SBC Life Articles

2001: The Year’s Most Intriguing Findings

In his annual review of the year's top religious findings, George Barna provides 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 outcomes give a pretty dynamic summary of what happened in the U.S. in its religious life in 2001. 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 Seven Most Important or Revealing Results

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 percent 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 thirty-five were the least likely of any group 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 percent in January 2000 to only 22 percent 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 poses 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 Seven Most Controversial Statistics

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 identifying themselves as 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 percent 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.

The Seven Most Surprising Findings

1 The percentage of U.S. Hispanics affiliated with the Catholic church has declined from 68 percent in 1991 to just 53 percent 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 percent) than support it (42 percent).

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 percent of adults; and despite sales exceeding 20 million units, the Left Behind books were known to only 24 percent. In contrast, the Harry Potter books were known to 69 percent 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 Seven Most Significant-But-Not-Surprising Insights

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 percent of Senior Pastors say they have the spiritual gift of leadership; only 8 percent 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 percent 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 twelve out of the thirteen core religious practices tracked; only two factors have changed significantly in the past five years.

7 Less than 1 percent of Hispanics attend a mainline Protestant church, and less than 1 percent 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 Seven Most Challenging Outcomes

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 twenty 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."

The data in this report is drawn from Barna Updates and can be referenced on the Barna Research website at www.barna.org.

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