Feb 20, 2006

From the Archives

The Concept of Holiness Baffles Most Americans

The concept of holiness is woven throughout the Bible and is one of the foundational teachings of many Protestant churches. From Old Testament passages such as Leviticus 19:2 (in which God says, “Be holy because I am holy”) through the more than two-dozen times in the New Testament where God’s people are described as holy, there is little doubt that holiness is a central tenet of the Christian faith. However, a new nationwide survey conducted by The Barna Group indicates that most adults remain confused, if not daunted, by the concept.

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Holiness Is Possible

Overall, three out of every four adults (73%) believe that it is possible for someone to become holy, regardless of their past. Only half of the adult population (50%), however, says that they know someone they consider to be holy. And that’s more than twice as many who consider themselves to be holy (21%).

The views of born again Christians are not much different from the national averages. Among born again adults, three-quarters (76%) say it is possible for a person to become holy, regardless of their past. Slightly more than half of the born again group (55%) say they know someone who they would describe as holy. And roughly three out of ten born agains (29%) say they are holy, which is marginally more than the national norm.

The adults most likely to say they know someone they consider to be holy are those who describe holiness primarily as possessing a positive attitude toward God and life. Adults who think of holiness as a spiritual condition are among the least likely to identify anyone they know as holy.

The Meaning of Holiness

When pressed to describe what it means to be holy, adults gave a wide range of answers. The most common reply was “I don’t know,” offered by one out of every five adults (21%). Other responses fell into categories such as “being Christ-like” (19%), making faith your top priority in life (18%), living a pure or sinless lifestyle (12%), and having a good attitude about people and life (10%). Other response categories included focusing completely on God (9%), being guided by the Holy Spirit (9%), being born again (8%), reflecting the character of God (7%), exhibiting a moral lifestyle (5%), and accepting and practicing biblical truth (5%). Once again, the responses of born again and non-born again adults were virtually identical.

Not Obsessed With Holiness

Holiness is a matter embraced by the Christian Church, but it is not one that many Americans adopt as a focal point of their faith development. This is partially because barely one-third of Americans (35%) contend that “God expects you to become holy.” A larger share of the born again public believes God has called them to holiness (46%) but that portion remains a minority of the born again population.

The types of people most likely to say that God expects them to become holy are evangelicals, Revolutionaries, people with a biblical worldview, and ethnic born again adults. In each of these segments, a majority stated that they firmly believe God expects them to be holy. The survey results also indicated that young adults (39 or younger) are less likely than middle-aged and older adults to believe that God expects holiness of His people.

Reflections on Holiness

The new survey findings, when combined with existing knowledge about the state of faith in America, caused the survey’s director, George Barna, to suggest that churches need to take this body of information seriously.

“Realize that the results portray a body of Christians who attend church and read the Bible, but do not understand the concept or significance of holiness, do not personally desire to be holy, and therefore do little, if anything to pursue it. However, the data identify a remnant that understands holiness, wants to live a holy life, and is engaged in its pursuit. The challenge to the nation’s Christian ministries is to foster a genuine hunger for holiness among the masses who claim they love God but who are ignorant about biblical teachings regarding holiness.”

Pointing to data from several of his recent surveys on spiritual maturity in the U.S., Barna noted, “To initiate the education of people regarding holiness, we must arrest their attention and teach its importance. To align their hearts with the notion of being holy, we must move them away from a ‘cheap grace’ theology and replace people’s self-absorption with focus on God and His ways. To help them pursue holiness, we must help them comprehend and accept biblical theology regarding God, Satan, the purposes of life on earth, the nature of spiritual transformation and maturity, and the necessity of bearing spiritual fruit.”

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Research Background

The data in this report are based on a nationwide telephone survey conducted by the Barna Research Group. The OmniPollSM survey involved interviews among 1003 adults during the January 2006. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. People in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those individuals coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a privately held, for-profit corporation that conducts primary research, produces audio, visual and print media, and facilitates the healthy development of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna web site

“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 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 they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

“Revolutionaries” were classified on the basis of meeting 11 specific criteria. They had have a clear sense of the meaning and purpose of their life; describe their relationship with and faith in God as the top priority in their life; consider themselves to be “Christian”; read the Bible regularly; pray regularly; deem their faith to be very important in their life; contend that the main objective in their life is to love God with all their heart, mind, strength and soul; describe God as the “all-knowing, all-powerful being who created the universe and still rules it today”; have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today; believe that when they die they will go to heaven only because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior; and say that their faith in Christ has “greatly transformed” their life.

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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