That old time religion

By George BarnaReprinted by permission from Christian American, Nov/Dec ’96

Editor’s Note:  Christians who are committed to reaching society need to know where it it headed. In his latest book, The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators, George Barna paints a picture filled with opportunity but also fraught with troubling trends.

George Barna is president of Barna Research Group, Oxnard, California. His firm has conducted market research for many of today’s largest Christian and secular organizations. He is the author of 21 books.

February 1997 – In many ways, the beliefs and religious practices of our people are as diverse and extensive as America’s terrain. In fact, some contend that the scope of American theology and practice is as inclusive as anywhere on the planet. Such variety of belief and practice upholds the reality that faith is a core component of the American experience.

The spiritual landscape of the 21st century is radically different from that of the forefathers of the nation. Yet, it is the openness to individualized expressions of faith which indicated the maturing of the American experiment in democracy. Indeed, the emphasis on spiritual matters is by design rather than by chance. Historian Will Durant once noted that “the soul of a civilization is its religion.” America, now well into its third century, is a country actively cultivating its soul.

The spirituality of the U.S. is not a recent response to modernism, materialism, communism, or any other worldly contrivance. The pilgrims made their journey to American soil in search of opportunities to worship their God in ways which were true to their beliefs. The founding fathers of the nation went to great lengths to protect variety in religious expression as well as the right to pursue religious faith whenever and however a person was so moved.

Americans are religious people. One might be less persuaded that we are truly a Christian people, regardless of our self perceptions.

America’s religious perspective, like its cultural context, is constantly and rapidly changing. However, we stubbornly refuse to give up on the significance of personal and corporate spirituality. That suggests that America retains the raw material of a nation with the potential to become a moral, ethical, values-driven, healthy, and estimable society.

Faith in general
Nearly nine out of every 10 adults (87%) state that their religious faith is very important in their lives.

 A majority of adults describe themselves as “religious” (60%). But it is important to note that one-third of those who say religion plays a viral role in their lives reject the label of “religious.”

 Although most adults consider religion to be a core element in their own lives, the prevailing perception is that most people have experienced a declining degree of spiritual commitment over the past decade. While one-fifth of adults (21$) say that the spiritual commitment of Americans has improved in the last 10 years, 36% say it has remained unchanged, and 37% say it has gotten worse.

Cross-cultural studies comparing developed nations show that Americans are perhaps the most religious people in the world. A key shift, however, is the fact that our nation is moving away from being the most Christian-oriented nation on earth to a nation of people who are religiously diverse and who maintain a high fascination with the spiritual realm.

Commitment to Christianity
Two out of every three adults (67%) say they have made a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today.” This level of commitment has shown a slight increase in the past decade, rising from the 60% level in the early and mid 1980s.

 People may view themselves as Christian, but their intensity of commitment to the faith is lukewarm. Less than half of its self-self-proclaimed adherents (41%) say they are “absolutely committed” to Christianity. A similar proportion (44%) say they are “moderately committed” to the faith.

 Americans are quite label-conscious and are careful about the descriptions they adopt for themselves. When asked which, if any, of several different terms they would use to describe themselves, 18% chose the term “evangelical.” Almost twice as man people (29%) chose the term “fundamentalist.” A more popular religious term was “born again,” selected by almost four our of 10 adults (39%).

Much of American Christianity is nominal in nature. Americans like to have a term to summarize their religiosity, and “Christian” remains the level of choice, even if their commitment to Biblical Christianity is waning. With loyalty rapidly becoming a cultural artifact, commitment to a local church is also on the decline.

Relating to a deity
Most Americans say they would like to have a serious involvement with their deity. Three-quarters of all adults (74%) say it would be “very desirable” to have a close relationship with God.”

 Two-thirds of all adults (68%) claim they have felt that they were in the presence of God at some time in their lives. In fact, many of those people regularly sense the presence of God: half believe they are in His presence at least one time each week.

Americans enjoy being known to and favors by those in power. While many people are confused about the nature and purposes of God, and growing numbers are not quite convinced of the omnipotence of God, most adults remain desirous of having positive interactions with their deity.

Significant spiritually
Americans are evenly split on the issue of whether a person can lead a full and satisfying life even if he or she does not pursue personal spiritual development. This constitutes a decline from the past, as national surveys conducted in the ‘50s and ‘60s suggest that a substantial majority of the population of that era believed the pursuit of spiritual maturity to be a prerequisite to life fulfillment.

 Two out of three adults say they are “absolutely certain” that in times of personal crisis they can count on God to take care of them.

 Not quite half of the public (45%) strongly agree that the Christian faith is relevant to their lives these days. An additional one-third state that they agree with this notion, but only moderately so.

Increasingly, faith commitment is viewed as a hobby rather than as a necessity for personal wholeness. True spiritual commitment is deemed to be a bonus, not a necessity.

The right answers
Two-thirds of all adults (68%) believe that the Christian faith has “all the answers to leading a successful life/“ Six out of 10 people (58%) also contend that there is no single religious faith which has “all the answers to life’s questions and challenges.”

 A slight majority (54%) rejects the notion that “all religious faiths teach equally valid truths.”

Because increasing numbers of people turn to religious to prove them with insights and abilities to meet tangible goals, faith is used by many people as a means to a worldly, rather than eternal, end. Millions of adults have embraced the philosophy that which religion they choose is not so important, as long as they are religious.

Nothing is sacred, including the realm of the sacred. Americans are questioning everything about religion and faith and long-held taboos.

The undeniable reality is that America is transitioning from a Christian nation to a syncretistic, spiritually diverse society.

In the current spiritual upheaval, Americans are seeking a personalized, customized form of faith that will meet personal needs, will minimize rules and absolutes, and will bear little resemblance to the “pure” form of ay of the world’s major religions.

We thirst for experience rather than understanding, for choices rather than the ease and security of a limited set of alternatives.

Americans want their religious freedom, and they cherish their religious life in all of its unique forms. Religion in this country may not be what it used to be, but indisputably it remains a viral dimension of the American experience.  undefined

Statistics are based on studies conducted by Barna Research Group, 1993 to 1996.