Barna: We're Living In An Age of "Theological Anarchy"

Ventura, Calif. (EP)-A new study of more than 6,000 adults conducted by the Barna Research Group, identified "born-again" Christians.

The study defined "born again" Christians as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. About four out of every 10 U.S. adults are born again Christians by this definition. Evangelicals, who make up just 8 percent of the population, are born again Christians who hold additional beliefs, including the belief that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians and believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works. Both evangelicals and born again Christians were identified in the study by their beliefs, not by self-description.

Among the 12 largest denominational groups in the U.S., the proportion of members who can be classified as born again ranges from a high of 81 percent in the Assemblies of God to a low of 25 percent among Catholics. Overall, adults who attend charismatic and non-denominational Protestant churches were highly likely to be born again, while those attending Catholic and mainline Protestant churches were much less likely to be born again.

After the Assemblies of God, denominations with the highest percentages of born again believers were other Pentecostal churches (80 percent), non-denominational Protestant churches (76 percent) and Baptist churches (67 percent).

One surprising finding of the study was that the percentage of Mormons who can be classified as born again Christians is higher than the percentage of born again believers in Episcopal or Catholic churches. The study found that 34 percent of Mormons say they have made a personal commitment to Christ that is important in their life today and also say that when they die they know they will go to Heaven solely because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Only 30 percent of Episcopalians and 25 percent of Catholics made that same affirmation.

George Barna, president of the research firm that conducted the study, noted, "It is important to remember that we are not reporting the official teachings of these churches. The data reflect what the people within those churches believe. If nothing else, this outcome highlights the substantial theological shift that has been altering the nature of the Episcopal church, in particular, as well as other Christian churches, in recent years."

Just under half of the people affiliated with the nation's two largest mainline Protestant denominations are born again-49 percent of Methodists and 48 percent of Lutherans.

Even fewer of those polled meet Barna's definition of "evangelical." Only 8 percent of the population met all of Barna's criteria (say their faith is very important in their life today; believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; acknowledge the existence of Satan; contend that eternal salvation is possible only through God's grace, not through good deeds; believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today). As recently as a decade ago, 12 percent of the population cold be classified as evangelical, but that number has dropped as the theological views of Americans continue to be reshaped.

Only three denominational groupings had at least one-quarter of their adherents defined as evangelicals: Assemblies of God (33 percent), non-denominational Protestant (29 percent) and Pentecostal churches (27 percent). Only 14 percent of Baptists could be defined as evangelical. The lowest proportion of people meeting the evangelical criteria were found in Catholic, Episcopal, and Mormon churches, each of with has just 1 percent of its people in this category.

Views on individual criteria in Barna's definition of "evangelical" varied widely between denominations. Among those who attend a charismatic or Pentecostal church, four out of five believe that "the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches," while only one in five Episcopalians agreed. And while 73 percent of Pentecostals believe they have an obligation to share their religious beliefs with others, only 12 percent of Episcopalians feel the same way.

On the critical issue of what a person must do to be saved, only three out of 10 Americans embrace the traditional Protestant perspective that good works cannot earn a person salvation, but that salvation is a gift from God through the atoning death of Jesus Christ. About 60 percent of those attending Pentecostal, Assemblies of God and Protestant non-denominational churches share this view, compared to 9 percent of Catholics.

Even though only a quarter of Catholics are born again, about one in every seven born again Christians in the U.S. is Catholic because of the vast size of the church. Ironically, the greatest number of born again Christians in the U.S. are from either Southern Baptist or Catholic churches-denominations known for mutual theological antagonism.

Barna said the survey results challenge some widely held assumptions. "Charismatic and Pentecostal churches are often characterized as attracting people who respond on the basis of emotions but who lack strong biblical training," he said. "This survey did not go deeply into people's theological knowledge, but even in examining some very basic biblical concepts the study shows that the common wisdom about the Bible knowledge and convictions of charismatics is inaccurate."

Barna continued, "There is interesting correlation between the educational achievement and theological interpretation. Overall, charismatics have lower levels of education but higher levels of biblical accuracy, while individuals attending mainline churches are generally better educated but are more likely to have theological perspectives that conflict with the Bible."

Reprinted by permission Kansas Christian.