Jun 28, 2005

From the Archives

Religious Books Attract A Diverse Audience Dominated by Women and Boomers

Nearly half of all Americans have read at least one religious book, other than the Bible, from cover to cover in the past two years. However, the route to bestseller status among such books can take various paths, according to a new survey by The Barna Group. Studying the reader base for each of seven national bestsellers dealing with religious topics in recent years, the survey showed that different segments of the religious marketplace have turned books as diverse in style and content as The DaVinci Code, The Purpose Driven Life, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Left Behind, The Prayer of Jabez , Tuesdays with Morrie    and Your Best Life Now into nationwide favorites.

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Despite the onslaught of new technologies such as the Internet and DVDs, most Americans still read books. In the past two years, three out of four adults (73%) claim to have read at least one book from cover to cover. The people most likely to do so include women, college graduates and evangelicals.

In total, 44% of all adults had read at least one book whose main theme was religious or spiritual in nature. Half of all women had done so, compared to just one-third of men. Similarly, half of college graduates had read such a book, while only one-third of those with a high diploma or less education had.

People’s religious background was related to their likelihood of having read books with spiritual themes. Adults who attend large churches (i.e., 500 or more adults in weekly attendance) were 61% more likely to do so than were people who attend small congregations (100 or fewer adults). Religious books had been read by more than four out of five evangelicals (81%), by half of all non-evangelical born again adults (50%) and individuals associated with non-Christian faith groups (49%), but by only one-third of notional Christians (35%) and just one out of six atheists and agnostics (17%). Catholics and Protestants were equally likely to have read such literature 47% and 49%, respectively), although Protestants associated with mainline churches were substantially less likely than other Protestants to engage in such reading (38%).

While reading has not succumbed to digital and visual technologies, the terrain has changed significantly. Americans read fewer books than they used to and, according to a study conducted several years ago by The Barna Group, people usually do not finish the books that they start to read.

Tracking the Religious Bestsellers

The three bestselling religious books in the past few years have been the books in the Left Behind    series by Jerry Jenkins and Timothy LaHaye, The DaVinci Code by Daniel Brown, and The Purpose Driven Life   by Rick Warren. Not surprisingly, most of the adults who have read a religious-themed book in the past two years were aware of those books. The DaVinci Code   was the best known, familiar to four out of five adults (78%). Warren’s book was known to almost two-thirds of the religious readers (63%), while about three out of five were aware of the Left Behind   novels (58%).

Other religious bestsellers of recent vintage were somewhat less well-known to the primary market. Just less than half of the religious-book readers were aware of The Five People You Meet in Heaven  , by Mitch Albom (48%) and Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez  (45%). Tuesdays With Morrie,   also by Albom, was on the radar screen of 41%, while the most recent release, Your Best Life Now       by Joel Osteen, was known to one out of four adults (27%).

Each book, however, has attracted different segments of the religious audience on its way to the top.

For instance, The DaVinci Code  , a fictional thriller concerning an alleged cover-up by the Roman Catholic Church regarding the life of Christ, actually drew its most prolific fan base from the Catholic population. Despite protestations and an eventual ban by the Catholic church, 40% of American Catholics said they have read the book in its entirety, which was double the proportion among Protestants (18%). That book was by far the most widely read religious book among Catholics, with twice as many having read it as completed the next most popular book. The book also drew many readers from those who are aligned with a faith other than Christianity and from those who are atheists and agnostics. Self-described liberals were more than twice as likely as those who portray themselves as conservative to have read the book.

The Purpose Driven Life  took a different pathway to fame. It is the most popular of the religious titles among evangelicals (60% of whom have read the whole book) and it also did well among non-evangelical born again Christians (25% penetration). Within those markets the book is a particular hit among upscale Baby Boomers. Conservatives were twice as likely as liberals to have read Warren’s tome.

The dozen books in the Left Behind series managed to attract a fairly broad base of readers. Although women were more likely to have read any of the books than were men, it was the second most read religious book among both Catholics and Protestants, and drew evenly among people associated with large, mid-sized and small churches. The books did, however, attract mainly conservatives and born again Christians.

The pair of books by Mitch Albom skewed heavily female, upscale, and ideologically middle-of-the-road. His books also cut evenly across age and geographic boundaries. Evangelicals remained at arms length from these books. In fact, Tuesdays with Morrie drew more than twice the percentage of mainline Protestants as evangelicals. Your Best Life Now was the only book for which more men than women were counted as readers, and the only book for which a larger percentage of people with a high school diploma than with a college degree were readers. Osteen’s bestseller was also the only book among those tested that demonstrated no appeal at all among people who do not consider themselves to be Christian.

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Certain Segments Have Focused Interests

The survey data showed that several population segments have well-defined interests when it comes to religious reading. African-Americans, for instance, shied away from each of the seven titles examined except for The Prayer of Jabez   and Your Best Life Now   – the pair of books that have the greatest emphasis upon getting the most out of life. Young adults reflected an interest in religious novels, but limited interest in books regarding spiritual living. Residents of the Northeast were the least likely to read any of the bestselling religious titles, although they were no less likely than other Americans to read some type of religious book. Evangelicals, meanwhile, showed a particular proclivity to read books by their own kind (e.g., Rick Warren, Bruce Wilkinson and the Jenkins-LaHaye team).

This research follows on the heels of a recent report from The Barna Group identifying the books that Protestant pastors say have influenced them the most in the past several years. The only book that corresponded to the titles tested among consumers was The Purpose Driven Life   which pastors named as the most influential book by a wide margin.

Lessons to Draw

These statistics produced several trends identified by the director of the research, George Barna.”It is possible to reach millions of people with a religious book without penetrating the entire spiritual spectrum of the population – even within the Christian market. The consumer population for religious books is large enough to contain several unique segments, each of which is capable of spawning bestsellers while remaining distinct from other religious segments in the country.”

The research showed that there are different ways of helping people to grow spiritually through books. “Three-quarters or more of the people who read Purpose Driven Life, Your Best Life Now   and Jabez   said the book had been very helpful in advancing their personal spiritual growth or understanding. You might expect that reaction given the intent of the authors and the content of those books. However,” Barna continued, “one-fifth of those who read DaVinci Code   also gave that book credit for furthering their spiritual maturity. Even cleverly developed fiction can affect the way that people think about God, faith and the church.”

The California-based researcher also pointed out that certain segments of the population are drawn to books in their desire to grow spiritually, while others are not. “Evangelicals are a small sector of the population – just 7% of all adults – but they are among the most voracious readers of any population group we have studied. On the other hand, other segments are not inclined to grow through reading, but rely instead upon other means of communication and intellectual challenge.”

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Research Source and Methodology

The data reported in this summary are based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1008 adults conducted in May of 2005 by The Barna Group. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample 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.

“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 classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; contending that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; stating that Satan exists; maintaining that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; asserting that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; saying that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Further, respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.” Being classified as “evangelical” is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

“Mainline Protestant churches” are those associated with the following denominations: American Baptist, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian Church in the USA, and United Methodist.

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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