purchased books online in the last year (42%). Pastors who purchased books online were slightly more likely to shop at Christian websites (49%) than to shop at non-religious websites (40%).

With as many books as pastors buy, not surprisingly, they indicated that they prefer retail outlets that have a “wide selection of books” (47%) to stores that “happen to be convenient at the time” (24%) or to those with “the lowest prices” (20%). Active book buyers were more focused on price; minimal buyers tended to emphasize convenience.

Somewhat surprisingly, only one-sixth of pastors (17%) indicated that they very closely monitor new book releases to find helpful new content. Other pastors were split between those who monitor new releases somewhat carefully (43%) and those who do not pay much attention to new books (40%). Seminary graduates and black pastors were more likely than average to say the monitored new book releases, while other variables – including church size, pastoral age, and tenure in ministry – were not significantly correlated with watching for new books on the market.

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Reactions to the Findings

George Barna, whose company conducted the research in conjunction with Regal Books, noted that despite the huge volume of Christian books purchased, there appears to be ample room for continued growth in the genre. “Some segments – typically those who stand at arms-length from the Christian church – are less inclined to read Christian material. Those groups include men, Busters, college graduates, affluent households, singles, residents of the Northeast and the West, and political liberals. However, the fact that surprisingly substantial numbers of people not usually favorable toward Christianity – such as atheists, the unchurched and people aligned with other faith groups – read Christian literature gives rise to realistic hope of being able to increase the penetration levels for Christian books among those audiences.”

Barna clarified that survey respondents were not given a definition of what a Christian book is or is not, other than excluding the Bible from the calculations. “The self-reported figures undoubtedly inflate the true sales figures to some extent,” the researcher explained. “However, a key takeaway is that millions of Americans perceive many of the titles they buy to be Christian books. The study confirms that a substantial amount of book sales are for what the consumers themselves label as Christian products.”

Barna pointed out a weakness in the buying profile. “Firm majorities of Seniors, Builders, and Boomers read a Christian book in a typical year, but only two-fifths of Busters had done so. In fact, teenagers, who represent the oldest segment of the Mosaic generation, are actually more likely to read and purchase Christian books than are their predecessors, the Busters. This is a potential obstacle for booksellers, since the numbers of faith-oriented books and books overall that older Americans purchase will decline in the future, making Busters the key buying segment in the marketplace. If Mosaics follow suit and tail off in their buying habits, an industry that is flourishing today may come upon harder times in the not-too-distant future.”

Barna saluted the commitment of pastors to growing through reading. “The typical pastor juggles more than a dozen different significant job responsibilities during an average work week that easily exceeds 50 hours. That means reading is truly a labor of love for many pastors, given the prolific demands on their time.”

The California-based researcher also explained two patterns emerging from the research. “First, pastoral longevity seems to be tied to an active reading life. Those who have lasted the longest in ministry tend to read more than do their short-lived peers. Second, pastors who have been at one particular church for more than five years tend to read less.” Although the data do not indicate why these trends exist, Barna feels that “the bottom line is that pastors who want to stay fresh and mentally focused read throughout all stages of the leadership lifecycle.”

Additional Reading and Resources

Research Methodology

The data in this report are based on three nationwide telephone surveys conducted by the Barna Research Group from its telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. The OmniPollSM included interviews among 1005 adults (conducted in January 2002); the YouthPollSM consisted of 604 interviews among teenagers (November 2001); and the PastorPollSM included 602 Protestant pastors (May 2002). The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of teenagers and of pastors is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. In all three studies, respondents 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. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

The research was partially commissioned by Regal Book (, the book imprint of Gospel Light (Ventura, CA).

“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 the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; 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; 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.”

“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.”

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 notification of the release date and content of each bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the upper left-hand corner of the website.

Overview of Americans’ Book Purchases
Activities in the last year
Base: all respondents
Purchased any books
Purchased three or more books
Purchased any Christian books
Purchased three or more Christian books
Read Christian books
Purchased books, none Christian
Purchased only Christian books
Base: all book buyers
Purchased any Christian books
Purchased three or more Christian books
Purchased only Christian books

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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