Barna Shock Poll: Christians Still Need Jesus

The Barna Group released a new poll last week in which the proposed question was: “Are Christians more like Jesus or the Pharisees?” Christians get accused of hypocrisy all the time, so why not see if there’s some statistical evidence to back up the claim?

According to the Christian Post:

The findings were derived from 1,008 telephone interviews of which 718 respondents self-identified as Christian from Nov. 11 until Nov. 18, 2012. Respondents who identified themselves as Christian were asked 20 questions, ten of which compared their responses to Jesus’ actions and attitudes and ten of which compared their responses to the Pharisees of the New Testament.

The Barna Group’s questions included rating oneself on “Christ-like” statements such as:

  • “I listen to others to learn their story before telling them about my faith.”
  • “I regularly choose to have meals with people with very different faith or morals from me.”
  • “I see God working in people’s lives, even when they are not following him.”
  • “I feel compassion for people who are not following God and doing immoral things.”

Or “Pharisee-like” statements:

  • “I don’t talk about my sins or struggles. That’s between me and God.”
  • “I try to avoid spending time with people who are openly gay or lesbian.”
  • “I like to point out those who do not have the right theology or doctrine.”
  • “I feel grateful to be a Christian when I see other people’s failures and flaws.”

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and the chief organizer of the study, said:

Obviously, survey research, by itself, cannot fully measure someone’s ‘Christ-likeness’ or ‘Pharisee-likeness.’ But the study is meant to identify baseline qualities of Jesus, like empathy, love, and a desire to share faith with others—or the resistance to such ideals in the form of self-focused hypocrisy. The statements are based on the biblical record given in the Gospels and in the Epistles.

So what did they find?

The findings reveal that most self-identified Christians in the U.S. are characterized by having the attitudes and actions researchers identified as Pharisaical. Just over half of the nation’s Christians—using the broadest definition of those who call themselves Christians—qualify for this category (51%). They tend to have attitudes and actions that are characterized by self-righteousness.

There were other mixed categories and the break-down according to sect, age, sex, and so forth makes for some interesting reading.

Now, as Christians, what are we supposed to make of all of this? While the goal of fostering conversations within the church and possibly help pastors refocus their preaching and teaching, I want to raise a few, brief points of caution about making very much of it at all.

Pharisees? To begin, Scot McKnight pointed out the problematic but typical use of the term “Pharisee” as a cipher for unloving hypocrisy. Evangelicals need to beware of historical anachronism and any latent antinomianism associated with criticism of “Pharisees.” There is a place for it, but it needs to be done carefully, with an eye toward history.

Questionable Identification Process. Sociologists like Rodney Stark and others have criticized the Barna Group in the past for its questionable identification methods. For instance, the infamous study claiming that Christians divorce at the same rate as their secular counterparts only works if you ignore the difference between involved, practicing Christians and others. In fact, the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project lists religious practice as a significant indicator of a lower chance of divorce. This study, by nature, includes such a distinction, but the whole process of self-identification might warn us that any appearance of Christ-likeness or Pharisaism might tell us more about self-perception than reality.

Self-flagellation. Maybe I’m just being curmudgeonly, but I see this playing into another cycle of Evangelical self-flagellation. I don’t know what it is, but pastors and writers love hauling out Barna statistics about what a miserable failure the church is in any given area, in the tried-and-true method of “sanctification by guilt.” It is helpful at times to get a gauge on things like biblical literacy, or something on that order, but with a poll as subjective as “Does Barna think you’re like Jesus?”—which is what this amounts to—it’s ripe for another exercise in ritualized masochism from the pulpit. 

Pride. Of course, let’s not forget the wonderful opportunities for religious pride this offers as well. Exhibit A: The Christian Post’s lead for their summary article was: “Among various Christian groups in the United States, evangelicals were found to be the most ‘Christ-like,’ according to the findings of a recently released study on Christians.” That’s right. Apparently a whopping 23% of us measured up on Barna’s “Christ-like” scale. Take that, Papists!! Seriously though, is that the real story here or is that merely our pride finding another excuse to make an appearance?

Chronological Snobbery. Another instructive finding was that younger people are more “Christ-like” than the elderly, only 6% of whom apparently measure up. Then again, if instead of addressing our attitude toward homosexuality, it asked about sexual holiness as a whole, the value of everyday wisdom, scriptural fidelity, hard work, or a commitment to overseas missions of the sort that defined prior generations, I wonder if our own would measure up quite so well. We need to beware of a built-in chronological snobbery within a research methodology that identifies key cultural issues that are pressing in the consciousness of younger Christians as the sum total of Christian piety. Each generation has its own struggles and strengths. This Barna Poll seems more than a little skewed to privilege the “empathetic,” anti-doctrinal, and, quite frankly, antinomian Jesus—because apparently it’s Pharisaical to “correct error” in thought or practice—so prevalent in pop evangelicalism. 

If this poll shows anything worthwhile, it is that Christians still need Jesus. Of course, that’s unsurprising for anyone reading the New Testament. While Jesus’ church is full of perverts, tax collectors, and other undesirables, it is also occupied by some of those smirking Pharisees Jesus invited to join the party. This side of the Second Coming the Church is still a mixed body, a group of imperfect, but being-perfected sinners of all types.

This is not simply a plea to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the broad issues facing the church. Rather, it is a call for pastors and church leaders to do the hard work of examining their own, specific congregations in light of the word of God—all of it—instead of letting problematic polls set the agenda.

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About Derek Rishmawy

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, serving college kids for the gospel. He’s been graciously adopted by the Triune God. That God has also seen fit to bless him with lovely wife named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. His passions are theology, the church, some philosophy, cultural criticism, and theology. He has been published at the Gospel Coalition, Mere Orthodoxy, and Out of Ur blog. He writes regularly at his Reformedish blog. You can connect on Facebook and can also follow him on Twitter at @DZRishmawy.


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