Evangelicals keep keen eye on shifts in faith and practice

By , religion correspondent

With their strong commitment to spread the word, Evangelical Christians have become avid data gatherers on the state of religious devotion in the US and around the world.

Researchers are documenting Christianity's increasing global reach and acceptance in the developing world, but they are also finding what they see as discouraging news about Americans' faith commitment.

The Barna Research Group of Ventura, Calif., took America's religious pulse more than a dozen times in 2000. George Barna has summed up some of their "most intriguing findings," positive and negative, from his own perspective. Among them:

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* Fewer than one-third of all teenagers are likely to attend a Christian church once they live independently of their parents.

* A minority of born-again adults (44 percent) and only 9 percent of born-again teenagers are certain of the existence of absolute moral truth.

* Although most believers say serving the needy is important, just 34 percent gave any time or money in the past year.

* The proportion of adults who read the Bible in a typical week rose from 34 percent in 1996 to 40 percent in 2000.

* Although women are more active in their churches than men, their participation in many aspects of church life is declining.

* Born-again Christians spend seven times as much time on entertainment as they do on spiritual activities.

Mr. Barna, who has written several books on revitalizing Christian churches, says that the next 10 years will be crucial as to whether churches will become a serious influence on US culture.

Encyclopedia offers snapshot

The second edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, published this month (Oxford University Press), presents a snapshot of world religions at the close of the 20th century.

Christianity, it says, "has become massively accepted as the religion of developing countries," and is "the most extensive and universal religion in history." It grew between 1900 and 2000 from 555 million believers to 1.9 billion, as reported by the Associated Press.

Islam also showed significant gains. Islam grew from 12.3 percent (200 million) of the world's population to 19.6 percent (1.2 billion). The non-religious rose from only 3 million to 768 million, or 12.7 percent.

Traditional beliefs showed the largest declines, but widespread defections from Christianity in Europe are also noted.

A growing number of missionaries from the developing world are heading to Europe and North America, hoping to help spur a revival. The Daily Telegraph recently reported, for example, that more than 1,500 missionaries from 50 countries were operating in British churches. Many come from areas where Britons introduced Christianity in the 19th and early-20th centuries.

Some 20 percent of all Christians - who attend more than 33,800 denominations or groups - are in "independent" churches.

The encyclopedia is prepared by the Global Evangelization Movement of Richmond, Va. (www.gem-werc.org), and is recognized as a standard religious reference book.

World Religions

Christianity 1.9 billion

Islam 1.2 billion

Hinduism 811 million

Buddhism 360 million

Sikhism 23 million

Judaism 14 million

Source: World Christian Encyclopedia

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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