With the general population indicating a warm and positive perception of Jesus, how is it possible that the U.S. is increasingly and swiftly becoming more post-Christian?
The answer appears to lie in the dichotomy between how people perceive Jesus versus how they view his followers and the institutional Church—something we’ll explore in today’s article, an excerpt from our third release in the Spiritually Open series. You can read the full release on Barna Access Plus.
Jesus vs. the Church
When we asked Americans whether they have a positive or negative opinion of Jesus, seven in 10 (71%) say they view him positively. Of all U.S. teens and adults, 63 percent say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today. This is actually most common among Millennials, of whom 70 percent say their commitment to Jesus is still important to them. Overall, the percentage of Americans who agree with this statement has declined fewer than 10 percentage points over the last 20 years (which is less of a decline than what is observed with other Barna faith metrics like church attendance).
Beyond Jesus, when it comes to views of other Christian groups or entities, positive opinions wane. People of no faith are neutral or leaning negative—and for celebrity, mega- or famous representatives of the faith, opinions are decidedly negative.
Among those of no faith, even Christian individuals are not viewed so favorably. Further, the data below shows why people may be reluctant to hold Christian beliefs, with the top reason today being “hypocrisy of religious people.”
This isn’t to say that, at a surface level, present-day Christianity doesn’t have a welcome presence in the U.S. It is typically seen as respected, principled, loving, friendly, generous and so on. More telling than these general descriptions, however, are the glaring disparities between how Christians and those of no faith regard Christianity. These gaps represent the hurdles the Church needs to overcome, especially if sharing faith or welcoming people into churches is the goal.
Some of the biggest differences appear when it comes to how much less likely people of no faith are to call Christianity a faith they respect (15%), and how much more likely they are than Christians to describe the faith as judgmental (48%) and hypocritical (49%).
Our data on the rising spiritual openness in America reveals a tremendous opportunity for faith leaders. The challenge facing the Church is whether they are ready and able to meet the spiritually open—where they are, as they are.
“The work of Christians is to embody Jesus—full of truth and grace—and reflect his image in all they say and do,” says David Kinnaman, CEO of Barna Group. “The data shows they too often fall short.”
Additional reading and resources:
- To help leaders move from insights to action and apply the findings covered in this article, Barna Group has created “Restoring the Church’s Reputation: A Field Guide for Faith Leaders.” You can access this field guide, and more Spiritually Open resources exclusively inside Barna Access Plus.
- Interested in reading “Openness to Jesus Isn’t the Problem—the Church Is” in full? This—and a variety of other Spiritually Open resources, including field guides for faith leaders and exclusive video interviews—are available exclusively in Barna Access Plus.
- Curious what faith conversations look like in the digital age? Read Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age and our Digital Evangelism reports to learn more.
- Is your church ready to welcome and openly engage with spiritually open and curious people? For more resources related to faith-sharing, check out our new Evangelism channel in Barna Access Plus.
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About the Research
The Spiritually Open project is conducted in partnership with Gloo and He Gets Us. The project is based on a survey of 2,005 U.S. adults and teenagers (ages 13-17) conducted online from December 13–22, 2022 via a consumer research panel. The margin of error for the sample is +/- 2.0 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. Quotas were set to representation by region, race / ethnicity, education, age and gender based on the U.S. Census Bureau. Minimal statistical weighting has been applied to maximize sample representation.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2023