Many of the exhortations in the Bible are not popular in today’s world. But a new study by the Barna Group indicates that one of the least favorite biblical principles might well be “Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow” (Hebrews 13:17, NLT).
The Extent of Accountability
Because the underlying theme of the Christian life is one of being transformed from a selfish and self-driven individual to one who lives for and surrenders control of one’s life to God, the practice of accountability for life choices and behavior is central to that process of transformation. Yet, a national survey by the Barna Group among people who describe themselves as Christian and involved in a church discovered that only 5% indicated that their church does anything to hold them accountable for integrating biblical beliefs and principles into their life.
Although there were a few subgroups that were more likely than average to experience church-based accountability, there was not a single segment for which even one out of every five people said their church does anything to hold them accountable. The segments that were most likely to have some form of church-centered accountability were evangelicals (15%), adults living in the western states (10%), people who say they are conservative on social and political matters (9%), and Baby Busters, who are known to be a highly relational generation (8%). Amazingly, while 7% of Protestants claimed to have such accountability there was not a single Catholic adult surveyed who claimed to be held accountable by his/her church.
The Means of Accountability
Among the 5% of Christian adults who said their church holds them accountable, there were seven primary approaches to oversight that were described. The most common approach was through small groups, which was listed by one-third (34%) of those who claimed to be held accountable. Putting those figures in context, the survey found that 22% of adults were involved in a small group, which means that only 7% of all small group attenders identified accountability as one of the functions fulfilled by their group.
Other accountability methods utilized by churches included limiting or revoking membership for those who did not meet specific standards (21% of those who experienced any form of accountability); being accountable to individuals they were acquainted with in the congregation (19%); being responsible for completing activities assigned to them by church leaders, with follow-up by those leaders (16%); personal accountability to the pastor or other pastoral staff person (10%); answering directly to the congregation for questionable activities that are identified (8%); and having regularly scheduled reviews with church leaders (6%).
Placing these statistics into their larger context—that is, how many Christians are held accountable by any particular approach —demonstrates not only how infrequent accountability is, but also how little consistency there is in the procedures used by churches across the nation. The most frequent method—accountability through the relationships developed in small groups—is practiced in the lives of only 2% of all self-described Christians in the nation. Other forms are found in the lives of 1% or fewer Christians.
Why Isn’t Accountability More Common?
Although the survey was not designed to assess the reasons for such a paucity of accountability practices, the survey’s director, George Barna, offered some possibilities to consider based on previous research.
“Barna Group studies among pastors and other church leaders have consistently shown that such leaders have a distaste for initiating any type of confrontation and conflict with congregants. Another barrier is that many followers of Christ are uncertain about the difference between judgment and discernment. Not wanting to be judgmental, they therefore avoid all conversation about the other person’s behavior—except, sometimes, gossip.
“One of the cornerstones of the biblical concept of community is that of mutual accountability. But Americans these days cherish privacy and freedom to the extent that the very idea of being held accountable by others—even those with their best interests in mind, or who have a legal or spiritual authority to do so—is considered inappropriate, antiquated and rigid. With a large majority of Christian churches proclaiming that people should know, trust and obey all of the behavioral principles taught in the Bible, overlooking a principle as foundational as accountability breeds even more public confusion about scriptural authority and faith-based community, as well as personal behavioral responsibility.”
About the Research
This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted in the Barna Poll by the Barna Group, with a random sample of 1,000 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, August 16-22, 2010. The interviews included 125 among people using cell phones. The portion of the study analyzed in this report is based on 889 adults who considered themselves to be Christian and who attend a Christian church. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of self-identified Christians is ±3.6 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.
Respondents were asked the question, “Does the church that you attend most often do anything specific to hold you, personally, accountable for integrating your faith into your daily life?” If the answer was “yes,” a follow-up question asked for people to explain more specifically what the church does to hold them accountable.
“Evangelicals” are defined based on nine survey criteria, including having made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and also indicating 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. Evangelicals also embrace seven other religious perspectives. 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.”
Baby Busters are individuals born between 1965 and 1983.
The western states encompass Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.
Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to 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.
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© Barna Group 2010.
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