In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, millions of Americans flocked to churches and houses of worship. But, for most, the shift in spiritual behavior was short lived. According to tracking research by the Barna Group, within a few months the spiritual lives of the nation’s population were back to pre-attack levels.
A new analysis of Barna Group tracking data examines the long-term spiritual profile at one of the epicenters of the attacks—New York City and the surrounding media market. Based on analysis of research conducted over the last 14 years, the study shows that the faith profile of residents of the New York market has changed significantly over the last decade and a half, but many of these shifts may not be attributable to 9-11.
Changes in Faith Behaviors
Residents of the New York City media market are more spiritually active today than they were in the late 1990s – and more so than they were in 2001. Reported weekly church attendance, for instance, was lowest in 1999 and 2000 (31%), but has since grown to represent 46% of the market’s residents. (Note: Although the vast majority of church attendance stems from Protestant churches and Catholic parishes, Barna Group’s religious attendance measure does not exclude those of other faith groups who participate in other weekly religious events.)
In addition to worship attendance, several other measures of faith also showed increases in the New York market, including Bible reading (growing from 29% to 35%) and those who qualify as having an active faith. Active-faith adults, a multiple-activity indicator that represents those who pray, read the Bible and attend church in a typical week, has increased from 17% to 24%.
Also reflecting the overall rise in spiritual participation, the percentage of residents of the New York area who are unchurched – defined as those who have not attended a worship service in the last six months – declined from 42% to 34%.
For context, during the same period of time in the nation’s population, church attendance has declined and there has been a corresponding increase in the percentage of unchurched adults. Bible reading has been essentially flat nationally over the last decade.
David Kinnaman, the Barna Group president, directed the research study and pointed out that the most significant spiritual change in the New York market, the increase in church attendance, does not appear correlated to the 9-11 attacks. “Most of the change in spiritual behavior seems to have happened since the middle of the last decade. Church participation in the New York market especially has shifted most since 2004.”
Changes in Belief
While the New York metro market is more spiritually active than it was a decade ago, what it believes about God, Christ, and faith reflects a mixed set of results. The Barna study explored three measures of spiritual belief and commitment: overall importance of faith in a person’s life, the percentage of the market who are born again Christians, and the proportion who are evangelical Christians. (Note: in Barna Group studies neither evangelical nor born again Christians are based on a respondent’s self-identification with these terms. The definition of these groups is based on a person’s beliefs and commitment. Details appear below.)
The study revealed that religion declined in importance for many New Yorkers from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Then, following 2001-2002, this indicator rebounded, though it has softened again in recent years. Still, given the conventional characterization of the driven, secular nature of the New York market, it is striking that three out of every five residents of the New York market strongly agree that their religious faith is very important in their life (61%). Nationally, 72% of US adults say their religious faith is very important.
Looking at some of Barna Group’s proprietary faith measurements, the percentage of New York’s media market residents who qualify as born again Christians surged from 20% in the late 1990s to 32% today. This measure has been steadily increasing since 2001-2002. These are individuals who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in the life and who believe they will go to Heaven because they have accepted Christ and been forgiven of their sins. The surveys do not ask people if they call themselves “born again.” Currently, 40% of adults nationwide can be classified as born again.
Surprisingly, the growth in the born again population has not translated into an increased evangelical audience, at least in the way that Barna Group typically measures this population. The percentage of evangelical Christians in the New York metro area actually declined over the last 14 years, from 4% in the late Nineties to just 1% of the market in the most recent polling. This compares to 7% of the adult public who qualifies as an evangelical. In Barna Group studies, the evangelical segment is a subset of the born again population. In Barna studies, evangelicals meet the born again criteria and also embrace other aspects of evangelical teaching, such as the necessity of sharing one’s faith with others, rejecting works-based salvation, and accepting the accuracy of Scripture principles.
Kinnaman put the larger findings in context by pointing out that “the research suggests that faith and religion took on new urgency for many New Yorkers after 9-11, but the impact was neither immediate nor long-lived. While people’s born again commitment and religion’s importance did grow in the years after 9-11, church attendance and active faith measures did not really start increasing until after 2004.
“The research shows that spiritual change can and does happen, even in large population centers like the New York media market. What cannot be determined by survey research, however, is what exactly caused the change. There are many front-and-center factors, such as the terrorist attacks, the Wall Street crisis, and the weakening economy. But there are also below-the-radar factors, like immigration and people moving into and out of the city, personal factors such as marriage or health issues, as well as the work and coordination of local faith communities in the metropolis. Whatever the combination of causes, the residents of the New York City region are more spiritually active, more likely to be ‘churched,’ and more committed to Christ than they were a decade ago.”
About the Research
This report is drawn from 3,406 interviews conducted in the New York City media market. These telephone interviews were conducted every year in a random, representative fashion from 1997 through 2010. In all of the surveys conducted since 2008, the sample universe included a sub-sample of people drawn from cell-phone households. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.
“Born again Christians” are defined 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. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”
“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of Issachar Companies. It conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries.
Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources are also available through this website.
This article was originally published on Barna.org on August 29, 2011.
© Barna Group, 2011.