Jan 7, 2008

From the Archives

Is American Christianity Turning Charismatic?

Pentecostal or charismatic Christianity is viewed by some Americans as an emotional, theologically suspect form of the Christian faith. It is widely thought to be a very vocal and visible, but numerically small slice of the grand religious pie in the United States. Two new surveys from The Barna Group, however, indicate that things are changing dramatically in the religious landscape. Those surveys – one among a national sample of adults and the other among a national sample of Protestant pastors – show that the number of churches and adherents to Pentecostal perspectives and practices has grown significantly in the past two decades.

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Growing Numbers of People

A decade ago, three out of ten adults claimed to be charismatic or Pentecostal Christians. Today, 36% of Americans accept that designation. That corresponds to approximately 80 million adults. (For the Barna survey, this included people who said they were a charismatic or Pentecostal Christian, that they had been “filled with the Holy Spirit” and who said they believe that “the charismatic gifts, such as tongues and healing, are still valid and active today.”)

Charismatics are found throughout the fabric of American Christianity. Although just 8% of the population is evangelical, half of evangelical adults (49%) fit the charismatic definition. A slight majority of all born again Christians (51%) is charismatic. Nearly half of all adults who attend a Protestant church (46%) are charismatic.

Charismatic Churches

One out of every four Protestant churches in the United States (23%) is a charismatic congregation. While some of the most common charismatic denominations are well-known – such as the Assemblies of God, Foursquare or Churches of God in Christ – non-denominational churches emerged as one of the most common charismatic “denominations.” Four out of every ten non-denominational churches are charismatic.

The profile of the typical charismatic congregation is nearly identical to that of evangelical, fundamentalist and mainline Protestant churches. Four out of five (80%) have a full-time, paid pastor in charge of the ministry. The senior pastor is, on average, 52 years old – the same as in other Protestant churches. And the weekly adult attendance is equivalent to that of other Protestant bodies (82 adults at Pentecostal gatherings compared to 85 adults among all Protestant churches).

Myths Exposed

The Barna study found that several widespread assumptions about charismatic churches are inaccurate.

  • Many people believe that charismatic Christianity is almost exclusively a Protestant phenomenon. However, the research showed that one-third of all U.S. Catholics (36%) fit the charismatic classification. Framed differently, almost one-quarter of all charismatics in the U.S. (22%) are Catholic.
  • Charismatic churches are generally thought to belong to a rather strictly defined group of denominations. The growth of Pentecostalism, however, has crossed denominational boundaries in recent years. For instance, 7% of Southern Baptist churches and 6% of mainline churches are charismatic, according to their Senior Pastors.
  • One widespread view is that charismatic Christianity is found mostly in small, relatively unsophisticated congregations. The research suggests something different. Charismatic congregations are about the same size as those of non-charismatic Protestant churches. Most surprisingly, charismatic ministries are more likely than other Protestant churches to use five of the seven technological applications evaluated. Those included the use of large-screen projection systems, showing movie clips in worship services or congregational events, using blogs, and web-based social networking by the church.
  • In the past, many have observed that the female pastors were more likely to be welcomed into the Pentecostal community. However, 9% of both charismatic and non-charismatic Protestant churches are currently led by a female Senior Pastor.

It is assumed faith trends in America are dictated by white churches, which represent about 77% of the nation’s Protestant congregations. However, only 16% of the country’s white Protestant congregations are Pentecostal, compared to 65% of the Protestant churches dominated by African-Americans.

Differences Discovered

The surveys did reveal several significant differences between charismatic and non-charismatic congregations. While the average congregational attendance at each type of church is similar, the non-charismatic churches tend to have larger annual operating budgets: $149,000 compared to slightly more than $136,000 budgeted by the Pentecostal ministries.

In like manner, the compensation of each group’s Senior Pastors differs. Those who lead non-charismatic churches receive an average total compensation package of about $47,000 annually. In contrast, charismatic pastors receive a package worth about $42,000.

Pastoral education is another major distinction. A large majority of the Senior Pastors of non-charismatic churches (70%) have graduated from a seminary. Not quite half of the charismatic pastors (49%) have a seminary degree.

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Reflections on the Research

The movement toward charismatic Christianity coincides with several cultural shifts, according to author George Barna, who directed the research projects.

“The charismatic orientation is most popular among the non-white population – which is, of course, the sector of the population that is growing most rapidly. Also, the freedom of emotional and spiritual expression typical of charismatic assemblies parallels the cultural trend toward personal expression, accepting diverse emotions and allowing people to interpret their experiences in ways that make sense to them,” Barna explained. “It is not surprising that the Pentecostal community in America has been growing – nor do we expect it to stop making headway.”

“We are moving toward a future in which the charismatic-fundamentalist split will be an historical footnote rather than a dividing line within the body of believers. Young Christians, in particular, have little energy for the arguments that have traditionally separated charismatics and non-charismatics. Increasing numbers of people are recognizing that there are more significant arenas in which to invest their resources.”

About the Research

This report is based upon a nationwide telephone survey conducted by The Barna Group in December 2007 among a random sample of 1005 adults, age 18 and older. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables. The report also contains information from a nationwide telephone survey conducted among a random sample 1220 Senior Pastors of Protestant churches. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of pastors is ±2.9 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Being classified as a charismatic or Pentecostal was based on survey respondents saying that they “consider yourself to be a Pentecostal or charismatic Christian, meaning you have been filled by the Holy Spirit and believe that the charismatic gifts, such as tongues and healing, are valid and active today.”

“Mainline Protestant” churches were those associated with the American Baptist, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Presbyterian Church in the USA denominations.

“Evangelicals” are people who meet the born again criteria (described below) plus seven other conditions. Those include 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; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; 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 is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

“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.”

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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