Mar 1, 2004

From the Archives

Religious Activity Increasing in the West

From year to year it is difficult to notice much change in people’s religious behavior. But a new nationwide survey completed by The Barna Group, a research firm in Ventura, California, – and especially in the western states.

National Numbers

The Barna Group has been conducting an annual tracking survey of the nation’s religious behavior for two decades. This year’s study, completed in mid-February, shows that there was no change over the past decade in four of the behaviors measured, but significant change related to three behaviors.

One change discovered related to Bible reading, which climbed to 44% of adults reading from the Bible during the past week (other than while at church), up from 37% in 1994 and 36% in 1999. Bible reading jumped most noticeably among Protestants (up from 47% in 1994 to 59% in 2004) and residents of the west coast states (California, Oregon, and Washington – rising from 29% a decade ago to 44% today).

Another shift was in participation in small groups that meet during the week for the purpose of prayer, Bible study or spiritual fellowship, excluding Sunday school or other church classes. In 1994, just 12% of adults engaged in such a meeting during the previous week; currently, 20% of adults do so. The biggest increase was evident among men (a 100% leap, to 18% of all men); people 58 or older (more than double, from 14% to 29%); Protestants (increasing from 17% to 28%); and residents of the West (up from 11% to 26%).

The final area of growth concerned prayer. While Barna studies did not track personal prayer in 1994, the 1999 statistic was 77%, compared to the current measurement of 83% who prayed to God during the past week. The biggest increases in prayer activity were seen among residents of the Northeast (71% in 1999, 80% in 2004) and those who call themselves atheist or agnostic (doubled from 20% in 1999 to 39% in 2004).

The religious behaviors that have remained flat over the past decade include church attendance (42% in 1994, 43% in 2004); volunteering to help a church (25% in 1994, 24% in 2004); attending adult Sunday school classes (21% in 1994 and 2004); and sharing one’s faith in Jesus Christ with non-believers (58% in 1999, 55% in 2004 – a behavior measured only among born again Christians).

The research report indicated that despite the unchanged percentage of worship attenders during the past decade, the continued population growth in the United States has ushered in a flood of additional worshipers. Census data suggest that the national population has grown by nearly 30 million people in the last ten years. After accounting for the proportion who are children, churches have reaped the benefit of an additional 22 million adults who are available to attend services, with an estimated 9 million showing up in church on a given Sunday in 2004, thanks to the continued growth of the U.S. population.


Religious Behavior, 1994-2004
(Source: The Barna Group, Ventura, CA)
read the Bible, other than at church
attended a church service
volunteered at church
prayed to God, other than at church
attended adult Sunday school class
participated in a small group
explained religious beliefs to a non-Christian*
sample size


Some Groups Are Changing

Several demographic groups have undergone considerable change in their religious habits over the past decade. Most notable, as indicated, are residents of the western states. Those adults have shown statistically significant shifts in Bible reading (up 52% since 1994); church attendance (24% rise in the past decade); and participation in a small group (136% jump in ten years). In contrast, adults living in the Northeast have shown the least change across the eight factors tracked. Significant gains were also found regarding Bible reading in the Midwest (up 21%); church attendance in the Midwest (21% rise); and small group involvement in the Midwest (64% growth).

Substantial change was also registered among people 58 and older. During the past decade, as that group has aged they have become more involved in reading the Bible (up 17%); attending Sunday school (up 33%); and small group participation (up 107%).

Protestants have also been notably more likely than Catholics to pick up the pace of their spiritual activity. The biggest activity gains for Protestants came in the areas of Bible reading (23% gain) and small group participation (65% growth). Catholics showed small gains in areas such as Bible reading, church attendance, prayer and small groups, but their increases were dwarfed by those registered among Protestants.

Men gave evidence of the most inconsistent religious behavior, growing in a few areas while declining in others. For instance, while men showed increases in Bible reading (up 15% since 1994), church attendance (10%), and small group involvement (100%), they were less active now than five years ago in sharing their faith in Christ (down 14%). There was no change in either their volunteerism or Sunday school attendance.

Behavioral Patterns Are Evident

Looking at the overall patterns, women are consistently more likely than men to engage in religious behavior. Women had higher participation numbers related to Bible reading (49% versus 38%, respectively); church attendance (47% vs. 39%); church volunteerism (28% vs. 21%); Sunday school attendance (25% vs. 18%); and small group participation (21% vs. 18%).

Similarly, generational differences are readily apparent. Virtually across-the-board, older adults were more heavily involved than Baby Boomers, who in turn were more involved than Baby Busters. The only behavior for which there was an increase in Buster involvement over the past decade was Bible reading (up from 28% in 1994 to 37% this year).

Protestants and Catholics had equivalent levels of church attendance and prayer, but Protestants were more heavily involved in each of the other five behaviors examined.

Ethnic and racial background also reflected a regular pattern, with blacks more heavily involved than whites, who in turn were more likely to engage in a given religious behavior than were Hispanics. The survey also pointed out that while the percentage of Hispanics who are Catholic continues to decline, a plurality still consider themselves to be Catholic (46%), compared to 33% who claim to be Protestant.

Regionally, the South remains the area most heavily associated with religious activities. Residents of the South were the most likely to participate in five of the seven endeavors studied, the exceptions being participation in small groups and evangelism (both of which were championed by western residents). In general, people from the Midwest and West were less likely than Southerners but more likely than people in the Northeast to engage in a given religious behavior.

Is This the Start of A Spiritual Revival?

The geography of behavioral change led the study director, George Barna, to raise an intriguing possibility. “If you study how behavioral trends evolve in America, they usually start in the west, take hold in the northeast, then infiltrate the interior of the nation. The fact that we are witnessing slow but steady development of more traditional religious behavior in the western states raises the possibility that over the coming decade we will see commitment to such behavior take root in the heartland, as well.”

Barna also mentioned additional data that will soon be released from the survey. “Looking ahead at some of the other findings now being analyzed from our annual tracking survey, we find that in spite of increased religious behavior on several fronts, there is no concurrent rise in the percentage of adults who have embraced Jesus Christ as their savior – that is, no parallel rise in the proportion who are ‘born again.’ Churches face an imposing challenge: to not allow people to substitute religious busyness for genuine spiritual transformation.”

One interesting facet related to the behaviors growing in popularity, according to Barna, was their non-church nature. “Notice that the growth activities – Bible reading, prayer, small groups – are those that do not take place at a church. The church-oriented endeavors – attending services, volunteering in church programs, Sunday school participation – showed no movement. This may be an early warning sign that we are entering a new era of spiritual experience – one that is more tribal or individualized than congregational in nature.”

Research Methodology

The data for the annual religious beliefs and behavior tracking survey by The Barna Group are based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1014 adults conducted in late January and early February of 2004. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All non-institutionalized adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents coincided with 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 ethnic and gender proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative distribution of adults.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys 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 were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being “born again” is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

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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