The holidays are a time when many people are more attuned to religion and Christians are more prone to sharing the gospel with non-believers – or are they? That note of doubt arises from new research released by the American Culture & Faith Institute (ACFI) showing that surprisingly few adults – including born again Christians – feel a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with non-believers. The survey also revealed that while most of the nation’s evangelistic efforts by adults are made toward other adults, most decisions to follow Christ are made by children.
Number of Christ Followers Has Dropped
The new ACFI research was developed by George Barna, who founded the Barna Group in 1984 and sold it in 2009. During his quarter-century at the helm of the eponymous company one of the many religious attributes tracked was the number of born again adults in the US. Since joining ACFI the veteran researcher has continued to track some of the same core religious factors he pioneered at the Barna Group. One of those is the number of born again Christians in the United States, a statistic that is based not on self-report by survey respondents but on their theological perspective about sin and salvation.
The well-known researcher developed and continues to use a measure that evaluates if a person has confessed their personal sin, asked Jesus Christ to save them, and believes they will live eternally in Heaven only because of His grace toward them. Barna reported that the proportion of adults who meet the born again criterion has been on a downward trajectory since 2010. For the 15 year period from 1991 through 2005, an average of 40% of the adult population qualified as born again. That average rose slightly, to 44%, during the five years from 2006 to 2010. Since that time, however, the mean has plummeted to just 36%, with 2017 producing the lowest proportion of born again adults since Barna began the tracking process in 1991. The 2017 average indicates that just 31% of adults are born again.
Is this trend likely to reverse itself in the near future? Based on demographic data, the answer is “no.” An analysis of faith by age group indicates that America’s two older generations are more likely to be born again than are younger adults: 33% of those 65 or older and 37% of people 50 to 64 are born again. In comparison, 31% of those in their 30s and 40s are born again while only 23% of adults under 30 fit the criteria. As older Americans pass away, the population proportion of younger adults will increase, continuing to drive down the born again proportion in the years to come. Children and teenagers are exhibiting a lower likelihood of becoming born again, too, further limiting the possibility of the growth of this segment.
Ethnic and racial patterns of the U.S. population also support the continued decline in the born again constituency. Non-Hispanic whites have an above-average likelihood of being born again (33%) but their proportion of the adult population will consistently decrease. Blacks are also more likely than the norm to be born again, but they are not growing as a proportion of the population. The two segments that are growing, and will account for a larger share of the nation’s future population, are the groups least likely to be born again – Hispanics (24%) and Asians (17%).
Who Becomes Born Again?
The survey revealed that certain population groups are more prone than are others to confessing their sins, accepting Christ as their savior, and expecting to experience an eternal existence with God in Heaven.
As might be expected, voters aligned with the Republican Party are the most likely to be born again Christians. Nearly half of all Republicans (45%) are born again, compared to just 27% among Democrats, 26% among independent voters, and 27% among adults who are not registered to vote.
Similarly, there is a firm relationship between political ideology and a personal commitment to Christ. Half of all political conservatives (51%) met the born again criteria, compared to only one-quarter of moderates (27%) and one-fifth of liberals (19%).
George Barna, who directed the ACFI research, pointed out that there is also a strong statistical relationship between political ideology and theological perspective. Four out of every five political conservatives also describe their theological perspectives as conservative. Reflecting an identical pattern, four out of five political liberals also portray themselves as theologically liberal.
Long-standing geographic differences based on faith inclinations remain intact. The regions where people are most likely to be born again remain the South (37%) and Midwest (33%). Born again adults are much less common in the West (24%) and Northeast (23%).
People associated with a Protestant church are almost three times more likely than those who attend a Catholic church to be born again. Overall, 55% of Protestants and 19% of Catholics say they have confessed their sins, accepted Christ as their savior, and believe that their eternal salvation is based solely upon their redemption by Christ.
The most noteworthy shift in the last two decades, however, is the fact that almost four out of ten born again Christians (38%) currently say that they are Christian but neither Protestant nor Catholic. Such a stance was virtually unheard of a quarter-century ago. Today, that point of view is challenging the self-identification of “Protestant” as the national norm. That change corresponds with the widespread decrease in peoples’ loyalty to social institutions and to adopting traditional labels for one’s views and relationships.
A significant, if less dramatic shift over the last quarter-century shows that these days women are only slightly more likely than man to become born again. Currently, 33% of women are born again compared to 29% of men. Barna Group data suggest that historically women have been much more likely to embrace Christ but that gender gap has been greatly reduced.
Educational achievement had no apparent relationship with a person’s likelihood of becoming born again. This is another historical change, since data from past decades typically revealed that a college education was an impediment to becoming a follower of Christ.
Age of Accepting Christ
ACFI discovered that Americans are most likely to confess their sins and accept Jesus Christ as their savior – i.e., become born again – before they finish high school. Overall, two out of every three individuals who become born again (68%) do so before reaching the age of 18. Another 8% do so during the period traditionally thought of as college years (ages 18 to 21); 8% more do so from age 22 through 29; and another 8% do so during their thirties. Only 9% of adults accept Christ as their savior at age 40 or later.
The data indicated that the most fertile time for the gospel is when children are in the 10-to-12 age bracket: 20% accepted Christ during that window of time. Overall, three out of ten Christians embraced Jesus as their savior between the ages of 8-to-12.
Given the dominant influence on peoples’ decision to embrace Christ, the future is not promising for Christianity unless current patterns change. The adults who are of parenting age are part of the generation that is least likely to be born again, suggesting that the existing and coming segments of children in America are also less likely to embrace the gospel.
