Jul 21, 2008

From the Archives

Survey Reveals the Life Christians Desire

What do Christians want most in this life? According to a new national survey conducted by The Barna Group, it depends upon what type of Christian you ask. The Barna survey included 19 possible outcomes in life that each survey respondent was asked to rate in terms of personal desirability. The responses varied according to the spiritual commitment and theological views of adults. The study examined people’s preferences according to a dozen overlapping but distinct segments of Christians. Among those groups were evangelicals, non-evangelical born agains, notional Christians, self-identified Christians, Catholics, Protestants, mainline Protestants, and non-mainline Protestants. The research also explored the desires of atheists and agnostics.

Your Leadership Toolkit

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

Evangelicals Feel Strongly about Faith Possibilities

Evangelical Christians, the 8% of the population who are born again and possess theological views that align most closely with the teachings of the Bible, were the only group among the dozen Christian segments among which at least 90% listed as many as 6 of the 19 future-life possibilities as being “very desirable.” The outcomes embraced by 90% or more included: having good physical health, having a close personal relationship with God, having a clear purpose for living, living with a high degree of integrity, having just one marriage partner for life, and being deeply committed to the Christian faith. Evangelicals were the only faith segment for which 9 out of every 10 members named good health, a clear purpose, and high integrity as highly desirable personal goals.

In addition, being personally active in a church was identified as a very desirable goal by 84%. That was nearly double the national average (45%). Evangelicals were also much more likely than other people to desire a life in which they make a difference in the world (75%, compared to the national average of 56%).

Further, there were several life outcomes that were relatively unattractive to evangelicals. For instance, they were considerably less likely to identify achieving fame or recognition (deemed “very desirable” by just 1%) and having a comfortable lifestyle (43%, compared to a national average of 70%).

Non-Evangelical Born Agains Want More of God

Among born again Christians who are not evangelical in their theological views, just one of the 19 future conditions was identified by at least 90% as being very desirable: having a close, personal relationship with God (94%).

Other faith-related possibilities were also more desirable to them than to the public at-large. For instance, they were more likely to want to be personally active in a church (68%, compared to 45% nationally) and to desire being deeply committed to the Christian faith (86%, versus 59% nationally).

The only other distinctive of the non-evangelical born again adults was their comparatively heightened desirability of having a clear purpose for their life, which was listed by 87% of the segment (77% national average).

Notional Christians Go a Different Route

Adults who define themselves as Christian but are not born again constitute about half of the population that embraces the “Christian” label. This group, known as Notional Christians, had different interests compared to their evangelical and non-evangelical born again counterparts, especially in relation to faith. Notional Christians were less than half as likely to say that being active in a church was very desirable (32%), were one-third less likely to list having a close personal relationship with God as very desirable (65%), and were only half as likely to portray being deeply committed to the Christian faith as very desirable (46%).

Notional adults were also less likely to include living with a high degree of integrity (81%), having one marriage partner for life (75%) and having a clear purpose for life (72%) among their most desirable future conditions. They were slightly less likely to identify making a difference in the world as personally compelling (54%). The only outcome that Notionals deemed to be more highly desirable than did the two born again segments was owning the latest household technology and equipment.

Protestants and Catholics Differed

A comparison of the desired life of Protestants and Catholics produced several distinctions. For instance, Protestants were twice as likely to list working in a high-paying job as something they consider a highly desirable element for their life (33% did so, compared to 15% of Catholics) and they were somewhat less likely to mention living close to family and relatives (63%, versus 74% among Catholics).

The biggest gap, though, related to matters of faith. Protestants were significantly more likely than Catholics to say it would be very desirable to be personally active in a church (60% vs. 41%, respectively); to have a close personal relationship with God (84% versus 76%); and to be deeply committed to the Christian faith (75% versus 59%).

Mainline and Non-Mainline Protestants Clash on Faith Goals

Adults who usually attend a Protestant church that is part of the mainline group of denominations were notably less driven to incorporate their faith into their future than were adults who attend other Protestant churches. For example, those who attend a mainline church were:

  1. less likely to desire being personally active in a church (50%, compared to 66% among those attending other Protestant churches);
  2. less likely to want a close personal relationship with God (listed by 77%, compared to 88% among other Protestants);
  3. less likely to want to be deeply committed to the Christian faith (67%, dwarfed by the 82% among other Protestants).

At the same time, adults affiliated with a mainline Protestant church were more likely than those attending other Protestant churches to have an intense desire to work in a high-pay job (42% vs. 25%, respectively) and to have a comfortable lifestyle (77% vs. 65%).

Adults Outside of Christianity Have Different Goals

Apart from life conditions not directly associated with faith, Americans who are associated with faiths other than Christianity, or who are atheist or agnostic, reflected a divergent set of strong desires for their future.

Atheists and agnostics represent about one out of every ten adults. They stood out as the faith segment least likely to find living near family and relatives to be highly desirable (43%, compared to 63% national average). The religious skeptics were also much less likely to be driven to have a clear sense of purpose in life (55%, compared to 77% of all adults) or to want just one marriage partner for life (58% versus an 80% U.S. average). They were also less interested in making a difference in the world (45%, versus 56% nationally) and in having close friendships.

Your Leadership Toolkit

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

Goals Paint a Portrait

George Barna, who directed the study, indicated that the profile emerging from the survey paints a telling portrait of each faith segment.

“The data provide a distinct image of each faith group,” Barna commented. “Evangelicals are intensely driven by their faith: their life is substantially influenced by their beliefs and their lifestyle choices and aspirations reflect the centrality of their spirituality. Non-evangelical born again adults consider faith to be important but it is not the defining aspect of their existence; it is influential but not the determining factor. Notional Christians treat faith as just one of many dimensions of their life that serves a purpose, but it is not a driving force at all. Skeptics have replaced faith with a passion for healthy longevity and personal pleasure gained through world travel, sexual experiences, and obtaining knowledge. They are substantially less focused on relationships and legacy than are other groups. They tend to be less concerned about finding or pursuing a purpose in life because a majority of them believe life has no purpose beyond comfort and pleasure.”

Barna is the author of more than 40 books about faith and culture, including the controversial bestseller Revolution, which describes the changing nature of America’s faith practices. He pointed out that people’s faith is shaped by many influences and relationships – and that faith impacts many dimensions of a person’s life in varying ways. “It is intriguing to study the ebb and flow of spirituality in a person’s life,” he noted. “Those who fall into the evangelical stream have determined that life is all about the pursuit of God and the development of a life-altering faith. Atheists and agnostics, who slightly outnumber evangelicals, have arrived at exactly the opposite conclusion. And then there are the 80% or so who are at every other conceivable point along the continuum in between those two extremes. America is a nation dramatically affected by the faith views of its people. And those views reflect the creativity and diversity seen in other dimensions of the nation’s character.”

About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1003 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, in May 2008. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 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” are defined 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 are 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.”

Non-evangelical born again Christians meet the born again criteria described above, but not the evangelical criteria.

Notional Christians are those who consider themselves to be Christian but do not meet the not born again criteria.

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

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.

Get Barna in your inbox

Subscribe to Barna’s free newsletters for the latest data and insights to navigate today’s most complex issues.