Religious behavior of Americans on the increase


VENTURA, Calif. — New data from the annual tracking survey of religious behavior and beliefs conducted by The Barna Group reveals that there has been a significant increase in religious activity related to five of the seven core religious behaviors studied by the company.

The most prolific jump in activity relates to Bible reading. Bible readership plummeted to a 20-year low of just 31 percent in 1995, and began to slowly climb back to higher levels, finally returning to the 40 percent mark in 2000. After several years of stalled growth, increases began again in 2004, continuing through 2006, when Bible readership hit 47 percent of adults during a typical week, other than when they are at church—the highest readership level achieved since the 1980s, according to the Barna tracking data.

Church attendance has also increased, showing a significant rebound from the 37 percent recorded in 1996, climbing to 47 percent in 2006.

Involvement in small groups that meet for Bible study, prayer or personal relationships, other than Sunday school or Christian education classes, has reached a new high in 2006.

Currently, nearly one out of every four adults (23 percent) is engaged in such a gathering during a typical week. A decade ago, one out of every six adults (17 percent) did so.

Church volunteerism, after experiencing the same mid-nineties doldrums as most other religious behaviors, has returned to its 1991 level of 27 percent. Volunteering at a church has been one of the more stable measures during the past 15 years, ranging from a low of 20 percent to the current high.

Even adult Sunday school attendance has risen in recent years. Once a mainstay of Protestant churches, Sunday school attendance fell significantly in the 1990s, but seems to be on the rebound.  Attendance numbers reached 24 percent in this year's tracking survey. That is up considerably from the 17 percent mark recorded in 1995 and in 1996.

The only two religious behaviors that did not reflect significant change were prayer and evangelism.

Slightly more than four out of five adults (84 percent) claimed they had prayed in the past week. That has been the case since Barna began tracking the frequency of prayer in 1993.

Survey respondents who were born-again Christian—meaning they had made a commitment to Christ that was important in their life, and believed they would go to Heaven after they died solely because they had confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior—were asked if they had shared their faith in Christ with non-believers during the past 12 months. The research showed that there has been no significant change in this behavior during the past decade, with six out of 10 Christians claiming to have shared their beliefs about Jesus with someone whom they knew believed differently.

The combination of so many measures of spiritual activity growing at the same time is unusual, according to George Barna, whose company has underwritten and conducted such research for more than 20 years.

"It is typical for us to see one or maybe two measures surge forward in a given year, only to stabilize or perhaps retreat to prior levels in subsequent years," he said. "The intriguing possibility is that with most of our key behavioral measures showing increases at the same time, there is the possibility that this may herald a holistic, lasting commitment to engagement with God and the Christian faith."

Citing other information in a new report, "The State of the Church: 2006," Barna also pointed out the there has been recent growth in the percentage of adults who are born again and a stabilizing of the percentage of adults who are unchurched. But the researcher cautioned against drawing too many grandiose conclusions from the data, noting that there is often an ebb and flow to such measurements.

"If we see stability or even minimal growth in all of these measures over the next year or two, then we can confidently suggest that the U.S. is genuinely experiencing meaningful change in people's religious habits. Until we have such confirmation, which only comes with time, we certainly have a reason to hope that Americans are taking God more seriously, and a motivation for believers to pray more fervently that such a commitment will take root in our culture."

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