Barna’s Newest Findings: Church Changing 1

Barna’s studies are often suggestive for churches and ministries. What do you see?

George Barna, author of the new trends book Futurecast, has just released the first in a series of assessments of how America’s faith has shifted in the past 20 years on 14 religious variables. In the series of briefs, Barna explores not only the aggregate national patterns, but also digs into how matters have changed according to gender, ethnicity, region, generation, and religious segments.

Religious Behavior
An examination of six religious behaviors tracked over the past 20 years among American adults shows that five of the six experienced statistically significant changes during that time frame.

  • Bible reading undertaken during the course of a typical week, other than passages read while attending church events, has declined by five percentage points. Currently an estimated 40% of adults read the Bible during a typical week.
  • Church volunteerism has dropped by eight percentage points since 1991. Presently, slightly less than one out of every five adults (19%) donates some of their time in a typical week to serving at a church.
  • Adult Sunday school attendance has also diminished by eight percentage points over the past two decades. On any given Sunday, about 15% of adults can be expected to show up in a Sunday school class.
  • The most carefully watched church-related statistic is adult attendance. Since 1991, attendance has receded by nine percentage points, dropping from 49% in 1991 to 40% in 2011.
  • The most prolific change in religious behavior among those measured has been the increase in the percentage of adults categorized as unchurched. The Barna Group definition includes all adults who have not attended any religious events at a church, other than special ceremonies such as a wedding or funeral, during the prior six month period. In 1991, just one-quarter of adults (24%) were unchurched. That figure has ballooned by more than 50%, to 37% today.

The only behavior that did not experience any real change was the percentage of adults who attend a church of 600 or more people.

Religious Beliefs
The Barna summary included eight beliefs that have been tracked since 1991. Among those just three experienced statistically significant change.

  • The percentage of adults who can be classified as born again Christians, based on their belief that they will experience eternal salvation based on their commitment to Jesus Christ, personal confession of sins, and acceptance of Christ as their savior, has risen by five percentage points. In 1991, the national estimate was 35% of adults met those criteria. Currently, 40% of adults can be classified as born again.
  • When asked to choose one of several descriptions of God, the proportion who believe that God is “the all-knowing, all-powerful and perfect Creator of the universe who still rules the world today” currently stands at two-thirds of the public (67%). That represents a seven point drop from the 1991 level.
  • The biggest shift has been in people’s perceptions of the Bible. In 1991, 46% of adults strongly affirmed that “the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches.” That has slumped to just 38% who offer the same affirmation today.

Among the religious beliefs that have remained relatively constant over the past 20 years were the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christian (84%); those who say their religious faith is very important in their life today (56%); those who have made a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in my life today” (65%); the proportion who agree that Satan is not a living entity but merely a symbol of evil (56%); those who strongly believe that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others who believe differently (25%).

George Barna commented on the significance of these trends on his blog site, www.georgebarna.com, and indicated that over the next eight days he will release five additional summaries of how the fourteen factors tracked since 1991 have shifted among regions, generations, genders, ethnicities, and religious segments. He will also continue to provide commentary after each release on his blog site.

These Updates come shortly after the release of Barna’s newest book, Futurecast, which examines national trends in a wide array of areas including family, lifestyles, entertainment, technology, values, attitudes, demographics, and media consumption, in addition to religious beliefs and behaviors.

To read additional commentary about these trends, and to leave your own thoughts, go to www.georgebarna.com

The data from which the trends are drawn is based on the annual OmniPollSM survey conducted by The Barna Group each January of 1,000 or more adults. The 1991 survey included 1,005 adults randomly selected from across the United States. The comparable 2011 survey included 1,621 randomly chosen adults. Although the Barna Group has been conducting such research since 1984, it was not until 1991 that many of the core tracking questions used by the company were developed and then followed annually.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Robert

    Some fascinating stats. Obviously Barna is a limited scope on the total picture. Yet for what information he does provide it should provoke something within us to change us.

    The most compelling stat was the decline in a “inspired” and (possibly) “infallible” view of Scripture falling to 38%. Wow, that is significant in 10 years time.

    If anyone doubts we’re walking into a post-Christian era they need only examine these trends and see how they impact how we go about the work of the Gospel today.

  • Joe Canner

    These statistics seem to illustrate the increase in the “spiritual but not religious” population that emergent church folks talk about and try to reach out to.

  • Karen Spears Zacharias

    I must say I’m surprised by the percentage of adults who read the Bible during the week. I would have figured much less than that.

  • Fish

    If 84% still call themselves Christian, you could say it is more of a post-scripture, post-church era.

  • Fish

    I bet a lot of these answers are inflated by people giving the ‘right answer.’ I don’t believe that 40% read the bible every week. I would be surprised if 40% could readily put a hand on a bible without looking for it.

  • R Hampton

    Agree with the sentiment about self-reporting bias. I find it hard to believe that 40% of the population reads from ANY book during the week (unless they think magazines and internet blogs/articles are equivalent).

  • Robert

    So just as many people describe themselves as Chrisitan but fewer think the Bible is ‘totally accurate’ etc. Are they becoming more liberal?

  • Tom

    It could be that the 40% get the verse of the day on their email or text. That would boost the numbers a bit.

  • Amos Paul

    As far as this ‘era’ being post-anything, let us not forget comparing America’s trends with the rest of the world… The steady decline in respect for scripture and/or church reminds me of the history of the UK as it fell out of being a world imperial and missionary force.

  • Timothy Hawk

    A must read for an in-depth analysis of religious trends by a sociologist is “Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told,” by Bradley Wright. Brad is a sociologist at the University of Connecticut. His insights are excellent and his analysis of the data is impeccable.


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