With the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, a jump in concerns about religious freedom and an overall secularization of Americans’ views, 2015 was a year of increasing anxiety among people of faith. Barna conducts tens of thousands of interviews every year, and we’ve compiled our top 10 findings and trends from a vast array of research conducted in the past 12 months:
1. Legal Same-Sex Marriage Reveals Cultural Fault Lines
On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states. This landmark decision was met with both celebration and sorrow as Americans on both sides of the issue voiced their opinions. A Barna study conducted in the wake of the ruling revealed nine key findings, including deep divisions that persist among the American population.
For example, active, practicing faith is more of a factor than either age or religious self-identification when it comes to supporting or opposing the Supreme Court’s decision. Just one-third of practicing Christians under the age of 40 (35%) favor the ruling, compared with three-quarters of non-practicing Christians under 40 (73%). Yet there is only a nine-point gap between younger and older practicing Christians (26%).
2. Concerns About Religious Freedom Are Growing
With the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, millions of Americans were eager to know the potential impacts of the ruling on religious liberty. A Barna tracking survey of U.S. adults, first conducted in 2012 and repeated in 2015, showed a sharp rise in concern about freedom of conscience across the demographic board.
In 2012, one-third of Americans believed “religious freedom in the U.S. has grown worse in the past 10 years” (33%). By 2015, that number grew to four in 10 (41%). As might be expected, religious Americans are more likely to express anxiety over the state of religious freedom in the nation. For example, more than three-quarters of evangelicals—a group Barna defines according to their stance on a number of theological beliefs, outlined at end of this article—say religious liberty is worse off today (77%), compared to 60 percent in 2012. Yet even among atheists, agnostics and the religiously unaffiliated, concern about this issue has grown—from 23 percent in 2012 to 32 percent in 2015.
3. Post-Christian Beliefs Are on the Rise
While the United States remains shaped by Christianity, the faith’s influence—particularly as a force in American politics and culture—is waning. An increasing number of religiously unaffiliated people, a steady drop in church attendance and the growing tensions over religious liberty all point to a larger secularizing trend sweeping the nation.
Barna analyzed more than 60,000 interviews conducted over a seven-year period to measure irreligion among U.S. adults. Using a unique metric of 15 beliefs and behaviors, researchers determined the percentage of Americans who qualify as “post-Christian” rose seven points in just two years, from 37 percent in 2013 to 44 percent in 2015.
4. U.S. Adults Do Not Agree on Who Jesus Was and Is
Jesus Christ remains a central figure and perennial person of interest in the American religious landscape. But who do people say that he is? The vast majority says he was a real, historical person (92%)—but beyond the fact of his human existence, there is less agreement.
Fewer than half of Millennials believe Jesus was God (48%), compared to 55 percent of Gen-Xers, 58 percent of Boomers and nearly two-thirds of Elders (62%). Young adults among the youngest generation are also less likely than older Americans to say they have made a personal commitment to Christ. Just 46 percent say they have made such a commitment, compared with six in 10 Gen-Xers (59%), 65 percent of Boomers and seven out of 10 Elders (71%).
5. Americans Define Themselves by Family, Country and Faith
Many factors make up human identity, but most Americans say the primary factor for them is family. Nearly two-thirds say family is a lot of their personal identity (62%). More than half of all adults say “being an American” makes up a lot of their identity (52%). And while “my religious faith” makes it into the top three factors that shape people’s identity, only 38 percent rate it as a major factor.
The two younger generations are much less likely than their elders to say “being an American” is a major factor in their identity. There is nearly a 50-point drop between Elders (80%) and Millennials (54%), and a considerable gap between Boomers (66%) and Gen-Xers (37%). Older adults are also more likely to say “my religious faith” is a lot of their identity. Almost half of Elders (46%) and Boomers (45%) say so, compared with one-third of Gen-Xers (34%) and 28 percent of Millennials.
6. Voters Want a Presidential Candidate to Take a Stand on Issues
Seven out of 10 Americans say a candidate’s stance on particular issues is their top consideration when deciding whom to support in the 2016 election (71%). By a wide margin, the top issue among the general population is the economy (76%), followed by health care (65%), immigration (46%) and foreign policy (46%), and gun control (43%).
The economy is also the top issue among evangelicals (69%), but religious liberty (67%) and abortion (64%) are also of great concern.
7. Discipleship in U.S. Churches Is Not Effective, Pastors Say
Half of all Christian adults (52%) believe their church “definitely” is doing well when it comes to discipleship. In stark contrast, only 1 percent of U.S. pastors say today’s churches are doing very well in this area. A sizable majority—six in 10—feels that churches are discipling “not too well” (60%).
The Navigators commissioned Barna to conduct a comprehensive, multi-phase research study among Christian adults, church leaders, exemplar discipleship ministries and Christian educators. The picture overall shows a few areas of effectiveness, but church leaders remain skeptical about how well churches are making and growing disciples.
8. Scotland Research Offers Lessons for Ministry in a Post-Christian Context
Despite levels of secularization much higher than the U.S., research findings from Scotland will likely strike Americans as familiar: increasing numbers of non-religious adults, declining church attendance and fewer people engaged with the Bible. Barna’s yearlong study examined the state of faith in Scotland and identified ministry approaches that seem to be working in that post-Christian cultural context.
According to census data, Scotland has seen a precipitous drop in church involvement during the past few decades. What has precipitated such declines? One clue may lie in the ways adult Scots describe present-day Christianity in Scotland.
Americans’ perceptions of Christianity may not be as tepid or even hostile as Scots’. But Barna’s best practices study of Scottish churches and ministries experiencing growth against broader secularizing trends can help American Christians prepare for effective ministry in a more post-Christian future.
9. Women Are Disengaging from Church
Many factors play a role in women’s disengagement from church, but a lack of support from their faith community should not be underrated.
Only 17 percent of women say they feel “very” supported at church and fewer than one-quarter (23%) say they feel “somewhat” supported. Nearly half (43%) say they feel no emotional support at all from church. This relational disconnect may provide a key for understanding how women are able to disengage from churches: Without strong relational bonds within a church community, women’s absence from church can largely go unnoticed. This begs the question of where women are finding such support—and indicates a major opportunity for churches seeking to engage women in their community.
10. Most Americans Plan to Stay Where They Are
There has been much debate over the contribution of “rootlessness” to the contemporary problems of American communities. Increased mobility can reduce social ties and cause disorder (crime, etc.) in more transient neighborhoods compared to areas with greater stability. But contrary to this oft-touted notion of the “American nomad,” it appears that most Americans tend to stay put. Six out of 10 either never plan to move, or aren’t sure if they ever will (59%).
While Americans may not be moving as much as they used to—and while they may settle down in one place as they grow older—most people have moved at least once in their lifetime. Only one quarter of Americans live in the town where they were born. So, what are the primary reasons people make those moves?
Among adults who were not born in their current city or town, the most influential factor in their decision to move was family (42%). As one might expect, many people also move for their careers—work is the second-most cited reason people move to a new city, with nearly three in 10 Americans saying they moved to their current location for work (28%).