Nov 29, 2005

From the Archives

One-Quarter of Self-Described Born Again Adults Rely On Means Other Than Grace to Get to Heaven

When someone calls himself a Christian, what does he really mean? What does someone imply when they adopt the label “born again Christian?” A new national survey released by The Barna Group indicates that the terminology used by followers of Jesus Christ reflects a breadth of meanings. While the most widely-held description is simply “Christian,” that term represents a segment of adults who engage in less religious activity and possess less orthodox views than do people who associate themselves with other descriptions.

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Overall, 80% of adults in the U.S. call themselves “Christian.” In comparison, the phrase “a committed Christian” is embraced by two out of every three adults (68%). The words “born again Christian” are adopted by just less than half of the population (45%). A two-part description of a person’s faith, in which they say they “have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important” in their life today, and in which they claim they will go to Heaven after they die because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, is also claimed by just less than half (44%). (This latter definition has been used by The Barna Group for nearly two decades to describe “born again” people without using the term “born again” in its surveys.)

The study showed some interesting relationships among these terms. For instance, one-quarter of those who call themselves born again did not meet the Barna Group criteria for born again – which generally meant they rely upon something other than God’s grace as their means to salvation. The “born again Christian” self-description tends to attract a greater percentage of blacks, people under 25, and people over 60 than does the Barna Group’s theologically-oriented descriptor. That two-part definition used by the research firm also attracts a larger share of upscale adults and more people who share their faith in Jesus Christ with other people.

Demographic Differences

The various religious descriptions had varied appeal across demographic segments. Age was related to these terms in some intriguing ways. Mosaics, the youngest adults (those 21 and younger) were comparatively comfortable with the terms “Christian” and “born again Christian” but were much less comfortable calling themselves committed Christians (just 29% did so, compared to a national norm of 68%). The preceding generation, the Baby Busters (now ages 22 through 40), were significantly below the national average in relation to all four of the terms tested, reflecting their relative distance from conventional organized religious groups and beliefs.

Blacks were the ethnic group that most deeply resonated with the term “born again” (75% embraced it to describe themselves, compared to only 31% of Hispanics and 44% of whites). Hispanics were comparatively likely to adopt the term “committed Christian” (58%).

Catholics, in general, were uncomfortable with the phrase “born again Christian.” Although just 14% said it described them accurately, 23% qualified as born again according The Barna Group’s definition.

Regionally, residents of the Northeast generally accepted the terms “Christian” (74%) and “committed Christian” (61%), but were far less likely to adopt the “born again Christian” phrase (29%) or to meet the Barna Group’s born again standard (29%). People living in the West had a similar portrait. Adults in the South were comparatively less likely than others to say they were a “committed Christian.” People in the Midwest were the most likely to claim to be a “committed Christian.”

The research also found that self-described conservatives were three times more likely than self-described liberals to embrace the “born again” label; blacks were two-and-a-half times more likely than Hispanics to do so; and people without any college education were almost 60% more likely than those with a college degree to stake a claim to being “born again.”

Only half of both of the “born again” segments (i.e., those self-described by the term and those defined by The Barna Group’s questions) had prayed to God, read from the Bible and attended a religious service in the past week. In comparison, nine out of ten “committed Christian” adults had done so and just one-third of those who said they are “Christian” engaged in the three behaviors.

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Thoughts On Religious Language

The research suggests that phrases do not necessarily possess universally understood meaning. “Blacks, Catholics and young adults are groups who conjure up different images than do other people when terms such as ‘born again’ or ‘committed Christian’ are used,” noted George Barna, who conducted the research. “With more than 250 Protestant denominations in the United States, and the increasing diversity and customization within the spiritual realm, it’s not surprising that there is very limited common understanding with such language. The challenge,” he continued, “may be to avoid reliance on labels and brief adjectives as religious profiles. In our sound-bite society, with everyone moving quickly and making snap judgments, the temptation is to rely upon simple characterizations to provide a broad perspective on who a person is and what they represent. This is part of the challenge to churches: to know each person more deeply in order to serve them more meaningfully. Ideally, people of faith will recognize the value of genuine relationships in which we know each other at a deeper level and can therefore foster real connection and growth.”

Source of This Information

The data reported in this summary are based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1002 adults conducted in October 2005. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample in this survey is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All non-institutionalized adults in the 48 contiguous states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents in the survey sample corresponds to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. The data were subjected to slight statistical weighting procedures to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative distribution of adults.

The “Baby Busters” refers to the generation of people born from 1965 through 1983. The “Mosaic” generation includes all people born from 1984 through 2002. In this study, only those Mosaics born from 1984 through 1987 were included – that is, those who were 18 or older.

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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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