Every year, The Barna Group examines the state of the church, and most Americans align themselves—intimately or loosely—with Christianity. One of the enduring features of the nation is its connection to Jesus Christ. Consider these elements of allegiance:
In our annual assessment of religious activities, we found that the most common engagement is prayer. This was followed by attending church and Bible reading; however, just one quarter of Americans report doing all three activities in the last week.
Generally, while most areas of culture change dramatically from year to year, involvement levels for most of the religious behaviors we studied were statistically no different than a decade ago. However, compared with last year, Americans are less likely to volunteer at church and less likely to read the Bible.
One other trend of significance is the slow, steady growth of people's participation in a house church, which is distinct from a congregational small group. These days, nearly one out of 10 adults attend a house church during a typical week. That is remarkable growth in the past decade, shooting up from just 1 percent to near double-digit involvement. In total, one out of five adults attends a house church at least once a month.
Yet all is not well within our country, despite its overwhelming "Christianized" profile. A deeper look at people's full array of spiritual beliefs and behavior calls into question the sincerity of their commitment.
One area that is undergoing subtle but continual change is what Americans believe. Adults in this country continue to distance themselves from traditional biblical perspectives.
Ever since we began measuring religious belief and perspective, it is not unusual to spot minor fluctuations in the belief patterns of Americans. However, our 2007 study of the nation's core beliefs found that many orthodox theological perspectives have shifted in recent years away from traditional biblical views. This includes perspectives about God, Jesus and Satan.
Most Americans still embrace a traditional view of God, but they are less likely than ever to do so. Currently two-thirds of Americans believe that God is best described as the all-powerful, all-knowing perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today. However, this proportion is lower than it was a year ago (71 percent) and represents the lowest percentage in more than 20 years of similar surveys.
Few adults possess orthodox views about Jesus and the Devil. Currently, just one-third of Americans strongly disagree that Jesus sinned (37 percent) and just one quarter strongly reject the idea that Satan is not a real spiritual being (24 percent). Both are lower than last year and among the lowest points in nearly two decades of tracking these views.
Given these shifts, it is ironic that the only religious belief unchanged from previous years is the belief that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches. Almost half of Americans (45 percent) strongly assert this view.
The Barna survey categorizes people based upon their convictions about life after death and creates two additional faith segments: born-again and evangelical Christians. These are not based on self-identification or denominational attendance, but based on their personal commitment to Christ as well as their theological perspectives. The percent age of Americans whose beliefs are categorized as "born again" has tapered off somewhat: 40 percent compared with 45 percent in last year's study and 43 percent in 1997. Despite the slight decline in numbers, this still represents 90 million born-again believers nationwide.
Within the born-again group, there are an estimated 16 million evangelical Christians who embrace a set of beliefs (the ones listed in the "beliefs" category in the sidebar) in addition to their profession of faith in Christ and confession of personal sinfulnes. The 2007 study found that 7 percent of adults qualify as evangelical Christians, which is statistically consistent with prior levels.
The State of Your Church
How does the profile of the nation's spirituality affect your congregation? First, realize that the gaps between what people say, what they do and what they believe are enormous. Part of the reason that America is spiritually complacent is that tens of millions of residents have deluded themselves into thinking that God is pleased simply because they vaguely identify with Christianity or because they engage spiritually throughout the year.
As church leaders, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that spiritually active people know the Bible and possess biblical perspectives. Yet the data shows that millions of churchgoers maintain a disappointing mix of theological views, even on some of the most basic of issues. They attend churches week after week without becoming more biblical. If they believe all is well with their soul, it makes it hard to convince them they have much to learn.
Second, that raises the following question: how do you help measure and assess the beliefs and convictions of your congregation? No church can obtain an accurate look at this crucial matter without thoughtful, intentional evaluation processes. Of course, your church's self-assessment efforts should not foment legalism or provoke hyper-criticism.
But no church can be effective without a significant commitment to measuring what its members are learning and how well they can think in biblical terms. Without a greater commitment to assessing the beliefs of your congregation, we expect Christian commitment in this country to continue to erode, especially as younger generations begin to shun a version of Christianity that is superficial and biblically inconsistent.
Most Americans have one foot in the Christian camp and one foot outside it. They say they are committed, but to what? They are spiritually active, but to what end? The profile of American Christianity is not unlike the lukewarm church that the Bible warns about in references such as Revelation 3 and Isaiah 58. There is activity without transformational action. Identity exists without deep commitment. Spirituality has lost substance.
What is the state of your church? As a leader, your challenge is to keep pushing and prodding people in your church to grow. Are you willing to give—and get—a healthy dose of reality?