Perhaps the biggest news about charismatic or Pentecostal Christians is simply that they are no longer news. Not too long ago, charismatics were a point of fascination in our culture. Thanks to the media, they were widely viewed as a bizarre Christian subculture, a group whose beliefs and behavior embarrassed mainstream Christians.
But things have changed—dramatically. Today our survey results show that charismatics are part of the mainstream Christian culture. Relatively few Americans perceive charismatics to be on the lunatic fringe of beliefs or behavior.
Based on several national studies of charismatics conducted by The Barna Group, we have discovered that roughly one-third of the U.S. adult population claims to be a charismatic or Pentecostal Christian. That means up to 80 million adults in the U.S. characterize themselves as charismatic or Pentecostal. That's more than double the population of California and larger than the entire populations of Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Korea, Spain or Thailand.
The actual figure depends on how the group is defined. Because there is no standard understanding embraced by leaders within the charismatic community, we have examined charismatics using three different definitions. In our surveys with more than 1,000 adults randomly selected from across the country, we saw that figure range from 30 percent to 37 percent, depending upon the definition used.
When we recently released information about the magnitude of the charismatic population, the national media reaction was one of disbelief. "Where are all these people?" was a common question from journalists. The simple answer is that charismatics no longer stand out like the odd child in an otherwise normal family. They are now integrated into virtually every dimension of the Christian body in America, attending churches that are known to be charismatic in orientation as well as churches that are not known in that way.
Research shows that at least one in five adults in a wide range of denominations—Baptist, mainline, evangelical and nondenominational churches—claims to be charismatic. A substantial number of Catholic believers—perhaps as many as one-quarter of that group—also consider themselves to be charismatic Christians.
What Charismatics Believe
The survey data shine a flattering spotlight on charismatic believers. For instance, charismatics are more likely than noncharismatics to take the Bible at face value, largely because they are more likely to believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all the principles it teaches.
As evidence of that trust, charismatics are significantly more likely to accept the biblical accounts of a six-day creation, the virgin birth, the serpent tempting Eve, Jesus feeding the 5,000, Noah and the flood, and Jesus turning water into wine as accurate depictions of what actually happened.
Even perceptions of God differ between the two groups. Almost nine in 10 charismatics contend that God is the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the universe who still rules that universe today. Yet, barely seven in 10 noncharismatics view God in that way.
The role of faith is more significant to charismatics than it is to other Christians. Ninety percent of charismatics say they believe their purpose in life is to love God with all their heart, mind, strength and soul, compared with 66 percent of noncharismatics. This corresponds to the finding that nine in 10 charismatics say their religious faith is very important in their lives, compared with 74 percent of noncharismatics. Charismatics are also more likely to have embraced Christ as their Savior. Overall, six in 10 charismatics have done so, compared to four in 10 noncharismatics.
Traditional spiritual activities are more likely to be part of the lives of charismatics. In a typical week, 55 percent of charismatics read the Bible; just 36 percent of noncharismatics do so. About 60 percent of charismatics attend church services in a typical week, compared with about half of noncharismatics.
We also measure something we have labeled "active Christianity," which entails a person having read the Bible, attended a church service and prayed to God during the course of the week preceding our contact with them. We found that charismatics are more likely than noncharismatics to fit that category by a 42 percent to 25 percent margin.
The differences in religious behavior described above are undoubtedly related to the fact that 66 percent of charismatics say they are "absolutely committed to the Christian faith." In contrast, 51 percent of noncharismatic Christians make the same claim. In addition, our research revealed that 75 percent of charismatic Christians stated that their lives had been "greatly transformed" by their faith in Christ. Only half the noncharismatic believers made the same claim.
An outgrowth of this is seen in attitudes about evangelism. Slightly more than half of charismatics strongly believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with other people who believe differently. Less than one in three noncharismatics possesses a similar commitment.
To their credit, charismatic Christians are about 50 percent more likely than others to provide moral or spiritual advice to people under the age of 18 during a typical week.
We also interviewed more than 1,200 senior pastors of Protestant churches and learned about charismatic churches. Contrary to popular opinion, we found that many past patterns have changed. For instance:
•Pentecostalism has now crossed denominational boundaries. Denominations that shied away from the charismatic side of Christianity are now more accepting of it. Amazingly, 7 percent of Southern Baptist churches and 6 percent of all mainline Protestant churches are today described by their pastors as "charismatic or Pentecostal."
•Though charismatic churches are often thought to be small and culturally backwards, our study found that charismatic churches are roughly the same size as other churches and are actually more likely than their noncharismatic counterparts to use various forms of technology in their ministries. That included the use of large-screen projection systems, movie clips in worship services or congregational events, blogs and Web-based social networking by the church.
Reasons for Change
What has caused this dramatic growth and perceptual turnaround? Several factors have undoubtedly contributed to the shift. First, charismatic churches have maintained a focus on teaching the Bible. That has fostered normative Christian beliefs and resulted in a higher proportion of charismatics knowing and accepting scriptural content.
The emphasis on understanding the Word of God is also related to the fact that fewer charismatic pastors have attended seminary. Previous studies prove that seminary-trained pastors are less likely to believe the Bible is literally true and are less likely to rely on Scripture as their ultimate teaching authority.
Second, by the very nature of embracing the charismatic gifts, Pentecostal churches are more open to passionate expressions of faith and practice. That resonates with the emergence of the "postmodern generation," which appreciates genuine emotion and the permission to experience the world (including all aspects of their faith) in intimate or unconventional ways.
Third, the media environment has changed significantly in recent years. The consequence has been the media becoming more accepting of charismatic ministries while some of the more flamboyant Pentecostal televangelists have become less prominent. Most journalists do not understand the theological underpinnings of the Pentecostal movement, nor do they typically invest sufficient time to gain such insights. Perhaps owing to the cultural determination to be tolerant or embrace diverse lifestyle expressions, the media have generally chosen to allow the charismatic orientation to exist without as much judgment and scrutiny as was common in the past.
Finally, note that demographics have played a role in this acceptance too. The profile of the charismatic community is one of younger adults, including a higher proportion of those who are single, and substantially higher numbers of nonwhite adults.
If the trend lines continue on their current trajectory, the 2000s may wind up being known as the "Charismatic Century" for American Christianity.
George Barna is chairman of The Barna Group in Ventura, Calif., and lives with his wife and three daughters in Southern California.