The new volume of research release by the Barna Institute showed the correlation between childhood experiences and the development of a Christian moral system. Entitled, “Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions,” the book compiles and analyzes the surveys and polls conducted throughout the 2001-2003 time frame.
“Adults essentially carry out the beliefs they embraced when they were young,” George Barna began. “The reason why Christians are so similar in their attitudes, values and lifestyles to non-Christians is that they were not sufficiently challenged to think and behave differently – radically differently, based on core spiritual perspectives – when they were children.
“Simply getting people to go to church regularly is not the key to becoming a mature Christian. Spiritual transformation requires a more extensive investment in one’s ability to interpret all life situations in spiritual terms.”
The three-year research regarding ministry to children revealed four critical outcomes that are developed generally developed before the age of twenty.
First and foremost, that a person’s moral foundations are developed while they are in their pre-teens; generally, by the age nine, a person would already set fundamental perspectives on truth, integrity, meaning, justice, morality and ethics. After the first decade, people “refine” or “shift” those foundations only marginally.
The second finding showed that a person’s response to Jesus Christ, his death, resurrection and love, is determined before the age of eighteen. In fact, a majority of Americans make a lasting determination about the personal significance of Christ’s death and resurrection by age 12.
Third, Barna showed data indicating that in most cases people’s spiritual beliefs are irrevocably formed when they are pre-teens. Upon comparing data from a national survey of 13-year-olds with an identical survey among adults, Barna found that the belief profile related to a dozen central spiritual principles was identical between the two groups.
“In essence,” Barna noted, “what you believe by the time you are 13 is what you will die believing. Of course, there are many individuals who go through life-changing experiences in which their beliefs are altered, or instances in which a concentrated body of religious teaching changes one or more core beliefs. However, most people’s minds are made up and they believe they know what they need to know spiritually by age 13. Their focus in absorbing religious teaching after that age is to gain reassurance and confirmation of their existing beliefs rather than to glean new insights that will redefine their foundations.”
Finally, the research revealed that adult church leaders usually have serious involvement in church life and training when they are young. According to statistics, four out of five pastors, church staff and lay leaders had been involved in children’s ministry while they were younger.
Barna hoped to emphasize the importance of a spiritual development of children for the future Christian ministry.
“In situations where children became mature Christians we usually found a symbiotic partnership between their parents and their church,” he pointed out. “The church encouraged parents to prioritize the spiritual development of their children and worked hard to equip them for that challenge. Parents, for their part, raised their children in the context of a faith-based community that provided security, belonging, spiritual and moral education, and accountability. Neither the parents nor the church could have done it alone.”
According to Barna, the most important and effective way to minister to these children, is through prayers.
“The most important resource, we believe, was the amazing amount of prayer for children and parents that was evident at the most effective ministries to children,” said Barna. “Some money is required to see serious life change happen, but the more important resource is the commitment of adults to the spiritual wholeness of the children – which means sacrificing some of the emphasis upon the ministry to adults.”
The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984, it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.