Feb 24, 2003

From the Archives

Is America’s Faith Really Shifting?

Traditional measures of people’s faith, such as church attendance, Bible reading, commitment to Jesus Christ and belief in God, have been relatively stable for the past couple of decades. Do other, less traditional measures of religious activity and perception show much change over time?

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To answer that question, Barna Research Group compared the results of a new nationwide survey of 1010 adults to similar surveys conducted during the past decade, examining less common indicators of faith. Examining eight different measures, the study indicates that adults perceive their personal faith to be shifting, and the role of faith in the U.S. to be changing, but a half-dozen factors examined over time suggest such a perception may be more illusion than reality.

Is Religion Losing Influence?

Two out of three adults (66%) contend that religion is losing its influence in American society. This figure has remained relatively stable for years, with the exception of the months immediately after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Oddly, people tend to view the nation’s faith as losing ground at the same time that seven out of ten (70%) argue that their own religious faith is “consistently growing deeper.” At least two-thirds of the people in each of the nation’s four adult generations maintain this stand.

Religious Affiliations

If change is occurring in people’s faith, it is not necessarily associated with the churches they attend.

Currently, 84% of all Americans consider themselves to be Christian. That proportion has remained unchanged throughout the past decade. Age does affect one’s perceived connection to the Christian faith, though. Among people 57 or older, more than nine out of ten (93%) claim to be Christian. That is substantially more than the four out of five younger adults (80%) who make the same claim. Interestingly, Baby Busters (ages 19 through 37) and Baby Boomers (38 through 56) had identical percentages on this indicator.

Even denominational affiliation has remained essentially unchanged in the past decade. While there has been a substantial degree of church switching during that period, the net outcomes show surprisingly little change. Adults who deem themselves to be Catholic have hovered in the 22% to 31% range, averaging something close to the current 25% who adopt the label “Catholic.” The largest Protestant denominational category – Baptist – has shown even less fluctuation, hovering in the 16% to 20% range, with one out of five adults currently adopting the Baptist label.

Mainline Protestant denominations have experienced the most significant slide, dropping from about one out of five adults a decade ago to one out of eight today (13%).

Surprisingly, there has been no discernible growth among non-denominational Christian churches. A decade ago they drew about 4% of the nation’s population. Today, that number is statistically identical (5%).

The Mormon church has remained quite active in the U.S., but its growth appears to have simply kept pace with that of the population overall. During the past decade, 1% to 2% of all adults have aligned themselves with the LDS church, and it currently stands at slightly more than 1% of all adults. In like manner, the Jewish faith has seen no shift in its size, remaining at about one-and-one-half percent of the adult public.

While there has been lots of discussion about the growth of the Muslim and eastern faiths, that growth does not show up in national surveys. People associated with faiths other than Christianity, Judaism and Mormonism have cumulatively registered in the 3% to 5% range for the better part of the past decade.

Those who claim to be atheist or agnostic have held firm at about one out of every ten adults, presently measuring 11%.

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Church Size Unaffected

Even the size of the church people attend shows little change in the past decade. In 1993, 11% of adults attended a church that draws 1000 or more adults in a typical week. The figure is identical in the 2003 measurement. There are, of course, millions of people who transition from one church to another, causing a substantial degree of membership movement. However, the transitions appear to cancel each other out, in terms of the denominational affiliation and congregational size of people’s newly-adopted church.

Unexpectedly, the surveys show that the people most likely to attend large churches are not Protestants but Catholics. One out of every five Catholics (21%) attend a church of 1000 or more adults, compared to just one in twelve Protestant adults (8%). Attendance at Protestant megachurches is more common among blacks than whites or Hispanics.

Personal Faith Commitment

People’s personal commitment to the Christian faith has not moved since Barna Research introduced that measure in the mid-nineties. About half of the adults (48%) who consider themselves to be Christian say they are “absolutely committed” to the Christian faith. Such commitment is more common among those who attend a Protestant church (50%) than among those who attend a Catholic church (43%).

Similarly, the percentage of adults who strongly assert that their religious faith is very important in their life has not budged in since the mid-eighties. Presently, almost seven out of ten adults strongly agree that their religious faith is very important in their life, while 84% either strongly or moderately agree with that notion. Women are much more likely than men to agree with this idea (90% versus 79%, respectively), and young adults lagged the field (just 62% of the Baby Busters agree with this notion).

One further measure examined had to do with reliance on the Internet as a means of faith experience and expression. When asked how likely they were to use the Internet for at least part of their religious experience during the coming five years, there was no change apparent compared to a similar measurement taken two years earlier. Overall, 5% said they would definitely use the Internet for personal faith activity, and another 18% said would probably do so. The most surprising outcome related to this measure was the limited distinction between young and old adults: the differences between adults under 35 and those over 55 were not statistically significant.

Searching for Transitions

The research confirmed what more traditional measures have been suggesting: little is changing in the religious realm, despite a lot of discourse regarding new models of church experience and the need for a deeper faith commitment. “There is certainly a lot of evidence of people church hopping and experimenting with congregations of different sizes and theological persuasions, but the end result is that there is little evidence of outside-the-box activity,” reasoned George Barna, who directed the survey. “For the most part, people are staying put in their faith: a little tinkering here and there, but generally seeking stability and continuity. With all the instability in the economy and global politics, people are focused on fostering as much consistency in their lives as possible. Their risk-taking seems limited to how they spend their entertainment dollars rather than how they experience faith.”

Barna noted that his firm’s annual reporting of religious behavior and beliefs will be released soon and will seek to identify any people groups that are more adventurous in their faith explorations. The author stated that while people say their faith is front and center in their life, that does not mean they are seeking to change it in significant ways. “For most Americans, the faith dimension is a classic example of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Given what they are seeking to add to their life through their faith pursuits – comfort, security, relationships, and meaning – they see little need to push the boundaries of their current experience.”

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Research Source and Methodology

The data in this report are based on a nationwide telephone survey conducted by the Barna Research Group from its interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. The OmniPollSM survey involved interviews among 1010 adults during the last week of January and first week of February. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. People 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.

“Stability in Religious Experience”
Consider yourself to be Christian
Go to a church with 1000+ adults attending
Absolutely committed to the Christian faith
Religious faith very important in your life
Affiliated with a Protestant church
Affiliated with a Catholic church
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