Every December, the Barna Group posts its Top 10 Findings identified in research and surveys during the past year. As evangelists, it’s essential that we try as best we can to genuinely enter into the worldview of those who are not yet disciples. Not to mock, argue directly, or disprove outright–but to give us a sense of the real convictions and attitudes that exist in our culture.
Here are some of my take-aways from the Barna collection…
This trend is all about opportunity. Yes, the percentage of Americans who self-identify as “skeptics” is growing–but that’s okay. Did you ever notice how often major media outlets produce magazine articles and television series on Biblical times? Whether “engaged” or “skeptical” the Bible attracts attention. People are interested in it. As Catholics, we have an awesome Biblical theology that upholds the inspiration of God’s Word, roots us in the Holy Spirit as readers, all while at the same time encouraging us to use modern historical-critical exegetical tools and seek out the literal sense of Scripture (Dei Verbum §11-13, Catechism of the Catholic Church §109-119). We might be an antidote to a skeptic’s perception that only “fundamentalist” readings of Scripture exist in Christian churches. Likewise, we might build bridges with “engaged” Bible-readers through our own devotion to God’s Word. Opportunities abound!
Concern about extreme global poverty—defined in this study as the estimated 1.4 billion people in countries outside the U.S. who do not have access to clean water, enough food, sufficient clothing and shelter or basic medicine like antibiotics—has declined from 21% in 2011 to 16% in 2013.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we have something to say about this–with our words and our witness. In the Catholic faith we acknowledge a balance, that “while earthly progress must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ’s kingdom,” tangible, measurable earthly progress as alleviating real human suffering and poverty does indeed “contribute to the better ordering of human society,” and thus “is of vital concern to the Kingdom of God” (Gaudium et Spes §39). This is an essential aspect of the cycle of evangelization as it creates the conditions where individuals can experience love, freedom, beauty, goodness, and more–all conditions that are the setting for the all-important initial proclamation of the Gospel.
Millennials and Parish/Congregational Life
These statistics depict what Millennials (aka “young adults” in many Catholic ministries) are looking for in an “ideal” church. I think the wrong take-aways are to immediately think: a) we’ll make our church exactly like that! or b) our church should never be like that, Millennials can go elsewhere! Many of these terms are subjective, and as Barna notes in their article, it indicates that our own self-identification of preferences can result in combinations that seem to be opposed (or at least divergent–i.e. classic+modern > trendy+traditional). What is worth taking away is that the top characteristic was community, and that’s something that’s not debatable, not optional for Catholic parishes. Casual vs. dignified is a preference. But every Christian is called to communion with God in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit, and to a community of disciples, tangible, and made present locally in the parish. Is your parish a community of disciples or a bunch of disciples living private lives?
Secularization on the Rise
Identifying as post-Christian is on the rise in the United States. No big shock. What’s most significant is that this assessment is based on metrics that relate to identity, belief, and practice, rather than mere “self-identification” as a “Christian.”
In other words, in spite of “Christian” self-descriptions, more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice.
This reveals the importance of one of the lessons from Sherry Weddell (Forming Intentional Disciples (2012) and the forthcoming Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples (2015))–to never accept a label in place of a story. This ties back into the Millennial interest in community in a church. We evangelize and foster discipleship when our parishes become places where people are engaged in a way that story is revealed. That simple self-identification as a “Christian,” “agnostic,” or “Catholic” isn’t the end of a conversation or cause for assumptions about the person’s faith life or relationship with Jesus, but merely a starting point for respectfully engaging further, to know and understand the individual’s beliefs and practices too!
In summary, my take-aways are all about opportunities for evangelization. I skipped over discussing Pope Francis, since that’s been well commented upon (in my humble opinion). What are your thoughts on Barna’s list? Any lessons, opportunities, or take-aways you think are especially important?