Thursday, December 21, 2006

2006 American Religion in Review: Four Areas from Barna

Here is one synopsis of a religious surveyor and analyst's review of the year 2006 in American religion. By George Barna

First, Barna identified some of the most prolific news stories of the year that involved religion:
1. the role of evangelicals in the mid-term elections,
2. Hollywood’s pursuit of the Christian audience,
3. scandals concerning priests and ministers,
4. the shooting of five Amish school children and their community’s response,
5. the internal politics of the Episcopal Church,
6. the controversy involving Muslims and the Pope.

Offhand, I pretty much agree with the list. But I would rate them in this order, not of newsworthiness by the way, but of lasting significance:

1. Hollywood--media always shapes meaning and leads to organizational embodiment
2. Episcopals--emblematic of widening rift in what it means to be Christian, new kind of Reformation
3. Evangelical shift--politics and religion will get murkier, not less so; the polarization into the Christian Right and the Secular Progressives, as so many wish to keep alive, will be history as the Center holds. Might throw in here news items surrounding Stem-Cell, also the spiritual dimensions of Immigration Debate, the emergence of Hilary and Obama and McCain as emblematic of Center on these issues.
4. Scandals--Haggard, et al. part of the shift toward decentralized celebrity-less spirituality.
5. Muslim and Pope--"Western Civilization" "Christian Europe" "Inter-religious engagement that is based on differences" in 100 years this could be seen as the most significant, and have boiled over in this flat world to the American scene.
6. Shooting and Response. Shootings will continue, but will the response of the Amish become a touchstone of response and lead to changes in understandings of justice?

Second, Barna's own 12 most significant findings of 2006 based on the year's research, in his order of what he deems most important. Details below.
1. Disparity between public claims and claims of regular church-goers, and perceptions by pastors
2. 75 percent of teenagers engage at least once in some form of "psychic or witchcraft" experience while only 30 percent of churches seem concerned enough to teach on it.
3. "Holiness" not a concern.
4. wide difference between what he calls "Christian Revolutionaries" (see his book called Revolution) who are dedicated to living out faith fully, and the "born-again" whose faith is mostly in profession.
5. Rise of house churches, though most (80 percent) in house church still have some connection to more formal church organization.
6. Very few are engaged in spiritual gifts discernment, and for those that do it is still seen as related to "volunteerism."
7. high rate of involvement in faith community in teen years drops off in the twenties.
8. post 9-11 faith rise dropped off five years later back to normal
9. disconnect between perceptions of parents about faith development of their children, and what children report.
10. only 1 out of 6 think spiritual faith maturity should be developed within context of a church community.
11. few Americans recognize names of top Christian book-sellers and pastors.
12. numbers of people claiming "born-again" continues to rise, as does bible study and small group involvement.

My own rearrangment of the order of importance of those 12 findings of his would be as follows:

My one is his number 10---loss of interest in church. Old news but all flows from it.
My two is his number 4---rise of "revolutionaries" becoming distinct different faith grouping
My three is his number 5--rise of house church
My four is his number 9--parental/children disconnect
My five is his number 1--difference in perception in pew and pulpit
My six is his number 6---no spiritual gifts discernment going on, really, anywhere
My seven is his number 2--not for the obvious spiritual warfare alert as he sees it, but as an indicator of the rise of fantasy as personal spiritual allegiance and practice
My eight is his number 12--indicating rise of importance in seeking intimacy and Story
My nine is his number 3--holiness dropping off the chart, probably for good reason (see Paul's admonition in Romans that God is for the unrighteous), but the loss of moral center, community values, and rise of uncontrolled behavior and addictions should be of more vital concern, especially to progressives.
My ten is his number 7--losing young adults to status quo faith communities
My eleven is his number 11--lack of recognition just shows secular/spiritual divide widening
My twelve is his number 8--post 9-11 illusions and disillusions.

(the order of these also shows a relationship between them to the general shift away from churched culture to dechurched and unchurched culture, to the rise of generational cultural differences, and cultural modernity's demise).

