Oct 22, 2002

From the Archives

Survey Shows Faith Impacts Some Behaviors But Not Others

People’s faith affects some aspects of their behavior but not all of it, according to a new survey released by the Barna Research Group (Ventura, California). The nationwide study examines 25 behaviors in seven different dimensions of life. People who attend church are statistically different than those who do not in relation to 12 of the 25 behaviors. Barna also notes that there were differences between born again Christians and non-born again adults related to seven of those 25 behaviors.

Barna Access Plus

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

The findings also pointed out that of the seven dimensions examined – economics, influence, technology, service, lifestyle, health and morality – the areas in which the greatest differences were found related to morals and service.

Moral Distinctions

Survey respondents were asked to react to a half-dozen behaviors related to moral choices. In considering the behavior of churched and unchurched adults, four of the six items showed distinctions. Churched adults were more likely than unchurched individuals to choose not to watch a particular movie or video only because the rating indicated that it contained objectionable material (22% compared to 7%, respectively); to have a discussion with someone about a moral issue (51% versus 41%); and to turn off a television program they were watching because they did not like the values or viewpoint presented in the program (47% compared to 34%). Unchurched adults were more likely to have viewed “adult-only” content on the Internet (19% versus 8% among the churched).

There was no difference in relation to reading a magazine or watching a movie or video that contained explicit sexual images. About one out of every five adults had done so in the past seven days.

There was less of a difference on these matters between born again and non-born again adults. Born again individuals were twice as likely to not watch a movie because of its rating (27% vs. 14% among the non-born agains) and somewhat more likely to turn off a TV program that presented values or viewpoints they did not like (47% vs. 39%). However, there was no difference evident when it came to the likelihood of viewing adult-only content on the Internet, discussing a specific moral issue, or reading magazines or watching videos with explicit sexual content.

Serving Other People

Of the items examined in relation to serving other people, two of the three showed notable differences between church and unchurched adults as well as between born again and non-born again individuals.

Churched adults were nearly twice as likely to have volunteered at least an hour of their time during the previous week to assist an organization that helps needy people (27% versus 15%). Churched people were also more prone to “go out of your way to say something encouraging to a person whom you sensed was in need of a kind word” (79% of the churched did so, 62% of the unchurched did). Both groups were equally likely to have given cash to a poor person whom they encountered during the past week.

Similarly, born again adults were more likely than non-born again people to have volunteered to help a group serving the needy (30% versus 22%) and to have intentionally said encouraging words to a discouraged person (84% versus 73%). There was no discernible difference in their likelihood of giving money to a poor person whom they met.

Barna Access Plus

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

Health Issues

The churched and unchurched had identifiable differences regarding a couple of health matters. The unchurched were more likely to have smoked a cigarette or cigar in the past week (39%, compared to 28% of the churched) and twice as likely to have consumed enough alcohol to be deemed legally intoxicated (15% versus 6%). The two segments were identical when it came to having attended a 12-step or recovery group and regarding the likelihood of spending an hour or more engaged in exercise or physical fitness activity.

On these same four health-related behaviors the only one on which born again adults differed from non-born agains was that they were only half as likely to smoke tobacco during the past week (20% had done so, compared to 37% of the non-born again population).

Lifestyle, Entertainment and Technology

Of the six behaviors related to technology use, entertainment and lifestyle – using the Internet, using e-mail for non-employment purposes, attending a class, recycling, reading a book for pleasure and reading their horoscope – none produced a difference between born again and non-born again adults. However, there were differences among half of the six items based on church involvement. Churched adults were somewhat more likely to have read a book for pleasure, to have used e-mail outside of a job, and a third less likely to have consulted a horoscope report.

Economic Patterns

The three behaviors associated with finances and spending choices – boycotting products, buying lottery tickets, and gambling – produced no differences between the churched and unchurched. The only difference based on people’s faith commitment was that non-born again adults were marginally more likely than born agains to have purchased a lottery ticket in the past week (24% vs. 17%, respectively).

Seeking to Influence the World

Upon examining responses to the three items concerning personal influence, only one of those showed a gap between the pairs of faith segments under scrutiny. Churched people were four times more likely to have prayed for President Bush during the past week (28% versus 7%); born again adults were twice as likely as non-born again people to have done so (39% compared to 16%, respectively).

People representing each of the four faith segments were equally likely to have contacted a political official to express a point of view (about one out of twenty had done so in the previous week) or to have had a discussion with someone about a political issue during which they tried to influence the other person’s opinion (one-quarter said they had engaged in such interaction).

Perspectives On the Findings

The outcomes suggest that faith does have an impact on how people live, according to George Barna, who directed the research. “It seems that areas of life most clearly related to religious beliefs, such as moral behavior and serving the needs of disadvantaged people, are somewhat affected by involvement in church or through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The data also show, however, that areas of life that are less overtly associated with people’s religious beliefs – dimensions such as economics, political influence or entertainment choices – may not be impacted by their faith. People need more help in determining how their faith speaks to life issues beyond the obvious connections.

“For instance,” he continued, “most devoted Christians see no connection between their faith and recycling, or gambling or even participation in the political process. The fact that there is less of a gap between born again and non-born again individuals than we see between churched and unchurched people indicates that Americans are more likely to be influenced by involvement in any type of faith than they are to be demonstrably changed by commitment to the Christian faith. In other words, because the Christian faith is not associated in people’s minds with a comprehensively different way of life than they would lead if they were not Christian, the impact of that faith is largely limited to those dimensions of thought and behavior that are obviously religious in nature.”

Barna noted that half (49%) of the adults who are churched are non-born again individuals. The research also showed that a majority of the non-born again adults (55%) is churched.

“Some of the elements that are easy to overlook in this study relate to the actual numbers of Christians who do or don’t do something that their faith requires of them,” Barna commented. “For instance, all Christians are called to regularly pray for their leaders, or to influence other people in accordance with biblical values, but relatively few believers do so. Similarly, while Christians are exhorted to not engage in behaviors such as gambling or filling their minds with inappropriate sexual images through pornography, millions do so on a regular basis. While some of that behavior is perhaps outright disobedience to God’s commands, much of it may be naïve ignorance of what the Bible calls for and how we are to translate its principles into daily living.”

Barna Access Plus

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

Research Methodology

The data described in this report are based on two national telephone surveys among random samples of adults (age 18 or older) living within the 48 continental states. The first survey was conducted among 1006 adults in January-February of 2002; the second was among 630 people during August 2002. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate national sample of the January survey is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level; the maximum level of estimated sampling error is ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% statistical confidence level for the August survey. (The sampling error for subgroups may be higher because the sample size of those segments is smaller. There are other types of error besides sampling error that may also be present in surveys.) All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. The distribution of the survey respondents coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population according to Census Bureau estimates. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable sample 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.”

“Unchurched” people were those who had not attended a church service, other than a special event such as a holiday service or a special event like a wedding or funeral, during the past six months.

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.