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Barna study shows apparent divide between SBC, other denominations on Calvinism

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The Barna Group released findings Nov. 15 that said despite what “observers and journalists have described as … a significant trend” in terms of a Calvinism movement, numbers of Calvinists among Protestant pastors are not greater today (31 percent) than a decade ago (32 percent).

The research includes four studies conducted from 2000 through 2010, each involving a minimum of 600 phone interviews with random, representative samples of clergy.

Barna’s results about the broader Christian community seemingly stand in stark contrast to reports released by Southern Baptist Convention entities showing a surge in identity with five-point Calvinism in Southern Baptist life.

In 2007, the North American Mission Board’s Center for Missional Research released findings that nearly 30 percent of recent seminary graduates (1998-2004) serving as church pastors identified themselves as Calvinists. Details about the sample methodology and size were not released and this study is not available for public review.

This compared to 10 percent of all pastors in the SBC who affirm the five points of Calvinism, according to a 2006 LifeWay Research study of a cross-section of 413 randomly selected SBC pastors.

At the release of the research, Ed Stetzer who directs LifeWay Research, said the findings show “a growing influence” of Calvinism in SBC life and “certainly a growing influence in the graduates of our seminaries.”

Also, Christianity Today has described what it termed as a “comeback in Calvinism” in articles pointing to the SBC as “ground zero” for this resurgence (“Young, Restless, Reformed,” 2006) and as serving as a “bulwark of reformed theology” (“The Reformer,” 2010).

The Barna study appears to show that despite what has been reported as a spike in the numbers of Calvinism adherents among recent SBC seminary graduates, there hasn’t been a groundswell in the broader Christian community over the last decade. The numbers of those identifying themselves with Calvinism or Reformed Theology have held fairly steady around 31 percent.

However, the longitudinal study showed a much greater variation year-to-year in the number of pastors who identified themselves as either “Wesleyan” or “Arminian,” with a drop from 37 percent to 32 percent when comparing 2000 with 2010.

Theological Identity          2000          2002          2003          2010

Wesleyan, Arminian          37 pct.        26 pct.      35 pct.        32 pct.

Calvinist, Reformed            32 pct.      31 pct.        29 pct.        31 pct.

Sample Size                            610              601              601              600

The Barna Group study did not define the theological identities, but left that interpretation to each participating pastor.

Other findings released by Barna include:
— On average, weekly adult attendance in Reformed or Calvinist churches grew from a median of 80 in 2000, to a median of 90 in 2010, an increase of about 13 percent. During that same period, weekly adult attendance in Wesleyan or Arminian churches increased 18 percent, growing from a median of 85 in 2000, to a median of 100 in 2010.

— Among pastors 27 to 45 years old, 29 percent described themselves as Reformed compared to 34 percent who self-identified with the Wesleyan tradition. Those between 46 and 64 years old were evenly split theologically, with 34 percent claiming Reformed roots and 33 percent citing a Wesleyan perspective. Pastors 65 years-old-and-up were least likely to place themselves in either camp, with only 26 percent naming a Reformed background and an almost equal number, 27 percent, pointing to a Wesleyan foundation.

— Reformed churches were most common in the Northeast and least common in the Midwest. Wesleyan congregations were equally likely to be in each of the four regions of the U.S.

— 47 percent of pastors of mainline churches (American Baptist Churches, Evangelical Lutheran Churches in America, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church USA, and United Church of Christ) named their congregations as Wesleyan or Arminian compared to 29 percent of mainline pastors who chose a Reformed or Calvinist label.

— Among pastors of non-mainline churches, 35 percent said they were Reformed or Calvinists, and 30 percent said they were Wesleyans or Arminians.

— Among charismatic and Pentecostal denominations generally viewed as coming from Wesleyan or Holiness traditions (Assembly of God, Vineyard, Foursquare, Church of God – Cleveland), 31 percent called themselves Reformed/Calvinists compared to 27 percent who called themselves Wesleyan/Arminian.

— A greater number of Reformed/Calvinist pastors identified themselves as theologically liberal (17 percent) than did Wesleyan/Arminian pastors (13 percent).

— Of the pastors who took part in the Barna study, 65 percent of Wesleyans/Arminians reported having completed seminary, and a statistically equivalent 62 percent of Reformed/Calvinists said they had, too.
Will Hall is executive editor of Baptist Press.

Barna Study: Is There a “Reformed” Movement in American Churches?

Calvinism and recent SBC seminary graduates

Calvinism and all SBC pastors

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  • Will Hall