Based on his company’s interviews with thousands of people during the year, researcher George Barna synthesized the findings across numerous studies and summarized four themes that emerged from his research regarding religion in 2009.
Theme 1: Increasingly, Americans are more interested in faith and spirituality than in Christianity.
“Faith remains a hot topic in America these days,” George Barna commented, expanding on the theme. “Politicians, athletes, cultural philosophers, teachers, entertainers, musicians – nearly everyone has something to say about faith, religion, spirituality, morality, and belief these days. But as the fundamental values and assumptions of our nation continue to shift, so do our ideas about faith and spirituality. Many of our basic assumptions are no longer firm or predictable.
“One of those assumptions relates to how we develop our faith. These days,” he continued, “the faith arena is a marketplace from which we get ideas, beliefs, relationships, habits, rituals and traditions that make immediate sense to us, and with which we are comfortable. The notion of associating with a particular faith – whether it is Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or some other strain – still has appeal because that connection provides a discernible identity and facilitates the possibility of belonging to something meaningful. But the actual components of what we choose to belong to are driven by our momentary needs and perceptions.
“Our studies consistently demonstrate – as explained in unChristian, the book by my colleague, David Kinnaman – that being a Christian or associating with the Christian faith is not as attractive to Americans as it used to be. That is largely due to two realities. First, the mass media have unfavorably caricatured the Christian faith, devout Christians and Christian churches. Second, it is relatively rare to find someone who is an exemplar of the Christian faith,” the researcher explained. “Consequently, millions of Americans have less trouble embracing Christ than they have embracing Christianity, but many people assume it is a package deal: that is, you cannot be a Christian without adopting the institutional framework and limitations of the Christian world. Young adults, in particular, find that unappealing.
“Ultimately, in a culture where people are busy, distracted, confused and trying to keep it all together, there is less loyalty to a faith brand than to self. The purpose of faith, for most Americans, is not so much to discover truth or to relate to a loving, praiseworthy deity as it is to become happy, successful, comfortable and secure. For a growing percentage of citizens, their sense of spirituality, more than Christianity, facilitates those outcomes.”
Some of the related survey results Barna cited from this year’s studies included:
o Just 50% of adults contend that Christianity is still the automatic faith of choice in the US
o Nearly nine out of every ten adults (88%) agreed either strongly or somewhat that their religious faith is very important in their life
o 74% said their faith is becoming more important in their life
o Substantive awareness of other faith groups is minimal; even simple name awareness of some groups, such as Wicca, is tiny (only 45% have heard of Wicca)
o Most self-identified Christians are comfortable with the idea that the Bible and the sacred books from non-Christian religions all teach the same truths and principles
o Half of all adults (50%) argue that a growing number of people they know are tired of having the same church experience
Theme 2: Faith in the American context is now individual and customized. Americans are comfortable with an altered spiritual experience as long as they can participate in the shaping of that faith experience.
“Now that we are comfortable with the idea of being spiritual as opposed to devoutly Christian,” Barna pointed out, “Americans typically draw from a broad treasury of moral, spiritual and ethical sources of thought to concoct a uniquely personal brand of faith. Feeling freed from the boundaries established by the Christian faith, and immersed in a postmodern society which revels in participation, personal expression, satisfying relationships, and authentic experiences, we become our own unchallenged spiritual authorities, defining truth and reality as we see fit.
“Consequently, more and more people are engaged in hybrid faiths, mixing elements from different historical eras and divergent theological perspectives,” Barna stated. “In some ways, we are creating the ultimate ecumenical movement, where nothing is deemed right or wrong, and all ideas, beliefs and practices are assigned equal validity. Everyone is invited to join the dialogue, enjoy the ride, and feel connected to a far-reaching community of believers. Screening or critiquing what that community believes is deemed rude and inappropriate. Pragmatism and relativism, rather than any sort of absolutism, has gained momentum.”
Some of the survey findings that related to this theme included:
o About half of all adults (45%) say they are willing to try a new church or even a new form of church
o 71% say they will develop their own slate of religious beliefs rather than accept a package of beliefs promoted by a church or denomination
o Three-quarters of adults (75%) believe that God is motivating them and others to connect with Him through different means and experiences than were common in the past
o Barely one-third of self-identified Christians (36%) strongly agree that it is important for followers of Christ to maintain positive relationships with people who are not Christians
o Two-thirds of adults (64%) are willing to experience and express their faith in new or different environments or structures than they have in the past
o Only one-third (34%) believe in absolute moral truth
Theme 3: Biblical literacy is neither a current reality nor a goal in the U.S.
