Dec 22, 2003

From the Archives

Spiritual Progress Hard to Find in 2003

Millions of Americans Are Spiritually Satisfied – and Confused

After analyzing more than 10,000 personal interviews conducted during 2003, researcher George Barna identified four critical outcomes that emerged from those interactions regarding faith and lifestyle. Contradictions and confusion permeate the spiritual condition of the nation. Studies conducted during 2003 indicate, for instance, that while 84% of adults say their religious faith is very important in their own life, 66% also say that religion is losing influence in the nation. While people are clearly spending less time involved in religious practices such as Bible reading, prayer, and participating in church activities, 70% claim that their own religious faith is consistently growing deeper.

Further, at the same time that 84% of adults claim to be Christian, three out of four say they are either absolutely or somewhat committed to Christianity, and three-fifths say they believe the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches, the moral foundations of the nation are crumbling. This year brought about increases in the proportions of people who contend that cohabitation (60%), adultery (42%), sexual relations between homosexuals (30%), abortion (45%), pornography (38%), the use of profanity (36%) and gambling (61%) are “morally acceptable” behaviors.

Even perceptions regarding eternal salvation reflect confusion. Nearly nine out of ten Protestant churches claim to be “evangelical,” almost six out of ten born again Christians claim to have shared their faith in Christ with a non-believer during the past twelve months, and virtually every Christian church says it pursues the Great Commission (i.e., spreading the good news about the availability of eternal salvation through the grace of God via Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for those who embrace Him as savior). Yet, although just 38% of the adult public have confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior, 99% claim they will not go to Hell after they die. In fact, a majority of Americans do not believe that Satan exists and most adults are leery about the existence of Hell.

America’s spiritual confusion undoubtedly relates to the fact that most people own a Bible but few know what’s in it. Research showing that only 4% of adults, and just 9% of born again Christians, have a biblical worldview sheds light on the distorted viewpoints that reign in the U.S.

(For more detail on these research findings, see Barna Updates released February 24, March 18, April 24, May 19, October 21, November 3 and December 1 of 2003.)

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Children Are Loved But Not Well-Served Spiritually

Despite a range of public policies designed to protect and nurture children, ranging from compulsory public education to protection from abuse and neglect, Americans seem willing to overlook the spiritual development of children. The research discovered that tens of millions of parents are satisfied by simply enrolling their children in church programs; they demonstrate little concern about the quality or effectiveness of those experiences.

The significance of focusing on the development of children is underscored by findings showing that the moral foundations of children are typically solidified by the age of nine, that lifelong spiritual choices regarding one’s faith and one’s relationship with Jesus Christ are generally made before they reach age 13, and that a person’s religious beliefs are usually worked out prior to becoming a teenager – and that those beliefs rarely change to any meaningful degree after age 13.

Unfortunately, “exit interviews” with teenagers reveal that the spiritual foundation laid by families and churches when they were younger is often inadequate. (For instance comparatively few early teens say that they learned enough Bible content to enable them to make important life decisions on the basis of biblical principles. Further, most teenagers have already made up their minds that once they become independent of their parents they will abandon church.)

Several Barna studies pointed out that most Christian churches evaluate success in terms of program attendance, child satisfaction and parental satisfaction, but do little to examine individual spiritual advancement. However, the ministries having the greatest success at seeing young people emerge into mature Christians, rather than contented church-goers, are those that facilitate a parent-church partnership focused on instilling specific spiritual beliefs and practices in a child’s life from a very early age. Sadly, less than one out of every five churches has produced such a ministry.

(For more detail on these research findings, see Barna Updates released May 6, July 8 and November 17 of 2003.)

Baby Busters March to A Different Drummer

As Baby Boomers get closer to their retirement years, the Baby Bust generation is spreading its wings in the marketplace. But as the generation of people in their twenties through mid-thirties accepts greater responsibilities, research data indicate that they are shifting many of our nation’s core values and perspectives.

This year’s research showed that Busters are the adult generation least likely to embrace the existence of life after earthly death; least likely to maintain views related to moral behavior that are consistent with the Bible; least likely to devote time to serving people; least likely to engage in traditional religious activities such as Bible reading, attending church, praying to God, and attending religious education classes; and the least likely to tithe to a church. They are also the generation most likely to believe we can communicate with dead people, the most likely to engage in sex without being married, are far more likely to endorse postmodern lifestyle perspectives, and are the most likely to hold theological views that conflict the Bible.

Busters generally describe themselves as “spiritual” but have less interest in church activity than do any other adults. As the current parents of most of the nation’s under-13 population, the long-term implications of their departure from orthodox Christianity are significant.

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Lots of Religious Activity But Limited Gains Are Evident

What makes all of these realities so hard to grasp is the substantial level of religious activity in the United States. Although there has been no change in the percentage of adults or teenagers who are born again in many years, the fact that four out of every ten adults attends a church service in a typical week; that a similar proportion read the Bible outside of church services; or that eight out of ten people claim to pray to God during a typical week minimizes people’s sensitivity to other indicators of spiritual decay. Christian ministries will raise nearly $60 billion for domestic ministry in 2003, and there is an estimated $3 billion of new construction work occurring on church properties to facilitate expanded ministry activities. All of these figures lend an air of security and stability to the religious condition of the country.

However, it is that very degree of continuity, when connected with the moral decay, family and parenting struggles, financial challenges and educational demise, that gives reason to question the spiritual health of the nation. The fact that there has not been any measurable increase in church involvement or personal spiritual depth in the past decade challenges the widespread notion that the U.S. is as spiritually healthy and focused as ever.

“This has been an intriguing year regarding the spiritual character of the nation,” explained George Barna, whose firm conducted the various studies relating faith and culture. “The news was filled with stories that directly and indirectly related to faith and morality, including such high profile events as the war in Iraq, further allegations of physical abuse by Catholic priests, legal changes regarding the definition of family, pending splits over moral issues within several major Protestant denominations, questions about the Islamic faith and even challenges to the President’s policies in relation to his faith.

“Many of these incidents have pushed Americans to re-consider the content and the implications of their faith. Our research clearly indicates that Americans are aware of and, to some extent, connected to their spiritual side. One of the greatest challenges of 2004 will be to upgrade the priority of personal and communal spiritual development so that positive transformation may continue.”

Research Source and Methodology

The data described above are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of more than 10,000 adults conducted during throughout 2003. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. 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. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable 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.

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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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