Barna’s Newest Study: Church Changing 2

From Barna:

George Barna’s studies are always worth some effort reading and discussing; social scientist poke him hard on numbers at times, but often Barna finds trends or suggestions that pastors and churches need to ponder. So, what do you see here?

The three oldest generational segments of America’s population have been actively redefining their faith over the past two decades. A new analysis of Barna Group data from nationwide tracking surveys covering the last two decades reveals that in regard to 14 religious variables examined, each of the generational segments has experienced significant change concerning about half of those variables. On the heels of the release of his latest trends book, Futurecast, author and researcher George Barna added this generational analysis as part of the State of the Church series of reports from the Barna Group.

Young Adults: Baby Busters
An examination of the behavior and beliefs of adults born after the Boomer generation – i.e., those born from 1965 through 1983 – showed that there has been a lot of realignment taking place within this segment. Three of the six religious behaviors and five of the eight religious beliefs have undergone statistically significant change since 1991.

Among the behaviors that have shifted were:

  • Bible reading undertaken during the week preceding the survey interview, excluding reading that occurred during church events, jumped nine percentage points, reaching 41% in 2011.
  • Volunteering at a church during a typical week also grew by nine percentage points. The proportion climbed to 19% in 2011.
  • The proportion of unchurched Busters – i.e., those who had not attended any church services during the past six months, not including special events such as weddings or funerals – hit 39% in 2011. That represented an eight percentage point increase since 1991.

Five belief-oriented measures also witnessed significant change among the Busters during the past twenty years.

  • The percentage of Busters who describe themselves as Christians increased by nine points. Currently, 80% embrace that label.
  • Making a personal commitment to Jesus Christ became much more fashionable among Busters during the last twenty years. Sixty percent of Busters have done so, a rise of 12 percentage points since 1991.
  • Busters have become less indifferent toward the existence of Satan. Since 1991 there has been a ten percentage point drop in those who believe that Satan is simply a symbol of evil but not a living entity. However, a majority of Busters (55%) still concur that Satan is not a living being.
  • Busters are less prone to believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches than they were twenty years ago. The proportion of those who strongly affirm the complete accuracy of the Bible’s principles has declined by 11 percentage points during that time, dropping to 35%.
  • Being born again is more common today than ever among Busters. In 1991, only 23% met the criteria – saying they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life, as well as believing that they will experience eternal salvation only because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. In 2011, 37% of Busters could be classified as born again.

The World Changers: Baby Boomers
No generation has been as widely chronicled as the Boomers, the post-war group born from 1946 through 1964. At every stage of their existence, this generation has redefined America’s ways of life – including its faith and spirituality. Four of their six religious behaviors and two of their eight religious beliefs tracked in this study have undergone statistically significant change since 1991.

The four religious behaviors that shifted included the following.

  • Church attendance plummeted by 12 percentage points, dipping to 38% in 2011.
  • Sunday school attendance by Boomers fell by nine points, from 23% in 1991 to just 14% in 2011.
  • Volunteering at churches was less likely among Boomers in 2011 than was the case twenty years ago, declining from 28% in 1991 to 18% in 2011.
  • While the Boomers have never been the generation most likely to attend church, during the past 20 years the percentage of unchurched Boomers has risen dramatically, jumping up 18 points! At 41%, they are now the generation most likely to be unchurched, surpassing the 39% level among Busters.

The pair of religious beliefs that have yielded substantial change in the last two decades are declines in those who hold an orthodox view of God (down six points, to 67%); and a reduction in those who are strongly convinced that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches (down seven points, to just 38%).

The pre-Boomer Segments – aka the Elders
This generational equivalent is a combination of the Builders (1927-1945) and Seniors (born prior to 1927), representing adults who are presently 66 or older. While many might assume that there would be little change in the spiritual lives of these folks, other than that brought on by physical infirmities, the survey data paint a different picture. Four of the six behaviors tracked experienced significant changes, and three of the eight beliefs followed also showed noteworthy shifts.

The four behavioral shifts involved these dimensions:

  • Sunday school attendance dropped by eight points, from 28% in 1991 to 20% today.
  • Bible reading undertaken during the past week, apart from such reading during church events, declined by eight points as well, moving from 54% to 46%.
  • Unexpectedly, older Americans have gradually become more open to attending large churches. During the last 20 years there has been a 12-point increase in Elders who now attend a church of 600 or more people. Neither of the other generations reflected any proportional change in this dimension, suggesting that the growth in attendance at large churches is predominantly attributable to either transfer growth among post-Elders or to Elders leaving small churches in favor of larger communities of faith.
  • The proportion of unchurched climbed eight points since 1991 among this group. Today three out of ten adults 66 or older (29%) are unchurched.

