Barna survey: Easter's meaning unclear to many Americans

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — While most Americans continue to view Easter as a religious celebration, many of them are unclear on the underlying reason for the occasion, The Barna Group found in a recent study.

"Perhaps most concerning, from the standpoint of church leaders, is that those who celebrate Easter because of the resurrection of Christ are not particularly likely to invite non-churched friends to worship, suggesting that their personal beliefs about Jesus have not yet translated into a sense of urgency for having spiritual conversations with their acquaintances," David Kinnaman, Barna's president, said.

Kinnaman noted a substantial gap between people's openness to inviting an unchurched person to worship on Easter and the likelihood of them actually doing so.

"Realistically, if all of the people who said they would bring unchurched people with them on Easter were to follow through, America's churches couldn't handle the overflow," he said.

"The statistics project to something like 40 million church regulars who claim they are likely to bring someone as their guest. If each of those people brought just one adult as their guest, that'd be the equivalent of adding 115 new people per Christian congregation. That would more than double the size of the average church. That is clearly an overestimate," Kinnaman said.

"But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that so many people are at least open to the idea of offering such invitations to their friends and family. One of the challenges to pastors and other church leaders is to find out what's actually preventing them from following through on that willingness."

The study, based on telephone interviews with roughly 1,000 adults in February, found that 67 percent of the respondents mentioned some type of theistic religious element in Easter, including the fact that it's a Christian holiday or it's a special time for church attendance.

Only 42 percent of those surveyed said the meaning of Easter was the resurrection of Jesus or that it signifies Christ's death and return to life, Barna said. Two percent said they would describe Easter as the most important holiday of their faith.

"Even within the religious definitions offered by Americans there is a certain degree of confusion: 2 percent of Americans said that Easter is about the 'birth of Christ'; another 2 percent indicated it was about the 'rebirth of Jesus'; and 1 percent said it is a celebration of 'the second coming of Jesus,'" Barna said. "Not included in the theistic category was another 3 percent who described Easter as a celebration of spring or a pagan holiday."

Evangelicals and those who attend large churches were among the most likely to express some type of theistic religious connection with Easter, Barna said. The youngest adult generation, those ages 18 to 25, were the least likely age segment to say Easter is a religious holiday, which Barna said reflects an increasingly secular mindset in young adults.

Those who were more politically conservative were more likely than those who were politically liberal to describe Easter as a celebration of the resurrection, the study found.

While most active churchgoers said they would be open to inviting people to attend worship services with them, only 31 percent said they would definitely do it this year. Those who identified Easter with the resurrection were no more likely than other religiously oriented respondents to indicate that they would invite friends to church for Easter, Barna said.

For more information, visit barna.org.

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