Barna’s findings related to Bible knowledge and application indicate that little progress, if any, is being made toward assisting people to become more biblically literate.
“Bible reading has become the religious equivalent of sound-bite journalism. When people read from the Bible they typically open it, read a brief passage without much regard for the context, and consider the primary thought or feeling that the passage provided. If they are comfortable with it, they accept it; otherwise, they deem it interesting but irrelevant to their life, and move on. There is shockingly little growth evident in people’s understanding of the fundamental themes of the scriptures and amazingly little interest in deepening their knowledge and application of biblical principles.
Barna noted that some of the critical assumptions of many preachers and Bible teachers is inaccurate. “The problem facing the Christian Church is not that people lack a complete set of beliefs; the problem is that they have a full slate of beliefs in mind, which they think are consistent with biblical teachings, and they are neither open to being proven wrong nor to learning new insights. Our research suggests that this challenge initially emerges in the late adolescent or early teenage years. By the time most Americans reach the age of 13 or 14, they think they pretty much know everything of value the Bible has to teach and they are no longer interested in learning more scriptural content. It requires increasingly concise, creative, reinforced, and personally relevant efforts to penetrate people’s minds with new or more accurate insights into genuinely biblical principles. In a culture driven by the desire to receive value, more Bible teaching is generally not viewed as an exercise in providing such value.”
Some of the survey-based results that led Barna to his conclusions included the following:
o 68% of self-identified Christians have heard of spiritual gifts, a decline in the past decade; a minority (roughly one-third) can actually identify a biblical spiritual gift they claim to possess
o Less than one out of every five born again adults (19%) has a biblical worldview, which is unchanged in the past 15 years
o Just half of all self-identified Christians firmly believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles (not the facts, just the principles) that it teaches
o Barely one-quarter of adults (27%) are confident that Satan exists
o Less than four out of every ten self-identified Christians firmly accept the teaching that a person can be influenced by spiritual forces, such as angels or demons
o An overwhelming majority of self-identified Christians (81%) contend that spiritual maturity is achieved by following the rules in the Bible
o Only 4% believe that poverty is an issue that is primarily the responsibility of the Church
Theme 4: Effective and periodic measurement of spirituality – conducted personally or through a church – is not common at this time and it is not likely to become common in the near future.
“There are two levels on which evaluation of where we stand spiritually can take place,” noted the California-based author. “There can be external measurement, such as that conducted by pastors, teachers, coaches or peers, and there can be self-evaluation. At the moment, we’re seeing very little of either form of review related to a person’s spiritual condition.
“Our studies this year among pastors showed that almost nine out of ten senior pastors of Protestant churches asserted that spiritual immaturity is one of the most serious problems facing the Church. Yet relatively few of those pastors believe that such immaturity is reflected in their church. Few pastors have gone so far as to give their congregants a specific, written statement of how they define spiritual maturity, how it might be measured, the strategy for facilitating such maturity, or what scriptural passages are most helpful in describing and fostering maturity. Those pastors who made any attempt to measure maturity were more likely to gauge depth on the basis of participation in programs than to evaluate people’s spiritual understanding or any type of transformational fruit in their lives. Overall, less than one out of every ten pastors said they were completely satisfied with how they assess the spiritual condition of their congregation.
“The situation is similar among Christian individuals. Americans have an almost insatiable curiosity about themselves and how they stack up against others. Yet, in the spiritual realm, that same level of curiosity is much less apparent. Perhaps it is because of the lack of tools for such measurement or even the absence of motivation to grow or to deepen their relationship with God.
“Not surprisingly,” he continued, “our research found that a majority of churchgoing adults are uncertain as to what their church would define as a ‘healthy, spiritually mature follower of Christ’ and they were no more likely to have personally developed a clear notion of such a life.
“It may well be that spiritual evaluation is so uncommon because people fear that the results might suggest the need for different growth strategies or for more aggressive engagement in the growth process. No matter what the underlying reason is, the bottom line among both the clergy and laity was indifference toward their acknowledged lack of evaluation. That suggests there is not likely to be much change in this dimension in the immediate future. In other words, as we examine the discipleship landscape, what we see is what we get – and what we will keep getting for some time.”