May 17, 2005

From the Archives

What Is A Purpose-Driven Life to Americans?

Religious books have become a publishing phenomenon in the past decade, and no religious book (other than the Bible) has generated more attention – or sales – than Rick Warren’s bestseller, The Purpose-Driven Life. More than 20 million copies of the book have been sold, and millions of people have been exposed to Purpose-Driven church programs, classes and resources. After all the reading, teaching, and conversation on the topic, exactly what do Americans perceive their purpose in life to be?

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That was the question posed to a random national sample of 1003 adults surveyed by The Barna Group. One particular response was provided by nearly half of the population, and only two other options were mentioned by at least one out of every ten people.

Family First

More than four out of every ten adults – 44% – said their top priority in life is having a satisfying family life. This was nearly three times as popular as the second-most common response and more than four times as prolific as the third-most popular reply.

Women were much more likely than men to list family as their top priority (48% versus 39%, respectively) even though family was the top ranked priority among men by a three-to-one margin. The presence of children in the home was also a big differentiator: 58% of the adults with a child under 18 in the home listed family, compared to only 35% of those without children in their household. There was also a regional distinction, as a majority of adults in the Midwest listed family (52%), while about four out of ten adults elsewhere did so. Economics were related to people’s views, too: 55% of adults with a college degree and annual earnings exceeding $60,000 put family in first place, compared to 44% of those in the middle socioeconomic ranges and only 36% of those in the downscale bracket (i.e., no college degree and a household income below $20,000).

Religious leanings were a factor in people’s choice. While a majority of Catholics (58%) and mainline Protestants (51%) placed family at the top of their list, only 19% of evangelicals did so.

Interestingly, almost half of the adults (47%) who have been divorced indicated that a fulfilling family life was currently their highest priority.

Faith Foremost

The second-most common life priority, listed by 18% of all adults, was that of understanding and carrying out the principles of their faith. Again, women were more likely than men to list this emphasis (22% versus 14%). Adults in the 40 to 70 age group were much more likely than younger adults to prioritize faith (21% versus 14%). Not surprisingly, residents of southern states were more likely to list faithful living on top, but residents of the western states were equally likely to do so (19%) while people in the Northeast and Midwest lagged (15% in each region). African-Americans were the ethnic group most prone to prioritizing their faith focus (24%), while Asian-Americans were the least likely (12%).

Evangelical Christians, who comprise just 7% of the adult public, were the one of the few population segments to place a faith-based lifestyle at the top of the list. Almost six out of ten evangelicals (59%) did so, which was double the percentage of non-evangelical born again Christians who followed suit (27%). Just 12% of the Americans aligned with a faith other than Christianity said living their faith principles was their highest priority. About one-quarter of Protestants chose this pursuit (26%), which was nearly four times the percentage of Catholics who did so (7%).

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Other Interests

The only other priority named by at least one out of every ten adults was having good friends. That commitment characterized the desire of 10% of the public. It was particularly common among people 60 or older (16%), downscale adults (18%), men (13%, versus 7% among women), and single adults (mentioned three times as often as it was among married adults).

Less common priorities included earning a comfortable living (8%), consistently having significant influence on other people’s lives (7%), achieving success (6%), and enjoying leisure experiences (2%). Although respondents mentioned a variety of other options, none of those was listed by at least 2% of the population.

Priorities Across Faith Segments

There were substantial differences in the priorities of people according to their faith commitments. For instance, evangelicals were the only faith segment to place personal consistency with their faith principles as their highest priority. In comparison, non-evangelical born again adults were 52% more likely to list family life than spiritual consistency. Notional Christians – i.e., people who describe themselves as Christian but are not born again – were seven times more likely to list family life than spiritual life as their emphasis. Notional Christians represent nearly half of the adults attending churches on a typical Sunday, but only 7% said their spiritual life took precedence over all else. Similarly, people aligned with non-Christian faith groups were four times more likely to list family as to list spiritual consistency.

Catholic adults were nine times more likely to name family life as they were to identify spiritual consistency as their top priority. In fact, living in harmony with their spiritual principles ranked a distant fifth among Catholics, trailing the development of good friendships, achieving success and leading a comfortable lifestyle, as well as family satisfaction.

The only group besides evangelicals for whom faith rated first was those who have an “active faith”: that is, they attend church, read the Bible and pray during a typical week. Overall, 39% of the active faith adults said their faith commitment was tops, compared to 35% of this segment who listed family first.

The survey also showed that the size of the church congregation a person is associated with had no bearing on people’s likelihood of placing faith at the top of the list. About one out of every five church-goers cited living in concert with their faith as their utmost desire. However, the larger a congregation is, the more likely a person is to identify having a satisfying family life as their supreme purpose. Adults who attend small congregations (i.e., 100 or fewer people) stood out as being much more likely than people from larger congregations to seek significant influence in other people’s lives.

People who do not attend church at all were considerably less likely than average to cite faith-based living as a priority (6%) and were more likely than average to mention a desire to earn a comfortable living or to have good friends.

Interestingly, adults who regularly have times of prayer and Bible study with their family were more likely to prioritize carrying out their faith principles than to prioritize have a satisfying family life. It appears that part of the satisfaction gleaned from their family life may be through their shared faith experiences.

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Challenges for Religious Leaders

The survey data raise some important red flags for religious leaders, according to researcher George Barna. “It’s wonderful that family and faith were the top ranked priorities listed by Americans. The survey results raise some questions, however, about the faith commitment of many church-going and born again adults. One must wonder,” he continued, “if the struggles evident in so many marriages and parent-child relationships are connected to the fact that people are generally more interested in pursuing a fulfilling family life than in understanding the principles for meaningful living that may help shape such a family experience.”

Research Source and Methodology

The data reported in this summary are based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1003 adults conducted in late January of 2005 by The Barna Group. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All non-institutionalized adults in the 48 contiguous states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents in the survey sample corresponds to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. The data were subjected to slight statistical weighting procedures to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative 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 classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; contending that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; stating that Satan exists; maintaining that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; asserting that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; saying that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Further, respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.” Being classified as “evangelical” is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

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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