Jun 6, 2006

From the Archives

Half of Americans Say Faith Has “Greatly Transformed” Their Life

Backing up its reputation as a highly religious people, half of all American adults said that their life has been “greatly transformed” by their religious faith. This is one of the key results from a new survey by The Barna Group based on a nationwide telephone survey among a representative sample of more than 2000 adults.

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Overall, 51% of the survey respondents said they have been greatly transformed by their faith, about one-fourth (28%) said their faith has been helpful but has not produced significant transformation, and nearly one out of five (17%) claimed their faith has not made much of a difference in their life.

Some population segments were more likely than others to contend that they have been transformed by their faith. Women were more likely than men to claim their faith has had a great impact (56% vs. 45%). Residents of the South were the most likely to cite such an effect (63%), while folks in the Midwest were about average (50%), and adults in the West (44%) and Northeast (39%) were much less inclined to attribute such influence to faith. Nearly two-thirds of African-Americans (62%) assigned great impact to their faith, compared to half of whites (50%) and Hispanics (49%), and barely one-quarter of Asians (27%). People who are usually conservative on political matters were almost twice as likely as those who are generally liberal to cite great personal transformation as a result of their faith (64% versus 35%).

There were significant correlations between claiming to have experienced faith-driven transformation and engagement in various faith-oriented behaviors. For instance, people who read the Bible regularly were more than twice as likely as those who do not to have undergone faith-based transformation, and the same pattern was true among those who attend a church regularly compared to those who do not.

Self-perceptions related to spirituality also correlated with transformation. People who describe themselves as “fulltime servants of God” were three times more likely than those who do not embrace that label to say they have been transformed by faith. Likewise, adults who define themselves as “deeply spiritual” were four times more likely than those who do not accept that description to have been transformed.

There was a significant age distinction revealed in the data. Only one out of every four (27%) Mosaics – that is, the generation born after 1983 – had undergone serious faith-driven transformation. That was just half the proportion associated with older adults.

Protestants were considerably more likely than Catholics to assert that they have realized transformation. However, there was a substantial gap between Protestants associated with different types of churches. The denominational groups most widely affected by faith were Pentecostals, among whom 80% claimed to have been transformed; 79% among non-denominational adherents; and 67% among those aligned with one of the Holiness churches (e.g. Church of the Nazarene, Wesleyan, etc.). In contrast, only half of the people associated with Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal and Methodist churches said they had a transforming faith. The lowest level among the major church groups was among Baptists: just 44% said they had experienced great transformation through their faith.

Faith Makes No Difference to Some

Among the 17% who said their faith has made no difference in their life, some people groups stood out as the champions of that point-of-view. The groups least likely to have seen an affect from their faith included:

  • Men (21%), who were 62% more likely than women to express this conviction
  • People under 25 (35%), which is more than twice the proportion among older adults
  • Asians (48%), who were three times as likely as all other ethnic groups to fall within this category
  • Liberals (28%), who emerged three times more likely than conservatives to say faith has made no difference for them
  • Lutherans (16%) and Methodists (14%) – displaying levels that were twice the proportion among other Protestants
  • Atheists and agnostics (64%)

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Instigators of Transformation

There were six influencers mentioned by at least one out of every ten adults as playing a significant role in their transformation. The most prolific influence was the person’s church, named by one-third as a major catalyst in their change process. The other influence agents included family members (19%), other people (15%), spiritual practices they had engaged in (14%), special experiences that drove deeper spiritually (12%), and reading the Bible (10%).

The path to transformation varied by subgroup. Mosaics (adults currently in the 18 to 22 age bracket) were more likely than older adults to have been affected by parachurch ministries, by family members, their local church, and the media. They were notably less likely to have been influenced by involvement in spiritual practices or faith-related events. In contrast, the older a person was, the more likely they were to have undergone transformation as a result of spiritual practices (such as prayer, Bible study, and intense worship) and the less likely they were to be transformed through the work of an organization (e.g., a church, parachurch or media).

Similarly, the journey of Protestants and Catholics were in marked contrast to each other. Protestants were more likely to have experienced faith-driven transformation via their church, through interaction with friends, by engaging in spiritual practices, and by spending time reading the Bible. Catholics, however, were most likely to have experienced faith-based transformation through the efforts of a parachurch ministry, personal experiences in life that ignited a spiritual transition, and through interaction with family.

