As American society becomes more religiously diverse, the nation’s population has had to grapple with how to define its holidays and celebrations. A recent study by the Barna Group explored Americans’ definition of the Easter holiday, asking a nationwide, representative sample of American adults how they would describe what Easter means to them, personally.
The results indicated that most Americans consider Easter to be a religious holiday, but fewer identify the resurrection of Jesus as the underlying meaning. The study also explored the degree to which Americans are likely to invite an unchurched friend or family member to attend worship service on Easter weekend.
In response to a free-response query, most Americans described Easter as a religious celebration. Two out of every three Americans (67%) mention some type of theistic religious element. Common responses included describing it as a Christian holiday, a celebration of God or Jesus, a celebration of Passover, a holy day, or a special time for church or worship attendance.
However, while a majority of Americans indicated some type of spiritual connection with Easter, the research also showed that a minority of adults directly linked Easter to the Christian faith’s belief in the resurrection of Christ. In all, 42% of Americans said that the meaning of Easter was the resurrection of Jesus or that it signifies Christ death and return to life. One out of every 50 adults (2%) said that they would describe Easter as the most important holiday of their faith.
Even within the religious definitions offered by Americans there is a certain degree of confusion: 2% of Americans said that Easter is about the “birth of Christ”; another 2% indicated it was about the “rebirth of Jesus”; and 1% said it is a celebration of “the second coming of Jesus.”Not included in the theistic category was another 3% who described Easter as a celebration of spring or a pagan holiday.
Not included in the theistic category was another 3% who described Easter as a celebration of spring or a pagan holiday.
On the non-religious side, 13% of respondents said they were not sure how to describe Easter. Another 8% of Americans said the holiday means nothing to them or that they do not celebrate the occasion. Other non-religious descriptions of Easter included: getting friends and family together (4%), spring break (3%), a symbol of new beginnings, rebirth, and renewal (2%), a time to dye and hide eggs (2%), an event for children to have fun (2%), the Easter bunny (1%), an occasion that is too commercialized (1%), and an opportunity to enjoy food and candy (1%).
Who Celebrates Easter as Religious Holiday?
The types of Americans who were most likely to express some type of theistic religious connection with Easter were evangelicals (93%), attenders of large churches (86% among those whose congregation has 500-plus adult attenders), born again Christians (81%), and weekly churchgoers (77%).
Republicans (77%) and Democrats (71%) were more likely than were independents (59%) and non-registered citizens (51%) to say Easter has religious meaning for them.
In terms of age, members of the Boomer generation (73%, ages 45 to 63) were among the most likely to describe Easter as a religious holiday for them, compared with two-thirds of Elders (66% of those ages 64-plus) and Busters (66%, ages 26 to 44). The youngest adult generation, the Mosaics (ages 18 to 25), were the least likely age segment to say Easter is a religious holiday (58%), reflecting the increasingly secular mindset of young adults.
Other population segments describing Easter with a non-religious bent were faith groups other than Christianity (just 31% said Easter’s meaning is religious), atheists and agnostics (36%), and unchurched adults (46%).
Those who identify Easter explicitly as a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus were most likely to be evangelicals (73%), large church attenders (60%), born again Christians (55%), active churchgoers (54%), upscale adults (54%), and Protestants (51%).
Showing a perceptual gap between political conservatives and liberals, those on the political “right” were nearly twice as likely as those on the political “left” to say that Easter is a celebration of the resurrection (53% versus 29%, respectively).
In terms of the audience that most Christian churches attempt to attract on Easter weekend – non-churchgoing adults – the research shows that while 46% of unchurched adults view the meaning of Easter to be religious, while just 25% connect the holiday to Jesus’ return to life.
As for denominational affiliation, most Catholics said they celebrate Easter as a religious holiday (65%).Still, just one-third of Catholics listed the resurrection as the meaning of the holiday (37%). In comparison, Protestants were more likely than Catholics both to view Easter as a religious holiday and to connect the occasion to Jesus’ awakening from death (78% and 51%, respectively).
Easter and Evangelism?
The Barna research also examined whether churchgoing adults perceive Easter weekend to be a good time to invite people to attend worship services with them. While most active churchgoers said they would be open to doing this, a minority said they would be likely to do so. Overall, 31% of active churchgoers said they would definitely invite someone they know who does not usually attend a church to accompany them to a church service on Easter weekend this year.
Those most likely to invite people to church on Easter were women, parents of young children, evangelicals, Protestants, those who attend small churches (less than 100 adult attenders), and non-white adults.
Interestingly, those who articulate a resurrection-related concept of Easter are no more likely than other religiously oriented Americans to indicate that they will invite friends to worship with them on Easter.
The Barna researcher who directed the project, David Kinnaman, pointed out that “most Americans continue to view the Easter holiday as a religious celebration, but many of them are not clear as to the underlying reason for the occasion. Perhaps most concerning, from the standpoint of church leaders, is that those who celebrate Easter because of the resurrection of Christ are not particularly likely to invite non-churched friends to worship, suggesting that their personal beliefs about Jesus have not yet translated into a sense of urgency for having spiritual conversations with their acquaintances.”
Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, also pointed out that there may be a substantial gap between people’s openness to inviting a non-church person to attend a church service on Easter and the likelihood of them actually doing so. “Realistically, if all of the people who said they would bring unchurched people with them on Easter were to follow through, America’s churches couldn’t handle the overflow. The statistics project to something like 40 million church regulars who claim they are likely to bring someone as their guest. If each of those people brought just one adult as their guest, that’d be the equivalent of adding 115 new people per Christian congregation. That would more than double the size of the average church! That is clearly an over-estimate.
“But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that so many people are at least open to the idea of offering such invitations to their friends and family. One of the challenges to pastors and other church leaders is to find out what’s actually preventing them from following through on that willingness.”
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 – 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. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.
“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.”
“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) 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.”
“Downscale” individuals are those whose annual household income is less than $20,000 and who have not attended college. “Upscale” people are those whose annual household income is $75,000 or more and who have graduated from a four-year college.
“Unchurched adults” are those who have not attended a religious worship service in the last six months, excluding special events such as weddings and funerals.
The Barna Group (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research on a wide range of issues and products, produces resources pertaining to cultural change, leadership and spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources, both free and at discounted prices, are also available through that website.
© Barna Group 2010.
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