The Year's Most Intriguing Findings, From Barna Research Studies


Articles in Culture & Media • December 17, 2001

As Americans pause at the end of the year to review what happened over the past 12 months, the story of the year was the 9-11 attack on America. But plenty of other changes and revelations occurred during the past year that merit recollection. Based on more than a dozen national research studies conducted by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California during 2001, it is obvious that even the faith realm provided its fair share of drama. 

In his annual review of the top religious findings, George Barna provided five lists of faith-related survey results - the most revealing, most controversial, most surprising, most significant-but-not-surprising, and most challenging faith-related insights. "Other people would probably place some different outcomes on each of these lists," admitted Barna. "But based on our on-going assessment of the spiritual climate and religious gyrations in America, these 40 outcomes give a pretty dynamic summary of what happened in the U.S. in its religious life this year. Such lists are always subjective, but the breadth of revelations represented by these factors may be helpful in reviewing the true spiritual condition of America."

The 7 Most Important or Revealing Results

Poring over hundreds of statistics released during 2001 through The Barna Update, the bi-weekly report on American culture and faith, Barna chose the following seven outcomes as those that have the most significant implications.

1. When people who regularly attend Christian church services were asked to describe the importance of various spiritual endeavors, a minority of regular attenders described evangelism, having meaningful relationships with other people in their church, and giving 10% or more of their income to their church as very important endeavors.

2. After studying more than three dozen different faith practices and biblical beliefs, adults under the age of 35 were the least likely to have a biblical perspective or consistent participation in each of the factors examined.

3. Forty one percent of the adults who attend Christian church services in a typical week are not born again Christians - meaning they have not embraced Jesus Christ as their savior.

4. After exploring the religious life of adults attending a variety of Protestant churches, only three types of churches - Pentecostal, Assembly of God, and non-denominational churches - had a majority of adherents who had shared their faith in Christ with a non-Christian in the past year.

5. Based on people's reactions to a series of moral issues, Americans are comfortable legalizing activities - such as abortion, homosexuality and pornography - that they feel are immoral.

6. Religious teaching or values minimally affect people's moral choices. The major influences on such decisions are the expected personal outcomes of their choices, minimizing conflict over their choices, and the values their parents taught them.

7. Compared to two years ago, just half as many Americans believe that absolute moral truth exists, dropping from 38% in January 2000 to only 22% in November 2001.

Barna noted that this list suggests that "faith is just one component in people's lives that helps them to interpret and cope with reality - and it certainly is not the central shaping influence for most people. The data regarding young adults also pose the possibility that churches are losing ground in terms of influence and may need to consider new approaches to making ancient truths more vivid and comprehensible in a technology-drenched, relativistic global community."

The 7 Most Controversial Statistics

Based upon the letters, phone calls and e-mail messages received in response to the bi-weekly Updates released during the year, Barna identified the statistics that got the greatest number of people exercised.

1. Among adults who have been married, born again Christians and non-Christians have essentially the same probability of divorce.

2. Mormons are more likely to read the Bible during the week than are Protestants or Catholics.

3. Adults who attend charismatic or Pentecostal churches were more likely to possess biblical beliefs than were those attending other Protestant and Catholic churches.

4. By the end of the decade, 50 million Americans will seek to have their spiritual experience solely through the Internet, rather than at a church; and upwards of 100 million Americans will rely upon the Internet to deliver some aspects of their religious experience.

5. Roman Catholics represent the second-largest denominational group of born again Christians in the nation - trailing the Southern Baptists, but way ahead of Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and others.

6. Although one-third of all born again adults claim to tithe their income, only 12% actually do so.

7. Just half of all home schooling parents are born again Christians.

"One of the greatest values of research is that it can identify myths that we hold on to - myths that often prevent us from seizing opportunities, or that prevent us from responding appropriately to the world around us," Barna explained. "A lot of the anger that was expressed to us in reaction to these findings reflects the difficulty we sometimes have in changing our predispositions and coming to grips with a world that is rapidly changing and does not conform to the rules we believed were firmly entrenched. Knowing the reality, rather than the myth, can help us address reality and, if need be, redirect it."

The 7 Most Surprising Findings

Barna acknowledged that after more than two decades of conducting research on faith matters, it is unusual for surprises to emerge from the research. However, he listed the following seven unexpected outcomes:

1. The percentage of US Hispanics affiliated with the Catholic church has declined from 68% in 1991 to just 53% today.

2. Since 1993, the number of pastors who say they have the spiritual gifts of preaching/teaching, pastor/shepherd, discernment, and leadership has risen significantly.

