Feb 9, 2009

From the Archives

Survey Describes the Spiritual Gifts That Christians Say They Have

The Bible teaches that all followers of Christ are given supernatural abilities by God to serve Him better, known as spiritual gifts. Two-thirds of Americans (68%) who say they are Christian noted they have heard of spiritual gifts, according to a national survey by The Barna Group. That represents a small decline from past surveys, which found 72% awareness in 2000, and 71% in 1995.

Awareness of spiritual gifts was most common among self-described Christians who live in the South (75%) and West (71%), and least common among those living in the Midwest (63%) and Northeast (58%).

Such awareness also varied within the various segments of the self-described Christian population. For instance, 99% of evangelicals have heard of spiritual gifts, far more than the 74% among non-evangelical born again Christians and 58% among notional Christians. Similarly, there was a large gap between Protestants (75%) and Catholics (54%) in awareness. Even within the Protestant community there was a noteworthy gap between those who attend a mainline church (68% awareness) and those who attend a Protestant congregation not associated with a mainline denomination (78%).

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Which Gifts People Claim

The survey asked people who said they were Christian and who claimed to have heard of spiritual gifts to identify which gifts they believe God has granted to them. The most commonly claimed gifts were teaching (9%), service (8%) and faith (7%). Those were followed by encouragement (4%), healing (4%), knowledge (4%), and tongues (3%). The gift of leadership was mentioned by just 2%.

There were significant differences in the answers provided by evangelicals, non-evangelical born agains and notional Christians. Evangelicals were more likely than people from the other faith segments to say that they had gifts of teaching (28%), service (12%), encouragement (10%), and administration (7%). The non-evangelical born again segment was the group most likely to claim the gifts of faith (10%) and hospitality (3%). Notional Christians were most notable for having the largest percentage who said they had no gift at all (37%, compared to 16% of evangelicals and 24% of non-evangelical born agains).

Examining the data for all born again Christians (i.e., evangelical and non-evangelical combined) over the past 13 years shows several change patterns:

  1. The percentage that claims to have the gift of encouragement has grown steadily from 2% in 1995 to 6% today.
  2. Since 1995, the proportion of born again adults claiming the gift of evangelism dropped from 4% to 1%.
  3. Those who do not know what their gift is rose from 8% in 2000 to 13% today.

False Gifts

The survey also found that many people who say they have heard of spiritual gifts were not necessarily describing the same gifts outlined in the Bible. Among the gifts claimed that are not among those deemed to be spiritual gifts in the passages of scripture that teach about gifts (Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4:7-13, 1 Peter 4:10-11) were a sense of humor, singing, health, life, happiness, patience, a job, a house, compromise, premonition, creativity, and clairvoyance.

In total, one-fifth of all the gifts cited by respondents (21%) were attributes that do not fit the biblical lists of gifts given by God.

Thoughts on the Meaning of the Results

The survey data point out several interesting conditions.

  1. Between those who do not know their gift (15%), those who say they don’t have one (28%) and those who claimed gifts that are not biblical (20%), nearly two-thirds of the self-identified Christian population who claim to have heard about spiritual gifts have not been able to accurately apply whatever they have heard or what the Bible teaches on the subject to their lives.
  2. A specific set of gifts, commonly described as the charismatic gifts, are widely possessed by Christians. Overall, 13% of Christian adults claimed to have one of more of those gifts (e.g., healing, interpretation, knowledge, miracles, prophecy, tongues). The people most likely to say they have a charismatic gift are woman (twice as likely as men); people without any college education; born again Christians; and people 45 or older. Intriguingly, although 13% say they have one or more charismatic gifts, the survey revealed that nearly twice as many (23%) described themselves as charismatics.
  3. One of the reasons the evangelical community may seem to be so verbal about its faith and faith-driven convictions relates to the fact that more than one-quarter of them (28%) claim the gift of teaching. Possessing that gift might also raise people’s expectations regarding the quality of sermons and other teaching received at their church, triggering the often-cited high turnover within evangelical congregations.
  4. By the same token, the fact that evangelicals were far more likely to claim the gifts of administration and service also reflects the widely-cited tendency of the group to be well-organized and to be generous in donating its time and energy to causes it deems worthy.
  5. A much higher percentage of born again Christians claims to be a leader than cites having been given the spiritual gift of leadership. This suggests that perhaps many Christian leaders are torn between relying upon their natural talent and training rather than depending upon God’s gifting to empower their leadership. This issue may be even broader than the struggle of leaders. Spiritual gifts are provided as “special abilities” that enable believers to serve each other (as indicated in 1 Peter 4:10 and Romans 12:7). The struggle of the aggregate Christian Church in America may be related to the fact that a large share of individual believers who engage in ministry do so on the basis of personal preference and natural talent rather than supernatural capacities, resulting in ineffective ministry.
  6. The stagnation of evangelism relates to many factors, but one of those is probably the fact that just 1% of Christian adults (self-described or born again) claims the gift of evangelism. While the Bible never suggests that one must possess this gift in order to share the gospel, the depressed proportion of believers who identify with that gift reflects the stalled growth of the Christian body in America.

About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group in three nationwide surveys. The first of those included 1006 adults in 1995; the second included 1003 adults in 2000; and the third was among 1006 adults in 2008. In each survey, the first question related to spiritual gifts was limited to people who had described themselves as Christian. The question regarding what spiritual gifts they possessed, if any, was limited to people who said they had heard of spiritual gifts. This filtering effectively reduced the original sample size (1,006) to 873 adults who claimed to be Christian and then further reduced to 576 adults who were self-defined Christians and aware of spiritual gifts. The range of sampling error associated with the sub-sample of self-identified Christians is between ±1.5 and ±3.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The range of sampling error associated with the sub-sample of self-defined Christians who were aware of spiritual gifts is between ±1.8 and ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

“Born again Christians” were defined as people who said they had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that was still important in their life today and who also indicated they believed 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.”

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

“Nominal Christians” were defined as individuals who described themselves as Christian but did not meet the born again criteria (outlined above).

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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