A recent study released by Barna Group reveals a great deal about the way people self-identify. It startled me, yet it explained many things that have bothered me about news and events in the culture. This study looked at a group made up of people of all ages in the US population, and asked questions that probed the way they think of themselves. The way someone thinks of himself will certainly shape the way someone thinks of other people. There can be no question that a person’s sense of identity affects the way he thinks about the many issues facing our churches and our country. I will just dive in. I will share my analysis and my conviction about the meaning of this information. At the end, I will ask for your reaction and your own convictions. I hope you will share your comments in response to my report.
In the group as a whole, less than half, only 38%, consider their religious faith to be the first and most important element of their personal identity. When I consider the importance of faith in my life, and when I consider that the call of Christ is to put everything second to him, I see right away that few Christians actually believe that obedience to Christ is more important than anything else in their lives. Self-identified Christians constitute about 75% of the US population, but if only 38% of the population considers their religious faith to be their primary identifier, it is clear that Christ is not first in the hearts and minds of most Christians. After all, even that 38% may not be exclusively made up of Christians. Church pastors and church members regularly discuss what it means to put Christ first. It is very clear from this study, that this idea does not have a lot of traction in the culture.
In the group as a whole, barely more than half consider their country to be the primary element in their identity. That, too, is startling, but it explains a lot of the controversy about immigration. If almost half the people consider their country to be less important to them than all other elements of their identity, then they do not think that someone who crosses the border without legal authorization has done anything threatening to them. Their citizenship is not an important element of their identity. They are not proud of being citizens. They don’t like the idea of excluding anyone for any reason. It’s hateful, they think. Someone who considers his national citizenship to be of paramount importance in his very identity considers that people without legal standing are alien invaders. The person whose identity includes national citizenship as a “ho hum” generality will not feel that the country is threatened by illegals. What, he will ask, is illegal about them? What is the big deal?
By far, the largest element in the personal identity of most people is their family. There is no question that family is important. Most people find their closest relationships within the family, and people without strong family connections often have difficulty connecting with anyone. The family is the first institution God established among humans, but even God expects allegiance to him to transcend allegiance to family. The dominance of family in the personal identity of most people makes me wonder why so many people line up to speak publicly in favor of redefining marriage and family. This particular element of the study makes me wonder where the real energy of the LGBTQ agenda is. This study reaffirms my doubts that most people in the USA want any part of the LGBTQ agenda.
For most people, the additional elements of personal identity—career, ethnicity, home city and home state—are minor by comparison to the top three. It is interesting to observe those items are important to about 20% of the group, a very small segment. The political rhetoric and the media would have people believe that ethnicity and career are the most important issues in the world. Clearly, no matter what your definition of racism and unequal pay for women is, these issues are not nearly as important as family, religion and citizenship. To read this study is to have your eyes opened to the fact that the media is clearly in partnership with political leaders to divert Americans from thinking about the things that are most important to them. If leaders actually wanted to serve the American people, they would assert a strong, traditional definition of the family, protect the nation from invaders, whether they invade with guns or spades, and guard freedom of religion aggressively. Instead, political leaders assert that the future hangs on issues most people hardly care about at all, and the media, the fourth estate, the group that is supposed to hold government at all levels accountable to the people, instead marches in servile lockstep with political language and objectives that destroy the very people politicians and the media are called to serve.
There is much more to discover in this study.
The high-level population groups in the study were Elders, Boomers, Gen-X, and Millenials. Individuals in the study did not self-identify for these groups. They were identified according to birth date. Participants were also asked questions that identified their participation in a separate set of groups such as No Faith, Practicing Catholic, Practicing Mainline, Practicing Christian, No Faith, Hispanic, White, Black, All Non-White, Evangelical, Unregistered Voter, Republican, Democrat, Registered Independent, Married, Ever Divorced, Never Married, Some College, College Graduate, Unemployed, Employed, Income> $100K. This list does not include all the groups studied.
The study across the second set of groups reveals some truly enlightening results. For example, three of those groups showed up as consistently less likely than others to consider faith, family or country important to their identity: Millennials, Democrats, and No Faith.
It is not hard to understand that people with no faith would value those items less than other people. People with no faith will not likely value faith, and the inherent connections of faith with family in all religions tend to mean that people with no faith will set less value on family. It is not clear what lack of faith has to do with valuing American citizenship, but this study shows that connection.
It is quite surprising to discover that people who identify with one of the major political parties are less likely than citizens in general to value faith, family or country as part of their identity, yet Democrats show up as statistically less likely in all three categories. There has never been any indication that the Democrat party officially scorned religious faith, but a reader is entitled to wonder why the statistics show that people who consider themselves Democrat set less value on religion in their personal identity than other citizens. It is disturbing to see them show up as less likely to value family, too, and it is tempting to believe that this fact underlies the Democrat parties alliance with the LGBTQ agenda to normalize aberrant forms of sexual behavior, confuse definitions of gender, and redefine marriage altogether. The really frightening problem is that Democrats are less likely than other citizens to consider the country to be part of their personal identity.
It is enlightening to see that Millennials appear less likely than others to consider faith, family or country integral to their identity. Of all the elements Millenials include in their identity, family is the most likely choice, but even that accounts for barely half of them. After family, only American citizenship, at 34% exceeds a 25% value in the minds of millennials. You might say that their values are spread widely, but no value is deeply rooted in the group.
What does this mean for me, for you, for any Christian citizen? How does this study inform the way Christians live in the culture. I believe it is like having a bit of a map to the culture. This is the value of Barna Group. Any one of us may observe some of the same issues addressed in this study, but few of us have the time or the statistical skill to do surveys and analysis that Barna does, and if we did, all our real work would go undone. We can be very thankful for the commitment of Barna group to study the culture in ways that help all of us minister to the culture more effectively.
I plan to use this information to help me focus my study and my writing. I write to help Christians understand elements of the culture that reject or restrict Christian discipleship, and I write to encourage Christians to persevere in faithful obedience to Christ. I write, because each of us wants to be like the disciples when challenged by the Sanhedrin:
When [the Sanhedrin] had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that [the disciples] should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. So [the disciples]departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. Acts 5:40-42 ESV emphasis mine.
For me, this means that I will do what Christ calls me to do, and I will try to be more like Christ in everything I do. If I suffer shame for his name, that will be a gift for which I give thanks. The evidence of the Barna study supports daily evidence that the name of Christ is not universally respected. When Paul found himself in Athens where nobody knew or cared about Christ, he spent some time studying the culture, and then he preached Christ more powerfully, because he was informed. May we use Barna’s information to be ever more skillful in presenting Christ to the many people for whom he died.
What does this information mean for you?