Mar 29, 2010

From the Archives

How Different Generations View and Engage with Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity

Charismatic and Pentecostal expressions of Christianity have been part of the American spiritual landscape for more than a century. How much staying power does that set of beliefs and behaviors have among the youngest generations of Christians? A research study conducted by the Barna Group explored the degree to which four different generations of American adults identified themselves as charismatic or Pentecostal believers. The research also examined generational gaps in terms of beliefs about the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and spiritual gifts.

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Generations Are Distinct
Those fitting the Pentecostal/charismatic criteria stated that they considered themselves to be in that category of believers, said they believe that they “have been filled with the Holy Spirit,” and that God has given them at least one of the charismatic gifts, such as tongues, prophecy, or healing. Overall, that group represents 21% of all American adults and 25% of those who describe themselves as Christian.

Baby Busters (ages 26 to 44) were the generation of self-identified Christians most likely to claim a charismatic or Pentecostal connection (29%), slightly higher than the 26% among the Mosaics (ages 18 to 25) and the 25% among the eldest of Americans (25% among those 64 and older). Surprisingly, the generation that introduced America to “Jesus freaks” and other marks of spiritual intensity – i.e., Baby Boomers (now 45 to 63) – is the generation currently least likely to identify as charismatic or Pentecostal (20%).

In terms of beliefs and attitudes, there are marked differences between the generations. In general, the research shows that younger Christians are more open to charismatic gifts, but more skeptical about the nature of the Holy Spirit when compared to older Christians.

  • Christians aligned with the two youngest generations – the Mosaics (56%) and Busters (49%) – were more likely than were Boomers (44%) or Elders (30%) to believe that “the charismatic gifts, such as tongues and healing, are active and valid today.” However, age was a less consistent indicator of people’s awareness of spiritual gifts. Mosaic Christians were the most likely to be aware of such gifts, while Buster Christians the least aware age group.
  • Regarding the best-known and most controversial of the charismatic gifts, the spiritual prayer language known as speaking in tongues, younger Christians were more likely to believe that tongues are “valid and active today.” In total, 43% of Mosaics and Busters believe either that God provides every Christian with the ability to speak in tongues or that God gives the gift to some but not to others. This compares to 37% among Boomers and Elders combined. Still, this does not necessarily translate into greater personal participation in speaking in tongues among young believers; just 7% of Mosaic Christians and 9% of Buster Christians had ever spoken in tongues, compared to 13% of Boomer believers and 9% of Elder Christians.
  • The four generations also demonstrated contrasting perspectives about the Holy Spirit. Despite their skepticism about the charismatic and Pentecostal expressions of Christianity, older believers stood out from younger Christians for their likelihood of saying that they “consistently allow their lives to be guided by the Holy Spirit.” Elders (64%) and Boomers (59%) outpaced Busters (54%) and Mosaics (38%) on this viewpoint.
  • In spite of their openness to the charismatic and Pentecostal elements of the Christian faith, the youngest believers offered an unexpected, existentialist view of the Holy Spirit. In total, 68% of Mosaic Christians said they believe that the third person of the trinity is just “a symbol of God’s power or presence, but is not a living entity.” This compares to 59% of Busters, 55% of Boomers, and 56% of Elders who believe the Holy Spirit is merely symbolic.
  • Younger Christians were more likely than older believers to “sense that God is motivating people to stay connected with him, but in different ways and through different types of experiences than has been the case in the past.” A majority of Busters (52%) strongly embraced this perspective, while Boomers (43%) and Elders (39%) were less likely to do so.

Matters of Scope
While the four generations often exhibit divergent views about Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity, these differences do not diminish the significant size of the group. To put it in perspective, the Pentecostal/charismatic contingent represents one of the larger categories of believers in the nation. For instance, while there are twice as many self-described Protestants as Pentecostal/charismatics, and nearly twice as many born again Christians, the group is equivalent in size to the number of Catholics, and larger than the pools of adults who attend Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal or non-denominational churches.  The number of Pentecostal/charismatics is triple the number of evangelicals.

The research also revealed that the charismatic and Pentecostal segment cuts across denominational, geographic and political lines. For instance, 20% of Catholic adults and 26% of Protestants identify as part of the charismatic or Pentecostal segment. Politically, one-quarter of all Republicans (24%) and Democrats (23%), and one-fifth of independent voters (21%), are self-described charismatics or Pentecostals. The data show equal representation in each of the nation’s four geographic regions, ranging from a low incidence of 20% in the Northeast to a statistically equivalent level of 22% in the Midwest.

Reflecting on the findings, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, suggests that “the charismatic and Pentecostal community in the U.S. has reached a conflicting social status – its numbers have established the group as a significant social and spiritual force, yet generational changes and the diffusion of Pentecostalism across many denominations have made its beliefs, behaviors and identities much less focused. For millions of the youngest Christians, the charismatic, Pentecostal and Spirit-filled labels are not as divisive as they were to their parents’ generation. The Mosaic generation in particular is removed from many of the long-standing debates about the validity of spiritual gifts, the role of expressive forms of worship, and about the need for receiving personal direction from the Holy Spirit. As a consequence, the next generation of charismatic and Pentecostal Christians spends less time defending their views to others, but also seems much less certain what they believe or how to put their faith into action.

“It raises the question of what will define the next generation of young charismatics and Pentecostal believers in the U.S. Facing less criticism from within the ranks of Christians, they must focus on being grounded theologically and finding a way to live faithfully within the broader culture of arts, media, technology, science, and business,” commented Kinnaman.

Kinnaman also pointed out that because younger Christians are open to the Holy Spirit and to spiritual gifts but hold contradictory beliefs and behaviors, there will be a premium on the theological and spiritual development of the next generation. “Just like young Christians of various traditions, young charismatics are less likely to adopt their beliefs and practices based on deep, considered theological reflection. The future vitality of this portion of the Christian community will depend in part on connecting young charismatic and Pentecostal believers to better training on theology and doctrine.”

About the Research

This Barna Update is based upon a nationwide tracking study, called OmniPollSM, conducted by the Barna Group. The telephone interviews were derived from a random sample of 1,005 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, from February 7 through February 10, 2010. Interviews were conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The total sample of self-identified Christians was 857 respondents, with a sampling error rate of ±3.5 percentage points. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

The charismatic and Pentecostal segment was defined as those who consider themselves to be “a Pentecostal or charismatic Christian, meaning you have been filled with the Holy Spirit and that God has given you at least one of the charismatic gifts, such as tongues, prophecy or healing.”

Additional research data were drawn from recent nationwide OmniPollSM studies, conducted in 2008 and 2009, also relying on large-scale random, representative samples of self-identified Christians.

© Barna Group 2010.

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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