Here is Barna's elaboration on the findings and links to the surveys from this past year:

Although large majorities of the public claim to be “deeply spiritual” and say that their religious faith is “very important” in their life, only 15% of those who regularly attend a Christian church ranked their relationship with God as the top priority in their life. As alarming as that finding was, its significance was magnified by research showing that on average pastors believe that 70% of the adults in their congregation consider their relationship with God to be their highest priority in life.
For related information, see the January 10th Barna Update click here

Three out of every four teenagers have engaged in at least one type of psychic or witchcraft-related activity. Among the most common of those endeavors are using a Ouija board, reading books about witchcraft or Wicca, playing games involving sorcery or witchcraft, having a “professional” do a palm reading or having their fortune told. Conversely, during the past year fewer than three out of every ten churched teenagers had received any teaching from their church about elements of the supernatural.
For related information, see the January 23rd Barna Update click here

The notion of personal holiness has slipped out of the consciousness of the vast majority of Christians. While just 21% of adults consider themselves to be holy, by their own admission large numbers have no idea what “holiness” means and only one out of every three (35%) believe that God expects people to become holy.
For related information, see the Februrary 20th Barna Update click here

The growing movement of Christian Revolutionaries in the U.S. distinguished themselves from an already-select group of people – born again Christians – through their deeds, beliefs and self-views. Revolutionaries demonstrated substantially higher levels of community service, financial contributions, daily Bible study, personal quiet times each day, family Bible studies, daily worship experiences, engagement in spiritual mentoring, and evangelistic efforts. They also had a series of beliefs that were much more likely than those of typical born again adults to coincide with biblical teachings. Their self-perceptions were also dramatically different than that of other born again adults.
For related information, see the March 6th Barna Update click here

Involvement in a house church is rapidly growing, although the transition is occurring with some trepidation: four out of every five house church participants maintain some connection to a conventional church as well.
For related information, see the June 19th Barna Update click here

Evaluating spiritual maturity remains an elusive process for clergy as well as individuals. Across the nation, the only measure of spiritual health used by at least half of all pastors was the extent of volunteer activity or ministry involvement. Adults were no more consistent in their self-examination of their spirituality.
For related information, see the January 10th Barna Update click here

Most Americans have a period of time during their teen years when they are actively engaged in a church youth group. However, Barna’s tracking of young people showed that most of them had disengaged from organized religion during their twenties.
For related information, see the September 11th Barna Update click here

A comparison of people’s faith before and after the September 11 terrorist attack showed that five years after the momentous day, none of the 19 faith measures studied had undergone statistically significant change. Those measures covered aspects such as religious behaviors, beliefs, spiritual commitment and self-identity.
For related information, see the August 28th Barna Update click here

Seven out of ten parents claim they are effective at developing the spiritual maturity of their children, but the Barna survey among 8-to-12-year-olds discovered that only one-third of them say a church has made “a positive difference” in their life; one-third contend that prayer is very important in their life; most of them would rather be popular than to do what is morally right. In fact, “tweeners” (those ages 8 to 12) deem their family to be vitally important in their life, but just 57% said they look forward to spending time with their family and only one out of every three say it is easy for them to talk to their parents about things that matter to them.
For related information, see the September 30th Barna Update click here

Relatively few people – just one out of every six – believe that spiritual maturity is meant to be developed within the context of a local church or within the context of a community of faith.
For related information, see the April 18th Barna Update click here

Five of the highest-profile Christian leaders – Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, James Dobson, Tim LaHaye and T.D. Jakes – were unknown to a majority of the population. Most of those leaders were also unknown to most born again Christians.
For related information, see the November 27th Barna Update click here

The faith contours of America continue to shift substantially over the course of time. The proportion of adults who are born again has risen dramatically in the past quarter century, from 31% to 45%. During the past two decades, every spiritual behavior has fluctuated significantly, with recent upsurge in Bible reading, church attendance, and small group involvement.
For related information, see the March 27th Barna Update click here

Third, Barna's analysis of the 4 themes in the patterns: George Barna noted that there were four themes that consistently emerged from the various surveys his firm conducted throughout the year.

