Researcher George Barna narrowed his yearly religious surveys to the top 12 most significant or surprising findings and highlighted religious faith to be a hot issue in people's lives still today. And the future of America's faith looks more diverse than ever.
The 12 most noteworthy outcomes, in the order listed in the Barna report, are:
1. 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 percent 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 pastors on average believe that 70 percent of the adults in their congregation consider their relationship with God to be their highest priority in life. (Jan. 10)
2. 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" read their palm 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. (Jan. 23)
3. The notion of personal holiness has slipped out of the consciousness of the vast majority of Christians. While just 21 percent 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 percent) believe that God expects people to become holy. (Feb 20)
4. 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. (March 6)
5. 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. (June 19)
6. 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. (Jan. 10)
7. 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. (Sept. 11)
8. A comparison of people’s faith before and after the Sept. 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. (Aug. 28)
9. 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 percent 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. (Sept. 30)
10. 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. (April 18)
11. 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. (Nov. 27)
12. 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 percent to 45 percent. During the past two decades, every spiritual behavior has fluctuated significantly, with recent upsurge in Bible reading, church attendance, and small group involvement. (March 27)
Barna followed four consistent themes among the top 12 findings.
"First of all, Americans are very comfortable with religious faith," Barna noted. "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."
Third, "very limited effort is devoted to spiritual growth," Barna stated in the report. "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.”
Overall, the most intriguing finding that Barna highlighted was the Revolutionary community – deeply spiritual people departing form 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," he pointed out.
What does the future of Americans' faith look like?
Barna listed diversity, bifurcation and media.
He predicts that new forms of spiritual leadership and different expressions of faith are forthcoming. Emerging generations will emphasize relationships and experiences more than doctrine and more micro-faith communities that are built around lifestyle affinities will form.
The researcher also expects a widening gap between the intensely committed and those who are casually involved in faith matters.
Plus, media will increasingly influence faith in America. New technologies will significantly reshape how people experience and express their faith and the ways in which they form communities of faith.