One of the strengths of America for more than two centuries was the consistency of people’s faith commitments. Not only did more than nine out of 10 Americans associate with the same faith (Christianity), but that alignment brought with it common views about morality, purpose, family, lifestyle, citizenship, and values.
But the dramatic erosion of shared Christian belief over the past 30 years is ushering in a number of rapid and radical changes in the relatively stable major religious alignments of America, according to new research from the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University.
The latest findings from the American Worldview Inventory 2021 identify a number of major shifts in the U.S. religious landscape, including:
- dramatic changes in the faith of American Hispanics, with a decrease in the number of Hispanic Catholics, accompanied by a sharp increase in Hispanic “Don’ts”—those who don’t believe, don’t know, or don’t care if God exists;
- fast growth in Islamic, as well as Eastern and New Age religions;
- a consistent 30-year decline in both Christianity and confidence in religion;
- a breathtaking drop in four critical spiritual indicators: belief in God, belief in the Bible, recognition of salvation through Jesus Christ, and possession of a biblical worldview;
- and a surprising increase in belief in reincarnation, even among Christians.
So where does Christianity stand in the religious mix of the nation? More than 90% of Americans claimed to be Christians as recently as 1980. Since that time there has been a steady decline in self-identification with the nation’s foundational faith. By 1990 the proportion had dropped to eight out of 10. That level remained consistent until after the turn of the millennium, when the decline began to gain momentum. By 2010 three out of four adults claimed to be Christian. Currently, just under two out of three make the same claim.
Confidence in religion has shown a corresponding decline during that period. In the 1970s two-thirds of Americans had a high level of confidence in religion. The decline in such confidence began in the mid-1980s— the same time that the notable drop in alignment with Christianity started. By 2000 confidence in religion had fallen to 56%, and the drop has continued to this day. Today barely four out of 10 adults have a high degree of confidence in religion.
Perhaps the most telling reflection of the decline of Christianity as the preferred faith in America is demonstrated by the concurrent declines in a quartet of faith-related measures that veteran researcher George Barna has been tracking since the late 1970s. The shift in people’s answers to these measures is breathtaking.
- Belief in the existence of God as the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe who still rules the world today—86% in 1991 to 46% in
- Belief that the Bible is the accurate and reliable word of God—70% in 1991; 41% in
- Belief that when they die the respondent will go to Heaven only because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior—36% in 1991; 30% in 2021 (note: this measured as high as 45% and was 39% in 2011).
- Possess a biblical worldview—12% in 1995; 6% in 2021
The data reported by the Cultural Research Center moved its Director of Research, George Barna, to recommend that ministry leaders consider a new mindset about ministry in America.
“The United States has become one of the largest and most important mission fields in the world,” Barna said. “We are faced with a young-adult population that is breaking the established patterns; they do not embrace many of the core beliefs and behaviors that characterized those who came before them.”
Barna explained, “This new America we see emerging is radically different—demographically, politically, relationally and spiritually. It is a young, non-white, mobile population. This group is largely indifferent to the United States, and is demonstrably skeptical of the nation’s history, foundations, traditions, and ways of life. They are technologically advanced, sexually unrestrained, emotionally unpredictable, and a spiritual hybrid. Christian ministry as practiced for the last five decades will not be effective with this unique population.”
Barna suggested some new avenues for ministry to pursue.
- “Because a worldview is developed when people are young, it is imperative that churches focus on and invest most heavily in reaching children and equipping their parents,” he said. “Because the Bible is increasingly rejected as a trustworthy and relevant document of life principles, we must re-establish the reasons for its value and reliability.”
- Barna continued, “Given that most young Americans view success as whatever produces happiness or satisfaction, we will have to address the emptiness and inadequacies of a life devoted to self and our fluid emotions.
- And without a solid foundation of truth upon which choices can be made, a society is doomed to hardships, failures, and conflict. In the person of Jesus Christ and through the pages of the Bible, absolute moral truths are knowable and can be applied to facilitate a successful and meaningful life.”
The Arizona Christian University professor also explained that many of the approaches now relied upon by Christian ministries—and especially by churches—may be inadequate to impact the new population that needs to be reached with God’s truths and principles.
“Typical church services and programs are not likely to minister to people in the way they did in the past,” he cautioned. “Reconsidering what it takes to facilitate disciples in such a different environment is a necessary step in the reimagining process.”
According to Barna, “Successful ministries will need to foster bold and creative leadership. Giving such leaders the latitude to redefine practices without abandoning biblical principles is one of the greatest contributions believers can provide to Christian leaders. As our nation navigates this period of chaos and turbulence, allowing Christian leaders the latitude to test new ministry strategies and tactics will go a long way toward helping America return to Christ.”
About the Cultural Research Center
The Cultural Research Center (CRC) at Arizona Christian University is located on the school’s campus in Glendale, Arizona, in the Phoenix metropolitan area. In addition to conducting the annual American Worldview Inventory, CRC also introduced the ACU Student Worldview Inventory (SWVI) in 2020. That survey is administered to every ACU student at the start of each academic year, and a final administration among students just prior to their graduation. The ACU Student Worldview Inventory enables the University to track the worldview development of its student body and to make changes to that process as recommended by the research. The Cultural Research Center also conducts nationwide research studies to understand the intersection of faith and culture and shares that information with organizations dedicated to transforming American culture with biblical truth.
CRC is guided by George Barna, Director of Research, and Tracy Munsil, Executive Director. Like ACU, CRC embraces biblical Christianity but serves with a variety of theologically conservative Christian ministries and remains politically non-partisan. Access to the results from past surveys conducted by CRC, as well as additional information about the Cultural Research Center, are available at www.culturalresearchcenter.com. Further information about Arizona Christian University is available at www.arizonachristian.edu.