“First of all,” noted Barna, “Americans are very comfortable with religious faith. Most adults and even teenagers see themselves as people of faith. Toward that end, they have definite opinions about religion, they possess well-honed beliefs, and invest substantial amounts of their time, money and energy in religious activities. Faith and spirituality remain hot issues in people’s lives. The mass media, through news and feature stories, also play a role in keeping spiritual issues in the forefront of people’s minds.”

“Second,” he continued, “people do not have an accurate view of themselves when it comes to spirituality. American Christians are not as devoted to their faith as they like to believe. They have positive feelings about the importance of faith, but their faith is rarely the focal point of their life or a critical factor in their decision-making. The fact that few people take the time to evaluate their spiritual journey, or to develop benchmarks or indicators of their spiritual health, facilitates a distorted view of the prominence and purity of faith in their life.”

Barna’s third theme was that if people’s faith is objectively measured against a biblical standard of how faith is to be practiced, Americans are spiritually lukewarm. “Very limited effort is devoted to spiritual growth. Most Americans experience ‘accidental spiritual growth’ since there is generally no plan or process other than showing up at a church and absorbing a few ideas here and there. Even then, few people have a defined understanding of what they are hoping to become, as followers of Christ.” Barna attributed much of this to the numerous distractions common in most people’s lives.

Finally, the bestselling author of nearly 40 books contended that the most intriguing blip on the radar screen is the growth of various converging movements of deeply spiritual people who are departing from the conventional forms and communities of faith. “The Revolutionary community – which incorporates divergent but compatible groups of people who are seeking to make their faith the driving force in their life – is reshaping American faith in ways which we are just beginning to understand.” Few researchers and journalists are tracking the behavior and beliefs of those nascent segments. "

Fourth, his view of the horizon of the future in American religious trends:
When asked what he saw on the horizon regarding Americans’ faith, Barna described findings from some research currently in process related to the future of faith. He listed three general patterns he expects to gain prominence in the coming years.

Diversity. There will be new forms of spiritual leadership, different expressions of faith, and greater variety in when and where people meet together to be communities of faith. Ecumenism will expand, as the emerging generations pay less attention to doctrine and more attention to relationships and experiences. Barna predicted that there will be a broader network of micro-faith communities built around lifestyle affinities, such as gay communities of faith, marketplace professionals who gather for faith experiences, and so forth.

Bifurcation. Barna expects to see a widening gap between the intensely committed and those who are casually involved in faith matters. The difference will become strikingly evident between those who make faith the core of their life and those who simply attach a religious component on to an already mature lifestyle.

Media. Spiritual content and experiences will be increasingly related to the use of media. New technologies that will gain market share over the coming decade will significantly reshape how people experience and express their faith, and the ways in which they form communities of faith.

During the past year Barna formed a company (Good News Holdings) with a group of media professionals to approach the faith community not only with facts and figures drawn from research but also with stories and imagery conveyed through media. Asked why he took this new approach, he stated that the job of a servant of God is to be an obedient missionary. “It’s important to go where the people are whom you wish to reach with your message, and then to communicate that message through the language and symbols that they understand,” he explained. “The typical American spends roughly twenty times more hours each week engaged with media than involved with all forms of traditional religious activity. In our society there is a false barrier between those two worlds, and we’re trying to bridge the gap.”

I will post more of my comments in the comments, but I think he is right on in his "most intriguing development of 2006" and his expectation of it continuing in the future, that is the growth of new forms of spiritual community made up of more dedicated "Revolutionaries" (see my earlier post on Barna's book "Revolution"). The question is how will it take shape or will it among Christian progressives. But he has outlined a way again to audit your own community, your own tradition, your own association as to how is it engaging with Diversity, Bifurcation, Media.


Steve Hayes said...

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

To comment on just two points:

Teenagers and the supernatural -- recalling my own teenage years 50 years ago, nothing has changed at all. My friends and I did all those things back then.

Concerning holiness, 30 years ago a friend, who is now a retired Anglican bishop, wrote to me that "what we need is not more good men, but more holy men". I don't think that has changed much either.

When speaking about "trends", one should point out where things are changing, rather than constants, and it seems that this Barna fellow has lumped too many things together, and that too many of the "trends" he mentions are in fact constsnts.

Anonymous said...