How Are American Christians Living Their Faith?

by George H. Gallup Jr.
Chairman, The George H. Gallup International Institute

For 15 years, the George H. Gallup International Institute has been tracking Americans' attitudes toward religion and gauging the prevalence of various religious traditions and philosophies in American society. Last year, the Institute worked with The Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania to take a close look at modern Christianity in the United States.

Certainly, America can be described as a predominantly Christian nation, and religious compared to other Western societies. Of the approximately 1,500 Americans interviewed for this survey*, 80% identified themselves as Christians. But though 38% of Americans currently say they've attended church in the last seven days, how does their faith influence their worldview and behavior in other areas of their lives?

The University of Pennsylvania study addressed the extent to which -- and the ways in which -- biblical tenets apply to U.S. Christians' daily lives. One theme was central to the investigation: How and to what degree do Christians in the United States today follow Christ's Great Commandment from Luke 10:27, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind and Love your neighbor as yourself?

This article focuses on Christians' "love of God," and the next segment will discuss "love of neighbor."

Summary of "Love of God" Findings

Respondents were given a list of 15 items relating to "love of God" and asked how strongly each item applies to them. Of Christians surveyed, three-fourths (75%) expressed a strong belief in the Trinity -- that "the God of the Bible is one in essence, but distinct in person -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

Three-fourths also strongly believe in a God who is actively involved in their lives, rather than an impersonal, amorphous kind of life force. Sixty-six percent express thanks on a daily basis for what they feel God is doing in their lives; 61% seek to grow closer to God through prayer.

Two-thirds of people (67%) say that the statement "I desire Jesus Christ to be first in my life" applies strongly to them, although earlier studies have shown that few feel they come close to achieving this ideal in practice.

Sixty-two percent say they "have an inner peace from God," and another 58% go so far as to say they "exist to know, love, and serve God." About half of survey respondents (49%) believe the Bible has decisive authority over what they say and do, although only 28% say they regularly study the Bible to find direction in their lives.

Interestingly, although the concept of grace is central to the Christian faith, only about half of interviewees (48%) say the statement "nothing I have done or can do can earn my salvation" applies completely to them. In the New Testament "grace" refers to God's love, which constantly acts to restore sinners to full relationship with God. This love is given freely by God and is unearned and underserved. It is most clearly seen, Christians believe, in the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Simply expressed, "grace" is God's love with no strings attached.

Only 9% of Christians gave a "5" on all 15 items, believing that all 15 apply completely to them. Average scores from women and older people are somewhat higher than those from men and younger adults. Church members and those who regularly attend church give higher scores than other Christians do. That women score these items higher is not surprising; in other Gallup polling, women have consistently given higher ratings than men in five categories: the importance of religion in their lives, church/synagogue membership and attendance, the belief that religion can answer most of today's problems, the role of God in their personal decision-making, and weekly Bible reading and group Bible study.

Bottom Line

This in-depth portrait of Americans in the Christian tradition offers both encouraging and challenging news for U.S. clergy and religious educators. On the one hand, certain basic beliefs and doctrines seem firmly in place, at least in terms of attested faith. On the other hand, the results suggest that there are some basic tenets of the Christian faith that may need attention from Christian leaders -- such as beliefs about salvation and the concept of grace, the need to be "counterculture" when one's faith dictates, and studying the Bible on a regular basis to find direction in one's life.

*The findings reported today are from a broader study conducted for The Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania, by The Gallup Organization and the George H. Gallup International Institute. All persons in this study who said they consider themselves to be part of the Christian tradition (80% of the total sample) were asked to reply to 15 questions relating to "love of God" and 15 related to "love of neighbor." A total of 1,509 adults, 18 and older, were interviewed by telephone in June 2002. Of the total, 1,207 placed themselves in the Christian tradition.

Through the work of Randy Frazee (Senior Pastor of Pantego Bible Church in Dallas), and with encouragement from Bob Buford of Leadership Network, as well as consultation with local and national religious leaders, a list of 30 statements were developed, divided between a "love of God' scale and a "love of neighbor" scale. Based on these scales the Pantego Bible Church has developed a process by which each congregant can gauge his or her spiritual growth.

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