The journey was also divergent across ethnic groups. Black adults said their transformation was guided by their church, by reading the Bible, and by engaging in spiritual practices. Family and friends rarely had much influence on their spiritual maturity. Hispanics, though, highlighted the affect of family and church. Whites were the segment most likely to grow through the influence of friends. Asians were by far the group most likely to have been affected by parachurch ministries and were also influenced greatly by family and friends.

Facilitating Future Transformation

The results of the survey revealed several important patterns in people’s spiritual development, according to the study’s director, George Barna.

“The current political clash between conservatives and liberals over the role of religion and faith in the public square is partially attributable to the fact that so few liberals have had a life-changing experience driven by their faith,” Barna commented. “Conservatives are nearly twice as likely to say that their faith has transformed who they are and how they live. It is only natural that they would therefore want others to have similar breakthroughs, while those who have never had such experiences are more likely to feel threatened by policies designed to foster a faith-oriented renaissance. The absence of a life-changing spiritually-driven experience may also explain why liberals are less likely to believe in God, to attend church, to read the Bible, to donate to religious institutions, and to portray themselves as being spiritually inclined.

“The faith journey of Americans is also clearly influenced by their age,” Barna continued. “While we cannot tell if the distinction in people’s journey is due to life stage or to cultural shifts over time, it is obvious that people under 25 are substantially less likely to have undergone serious change as a result of time spent reading the Bible. With America already struggling from serious biblical illiteracy, the noticeable absence of the Bible in the lives of our youngest adults is likely to generate dramatic consequences in the decades to come.”

The author of numerous books about faith development also pointed out that the biggest catalyst of people’s transformation is interaction with people. “Family and friends have the greatest influence on whether someone goes through a deep and life-changing spiritual experience. More than institutions, events or programs, it is the personal touch and sincere love of others that sparks interest, facilitates trust and supports the perseverance integral to reaching a point of transformation. It seems that the ability to facilitate transformation through a personal relationship is enhanced by demonstrating serious devotion to one’s faith and a genuine concern for the person who is seeking a deeper faith experience or a more meaningful life.”

Barna also noted the interaction among different resources in a person’s spiritual journey. “In many cases, the transformational moment was the result of a confluence of several inputs – the encouragement of a friend, a personal commitment to spiritual growth, a church-related event or teaching, and something gleaned from religious media,” according to the California-based researcher. “Spiritual development is a process. Those who are on the journey absorb a variety of insights until something occurs to blend them in a unique way that creates a transcendent moment. You cannot program or force a person into transformation, nor can you predict when it will happen. Every person is unique and has a unique spiritual story.”

One of the more curious findings in the study prompted a cautionary note from the bestselling author. “Notice that among the individuals who are classified as born again Christians because of their commitment to Christ and their belief in salvation by grace and their personal confession of sin, one out of every four indicated that they had not experienced great life transformation attributable to their faith. That questions the nature of their commitment to Christ. This represents more than 20 million adults who consider themselves to be devoted to Jesus Christ but who also claim that their life has not been dramatically changed by that relationship. Perhaps this suggests that the religious community has become more adept at marketing Christian principles than modeling a genuine, life-changing connection with Christ.”

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Revolutionaries as a Prototype

Barna’s recent research among a group of spiritually motivated people, known as Revolutionaries, sheds additional light on the transformation process. This group of people, partially defined as having experienced great transformation due to their faith and having made God their highest priority in life, exhibits what can happen when such transformation occurs.

“Revolutionaries are the prototype of the person whose life leaps to a new level of understanding and expression as a result of how their faith has rearranged their perspective and behavior,” said Barna. “As a direct result of the transformation they have experienced, we find Revolutionaries to be more likely to engage in spiritual disciplines, to be more generous with their time and money, more involved in serving other people, more aggressive in developing their faith, and more intensely involved in worship and family.”

Research Details

The data in this report are based on interviews with 2006 adults from across the nation. These telephone surveys were conducted by The Barna Group, from January through May 2006, based upon a random sample of people 18 years of age and older living within the 48 continental states. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±2.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. In the research, the distribution of survey respondents corresponded to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

“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.”

“Revolutionaries” were classified on the basis of meeting 11 specific criteria. They have a clear sense of the meaning and purpose of their life; describe their relationship with and faith in God as the top priority in their life; consider themselves to be “Christian”; read the Bible regularly; pray regularly; deem their faith to be very important in their life; contend that the main objective in their life is to love God with all their heart, mind, strength and soul; describe God as the “all-knowing, all-powerful being who created the universe and still rules it today”; have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today; believe that when they die they will go to heaven only because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior; and say that their faith in Christ has “greatly transformed” their life.

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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