3. Despite their evangelistic reputation, just four out of ten adults attending a Baptist church shared their faith in Christ with a non-believer in the past year - less than the proportion of adherents of many other denominations.

4. A higher percentage of adults are against legalized abortion in all or most circumstances (55%) than supports it (42%).

5. A plurality of adults support the legalization of same-gender sexual relations, and even one-third of born again Christians support this aspect of gay rights.

6. Four out of ten Senior Pastors do not have a seminary degree.

7. Despite sales that top 5 million units, The Prayer of Jabez was known to only 13% of adults; and despite sales exceeding 20 million units, the Left Behind books were known to only 24%. In contrast, the Harry Potter books were known to 69% of Americans - and that was before the movie release and related hype.

Barna stated that these findings tended to remind us that American culture as well as people's faith is constantly changing, and assumptions need to be continually re-examined to assess their validity.

The 7 Most Significant-But-Not-Surprising Insights

There are some conditions that have been assumed or anticipated, yet having factual evidence of their existence does not diminish the significance of such knowledge. Among the figures Barna cited that meet this description were these seven:

1. After the 9-11 attacks, religious activity surged, but within two months, virtually every spiritual indicator available suggested that things were back to pre-attack levels.

2. Just 12% of Senior Pastors say they have the spiritual gift of leadership; only 8% say they have the gift of evangelism; in contrast, two-thirds say they have the gift of teaching or preaching.

3. There is a fairly strong correlation between regularly reading the Bible and having conservative theological, moral, social and political views.

4. Less than 5% of the nation's churches have youth groups that attract 100 or more teenagers.

5. The gap between Protestants and Catholics in terms of religious practices and beliefs remains quite substantial.

6. From 2000 to 2001, there were no significant changes in 12 out of the 13 core religious practices tracked; only 2 factors have changed significantly in the past five years.

7. Less than 1% of Hispanics attend a mainline Protestant church, and less than 1% attend a Baptist church.

"Sometimes, it is the things that we have suspected but failed to act upon due to lack of factual support that have the greatest potential for impact in ministry," the researcher noted. "Some of these findings are perhaps obvious but are nevertheless critical elements in facilitating strategic responses."

The 7 Most Challenging Outcomes

Barna closed out his lists with one describing the greatest challenges churches face based on the year's research findings.

1. There has been a substantial deterioration regarding people's understanding of spiritual gifts, with a five-fold increase in born again adults who are aware of gifts saying God did not give them one, and half of all born again adults listing gifts they possess which are not among the spiritual gifts listed in the Bible. Even one-quarter of all Protestant pastors listed one or more gifts that they possess which are not identified in the Bible.

2. Financial support of churches dropped substantially between 1998 and 2000 - and will likely decline again this year, as a result of changed giving patterns related to the 9-11 attacks.

3. At least three out of ten born again adults say that co-habitation, gay sex, sexual fantasies, breaking the speed limit or watching sexually-explicit movies are morally acceptable behaviors.

4. Half of all adults maintain a non-biblical perspective on the moral acceptability of four or more of the eight core moral behaviors evaluated.

5. Although attending church as a child increases the likelihood of a person attending as an adult, that affect is declining substantially.

6. The religious beliefs of people who have attended church since childhood are no different than those of people who did not attend when young but attend as adults.

7. Compared to teens throughout the past 20 years, today's teenagers have the lowest likelihood of attending church when they are living independent of their parents.

Barna commented that such data underscore the magnitude of the challenges facing American ministries. "This is an exciting time to be alive for religious leaders who understand the spiritual search that millions of Americans have embarked upon and are willing to engage with people who do not necessarily accept pat answers or traditional solutions to spiritual problems. Our society offers people a plethora of choices. Helping people to comprehend that spectrum of options and the consequences of their choices is one of the exciting challenges facing the religious leaders of our nation."

Research Background

All of the data mentioned in this report are drawn from previous Barna Updates released throughout 2001 and can be referenced on the Barna Research website at www.barna.org. The specific statistics listed are from nationwide surveys of random samples of adults, teenagers or Protestant pastors conducted during 2000. The sample sizes of those studies range from 600 to 1010 respondents. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA among adults in the 48 continental states, distributed geographically in accordance with the dispersion of the U.S. adult population.

"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" or if they considered themselves to be "born again."

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984 it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of the social, religious and political state of the nation.

If you would like to receive a bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service by typing your e-mail address in the field above located at the top of this page on the left-hand side.



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