These are the trio of beliefs that experienced significant change since 1991.

  • The number of Elders who have made a personal commitment to Jesus that is still important in their life these days rose by ten percentage points. That level now stands at three out of every four elderly Americans (76%).
  • Concurrently, the percentage of Elders who meet the born again criteria (described above) increased by 11 points. Elders are far more likely than their younger colleagues to be classified, based on their beliefs rather than self-identification, as born again (49%).
  • The proportion of Elders who believe that “God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe who continues to rule that world today” has dropped by nine percentage points. Presently 71% have adopted that view, down from 80% in 1991.

In light of these results, George Barna has provided interpretive comments regarding these trends on his blog site, georgebarna.com. During the coming week (August 1 – 4) Barna will release four additional summaries regarding how the 14 religious factors tracked since 1991 have shifted according to people’s region, gender, ethnicity, and religious affiliation. 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.

The data from which the trends are drawn is based on the annual OmniPoll™ 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 forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Andy Crouch

    I honestly don’t know how to interpret 20-year longitudinal statements about the “generation” born between 1965 and 1981, given that in 1991 the oldest members were 26 years old and the youngest were 10 years old! Assuming that the relevant questions were asked only of adults 18+, much of the alleged change could be the result of differing cohorts _within_ the group.

    Let’s also remember that based on the numbers on Barna’s blog, only 13% of the sample were “Busters” in 1991, up to 34% in 2011. We are therefore drawing these conclusions based on interviews with ~131 individuals in 1991 and ~551 individuals in 2011. And you wonder why social scientists “poke hard” at these numbers? Just because these results meet the p<0.05 test for statistical significance does NOT mean they would be reproduced by a larger or different sample.

    Honestly, anything other than gold-standard longitudinal data (tracking actual individuals over time—as Christian Smith and colleagues are doing with their study of youth and emerging adults) usually just gives non-social-scientists enough rope to hang themselves with. Caveat lector.

  • Steve Jung

    Well, as a Buster I look at the data and see a few things. First, stage of life. As Busters, we now have children and are taking them to church and also volunteering for their programs. The decline among the Boomers goes along the same lines, their children have left and they now no longer need to volunteer for programs. Some of the numbers about size of church may be due to the countries population shift toward cities. And the drop in Sunday School may have to do with many churches dropping Sunday School. Some dropped in favor of small groups. Some dropped because of lack of teachers. And some dropped because there was a segment that doesn’t really care for “education” (bad experience at one church).

  • Kate

    So don’t consider busters (a la Andy’s comment) just boomers … Steve hits some important points.

    Sunday school attendance drops because more and more places are dropping adult education opportunities (aka Sunday School).

    Volunteering drops because kids have grown … after 13 (or more) years of volunteer work in children’s programs it is time to move on; but with the demolishing of adult programs there is nothing meaningful to move on to or to participate in.

    Church attendance drops because church becomes irrelevant to Christian growth and life. Watching a show with 22 year old musicians lauded as Church leaders, no opportunity for any real active involvement, a sermon which is intentionally directed to new believers or other stages of life, being patronized by 25 year olds or 35 year olds,… well this grows old very fast. Why bother attending? There are better and spiritually more rewarding ways to spend time.

  • Robert

    Why is it that Barna persists on using generational categories that are different than other social demographers? It is frustrating.

  • Brian Considine

    If Barna’s data in the Elder category is accurate what does is say about those who are now over 65 that fewer apparently believe in the sovereignty of God than when they were 20 years younger? Interesting statistic. Perhaps it’s an indication that they lacked a theology of suffering and naturally had more exposure to illness and death. But they apparently hold on to their commitment to Jesus.

  • Jason Lee

    But if the “trends” the Barna team finds are based on problematic data and analysis, then all we’re left with are his suggestions. Problem is, his suggestions are often based on his “findings.”

  • Jason Lee

    In my opinion, the posting of studies from the Barna group mars this otherwise wonderful and interesting blog.

  • nathan

    I love how Barna calls his own generation “The World Changers”.

    It’s like Hegel believing his own time was the full flowering of something sooooooo amazing.

    I’m just very very skeptical about the whole project that is analyzing the demographics of churches.

    All the sturm und drang about “the disappearance of 20 year olds” these days is a redux of the same claims when I was a 20 year old “buster” some 20 odd years ago.

    As a pastor, I’m still at a loss as to how this info/findings/suggestions/data is helpful to me other than perpetuating a persistent state of anxiety that so many evangelicals can’t seem to live without.

    Can someone connect the dots for me?


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