The ACFI survey also showed that as time has progressed, those who accept Christ as their savior are getting younger. Among born again Christians who are 50 or older, their median age when they accepted Christ was 15. That compares to medians of 12 years old among those now in the 30-to-49 age group, and 11 years old among those adults who are under 30.
The nationwide data also suggest that few people who reach their “golden years” – often described as a time of reflection, reassessment, and adjustment – actually change their fundamental relationship with Christ. Only 1% of the current population that is 65 or older has initially embraced Christ as their savior after their 65th birthday. While there is no reliable way for surveys to account for the number of “deathbed conversions” that occur in the U.S., the probability of such conversions is low.
The ACFI survey also profiled the primary influence on the decision to follow Christ, based on the recollections of the born again respondents.
Perhaps as expected, parents emerged as the most likely dominant influence, named by three out of every ten born again Christians (29%). Other family members also played a significant role in the evangelization of the nation, with relatives placing third on the list of most common influencers (listed by 16%). Overall, another 5% said that a friend had had the greatest influence on their decision. That means half of all decisions (50%) were driven by someone with a close personal relationship with the individual – a relative or friend.
Faith-related entities were the second most prolific category of influencers. Church events accounted for 20% of the conversions – primarily attributed to worship services (13%), with a handful giving credit to a Sunday school class or youth group. Clergy were listed by 8% of the born again adults. Overall, then, churches and religious professionals were named by three out of ten Christians (30%).
Almost one out of ten believers (9%) claimed that personal circumstances were mostly responsible for their confession of sin and acceptance of Christ as their savior. Such circumstances were generally crises that people faced in which they felt that reliance on God was their only viable solution.
Other influences on this life-changing spiritual decision included religious events that were not church-related (e.g., Christian concerts, evangelistic crusades – listed by 4%), personal prayers they offered to God for guidance and help (3%), and media-driven experiences (1%).
One of the reasons why Americans are becoming less likely to embrace Christ as their savior has to do with the public’s attitudes about evangelism and salvation.
The ACFI research found that just one out of every five adults (21%) strongly affirms a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with people who hold different beliefs than they do. While born again Christians are nearly twice as likely as non-born again adults to have such a sense of responsibility, that amounts to only two out of every five Christ followers (39%) believing they should share the importance of reliance upon Christ with others.
Even more disturbing is the fact that adults are about equally likely to believe that eternal salvation can be earned through personal goodness or good deeds (25%) as believe salvation cannot be earned (20%). Once again, the profile of born again Christians on this matter was different – but not by as much as might be expected given their personal commitment to and experience of grace-based salvation. Among those who have rejected works-based salvation in favor of a grace-driven eternity, two out of ten (19%) strongly agree that salvation can be earned through goodness while just four out of ten (39%) strongly reject that notion.
The ACFI investigations into the role of faith in peoples’ lives also noted that worldview is closely related to these matters. Among other findings, the study showed that adults just three out of ten born again adults (30%) have a biblical worldview. While that is shockingly low, it dwarfs the 2% that exists among individuals who are not born again.
Tenuous Future of American Christianity
George Barna, the researcher and author who has been reporting on these trends for more than three decades, commented that the current ACFI survey is consistent with the religious patterns he has been describing in his research since the early 1980s.
“Christianity in America is going through a time of substantial challenge,” Barna stated. “The Church at-large is not likely to grow in the future unless some fundamental changes in practice are made.
Citing one such change, Barna noted, “Fewer churches emphasize and equip people for evangelism these days, and the results are obvious and undeniable. The implications of ignoring gospel outreach – especially among children, who are the most receptive audience to the gospel – are enormous. All the ‘church growth’ strategies in the world cannot compensate for the absence of an authentic transmission of the good news of what Jesus Christ has done for humanity.
“Parents, who have more influence on the spiritual choices and development of their children than anyone else, are ill-prepared these days to lead their children to a genuine, life-changing relationship with Jesus,” Barna continued. “Worse yet, surveys conducted by ACFI earlier this year revealed that most American parents are not interested or engaged in helping their kids to know Jesus personally.
Concluding his analysis, Barna stated, “If you eliminate both family and churches as evangelistic influences in a child’s life, what are the chances that the child will have a positive exposure to the gospel? They are very slim. In fact, the research suggests that the greatest hope in such circumstances is that they will face difficult life situations that produce a deeply felt need for a spiritual solution, and that Jesus will be among the options they consider. We are essentially abandoning both the future of the Church in the US and the best interests of our young people through our wholesale dismissal of evangelism and the importance of having Jesus in our lives.”
About the Research
The research described in this report is drawn from FullView™, a monthly nationwide survey with a randomly-selected sample of 1,000 or more adults, age 18 or older, whose demographic profile reflects that of the adult population. The online studies on which this report is based were conducted by the American Culture & Faith Institute each month from February through October of 2017, providing a net base of 9,273 respondents. The total number of born again Christians interviewed through the nine surveys was 2,875.
The same questions regarding a person’s view about their personal salvation, their beliefs regarding a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs, and whether salvation can be earned through good works, were asked in each of those nine surveys. Questions regarding the age at which a person accepted Christ, and the dominant influence on that decision, were included in two of the surveys.
The American Culture & Faith Institute is a division of United in Purpose, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. The mission of United in Purpose is to educate, motivate and activate conservative Christians to engage in cultural transformation in ways that are consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The organization does not support or promote individual political candidates or parties.
Additional information about this study and related research is accessible on the American Culture & Faith Institute website, located at www.culturefaith.com. To receive a free copy of the monthly research reports produced by ACFI, visit the website and register for the American Culture Review newsletter.