Barna's Religious Tribes in America Print
Written by Michael Fones   
Monday, 25 May 2009 19:17
George Barna, the evangelical version of the Gallup organization, has an interesting sounding book out titled, The Seven Faith Tribes: Who They Are, What They Believe, and Why They Matter. In that book, Barna outlines seven diverse faith segments, profiling their lifestyles, religious beliefs and practices, values and life goals. The seven tribes include Casual Christians, Captive Christians, Mormons, Jews, Pantheists, Muslims and Skeptics.

I'm lifting some significant sections from a discussion of "casual Christianity" from this update from the Barna organization. I find it interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, the description of "casual Christianity" seems to fit large numbers of Christians I've met. There are many days I'd say the description fits me. After all, as a religious priest I have a secure life, a clearly defined role that means that most of my human interactions are with other Catholics. Secondly, we live in a country in which, so far, Christianity is tolerated so long as it remains "casually practiced." Conversely, very often Christians in the U.S. - particularly of the casual kind - are very supportive of American civil life, and tend to not be critical of government policies regarding, for example, immigration, foreign policy, economics, and health care (at least not those policies proposed by whichever political party to which the Christian might belong).

While I haven't read Barna's book, the descriptions below are intriguing, and more than a bit challenging. Especially since I have had Catholics who've been moved by God's grace from the casual to the "captive" brand of Christianity tell me things like, "my Catholic friends think I'm strange, extreme, or too serious about my faith." I might go so far as to propose that "captive" Christianity sounds quite a bit like (you guessed it) intentional discipleship!

Question: What have you found to be the appeal of Casual Christianity, as opposed to what draws people to the Captive Christian or even the Mormon tribes – that is, other tribes that are much more fervent about their faith?

Barna: Casual Christianity is faith in moderation. It allows them to feel religious without having to prioritize their faith. Christianity is a low-risk, predictable proposition for this tribe, providing a faith perspective that is not demanding. A Casual Christian can be all the things that they esteem: a nice human being, a family person, religious, an exemplary citizen, a reliable employee – and never have to publicly defend or represent difficult moral or social positions or even lose much sleep over their private choices as long as they mean well and generally do their best. From their perspective, their brand of faith practice is genuine, realistic and practical. To them, Casual Christianity is the best of all worlds; it encourages them to be a better person than if they had been irreligious, yet it is not a faith into which they feel compelled to heavily invest themselves.

Question: What are the critical elements that make the Casual Christians tick?

Barna: The comfort that this approach provides. It offers them life insights if they choose to accept them, gives them a community of relationships if they desire such, fulfills their inner need to have some type of connection with a deity, and provides the image of being a decent, faith-friendly person. Because Casuals do not view matters of faith as central to one’s purpose or success in life, this brand of Christianity supplies the multi-faceted levels of satisfaction and assurance that they desire.

Question: You list two tribes under the “Christian” umbrella. What are the primary differences between the Casual and Captive tribes?

Barna: The lives of Captive Christians are defined by their faith; their worldview is built around their core spiritual beliefs and resultant values. Casual Christians are defined by the desire to please God, family, and other people while extracting as much enjoyment and comfort from the world as possible. The big difference between these two tribes is how they define a successful life. For Captives, success is obedience to God, as demonstrated by consistently serving Christ and carrying out His commands and principles. For Casuals, success is balancing everything just right so that they are able to maximize their opportunities and joys in life without undermining their perceived relationship with God and others. Stated differently, Casuals are about moderation in all things while Captives are about extreme devotion to their God regardless of the worldly consequences.

So, what do you think? Do these descriptions sound reasonable? Oh, and before you wonder what the characteristics are he uses to describe the other tribes, and complain that these brush strokes are way, way, too broad, here's something else to consider:

Question: If you had to list the single, most defining characteristic of each of the seven tribes, what would each tribe’s defining faith attribute be?

Barna: Casual Christians are driven by a desire for a pleasant and peaceful existence. Captive Christians are focused on upholding the absolute moral and spiritual truths they glean from the Bible. Jews coalesce around their sense of community. Mormons are identifiable by their family centeredness. Pantheists are best understood by their resigned acceptance of their reality. Muslims are characterized by their commitment to faith-driven behavioral standards. Skeptics are highly independent. Every tribe will reject these singular descriptions, and rightfully so because each tribe is complex and robust. But these factors give a short-hand sense of the heartbeat of each tribe.