Evangelical Christians include wider cross section, poll finds

Movement is reaching better-educated, more prosperous, and Asians

June 13, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The common stereotype about evangelical Christians: They're poor or blue collar, white, less educated and from the rural South.

But recent research is challenging that image. It shows that born-again Christians are increasingly well-educated, well-off and from a variety of cultural backgrounds, perhaps most surprisingly, Asian-American.

The latest survey, by California-based Barna Research, a Christian polling firm, compared data on evangelicals today and a decade ago and found:

In 1991, 13 percent of born-again adults came from households earning $60,000 or more a year. Today nearly twice that number, 25 percent, come from such households.

The number of born-again adults who are 50 or older jumped from 31 percent to 41 percent during the past decade.

In 1991, 5 percent of Asian-Americans described themselves as born-again Christians. Barna's survey found that 27 percent of Asian-Americans now describe themselves this way.

The survey was conducted in February and included about 1,000 people, with a margin of error of 3 percent.

It found that three-quarters of the nation's evangelical Christians are white and that about 45 percent live in the South. But the trend appears to be toward increased diversity.

"The old stereotypes about education, income and socioeconomic status of evangelicals are slowly changing, because the facts are driving ignorance away," said Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals.

"The reality as I understand it is evangelicals are indistinguishable from the rest of the public with regard to education and economics, which are two key criteria for status."

Observers have attributed some of this shift to the growth of mega-churches, large congregations with an informal style, professional musicians and dynamic preaching that attract formerly unchurched professionals.

"I would say our congregation is primarily white collar, and there is a trend toward growth there," said Mark McGeever, a pastor at Bay Area Community Church, which meets each Sunday at Annapolis High School.

"We've been on a pretty consistent growth curve here in the last three years. We have doctors, businessmen and quite a few government-related engineers."

This trend toward a wealthier flock does raise some concerns. George Barna, who directed the study, notes that earlier polls he conducted showed that the increase in wealthy individuals isn't necessarily accompanied by changes in lifestyle.

"You don't see their lives changing as a result of this commitment they've made," he said. "For many of these individuals, faith in Jesus Christ is simply a good deal. ...

"Faith in Christ represents an eternal insurance policy for them rather than a significant change of heart about the ultimate meaning of life, or how to honor Christ through their decisions, behavior and resources."

The survey also found that the evangelical movement isn't attracting increasing numbers of young people.

In 1991, 28 percent of people under 30 who were surveyed said they were born-again Christians, a figure the latest poll found virtually unchanged at 26 percent.

"Baby busters have proven to be the most gospel-resistant generation the church has seen in many years," Barna said.

That finding flies in the face of media images of youths flocking to religion in the wake of recent well-publicized violence in schools and churches, said Justin Watson, who teaches religion at Florida State University and has written on the evangelical movement.

"You find a lot of folks claiming there is a spiritual revival going on among young people, primarily in response to things like Columbine," he said.

"Barna really doesn't seem to confirm that at all. ... The fact that the group is getting older and more affluent isn't all that good news. If they can't win the next generation, things are going to be difficult in the long run."

Barna said he found the growth among Asian evangelicals (mostly people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean origin) most surprising. "There certainly seems to have been a lot of energy in the last decade toward planting new churches for Asian-Americans and giving them a spiritual experience that blends Christianity with whatever culture they're most comfortable in," he said.

Much of the evangelical outreach has occurred on the nation's college campuses, through ministries such as Campus Crusades for Christ and the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which has a presence on 560 campuses nationally, reported an increase in Asian-American membership of more than 50 percent during the past decade.

Paul Tokunaga, InterVarsity's national Asian-American ministry coordinator, said part of the reason for the rise is that more Asian-Americans are on college campuses, the result of increased immigration since enabling legislation was adopted in 1965. But he also senses a compatibility of values.

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