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Approximately 76% of American adults consider themselves Christians. But only about 40% consider themselves as having been saved or "born again." That is because the concept of being "saved" is largely restricted to Fundamentalist, other Evangelical, and other conservative mainline denominations. Many members of Roman Catholic, mainline/liberal Protestant denominations, and followers of other religions do have religious conversion experiences. However, they do not necessarily involve being "born again" in the religiously conservative sense. Barna Research, the largest religious polling agency in the U.S. found that the overwhelming percentage of those who are saved have experienced salvation before reaching their 14th birthday. 

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About being saved:

Conservative Christians typically believe that one must be "saved" in order to attain heaven. Since they believe that the only alternative to spending eternity in heaven is to be perpetually isolated from God in Hell, they have a very strong motivation to make certain that their children are saved. Otherwise, their family will be eternally divided in the future and some members will be eternally lost. These concerns are particularly acute for Fundamentalist parents who interpret the many descriptions of Hell in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) literally. They believe that the inhabitants of hell are tortured forever without any hope of cessation or relief. They suffer from whippings, sensory depravation due to the darkness of Hell, unbearable heat, terrible thirst, and flesh-eating worms. Beliefs in heaven and hell motivated most conservative Christian parents to continually urge their children to be saved. Most of their children comply.

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Setup of the Barna poll

Barna Research is a leading religious polling group. In 1999-NOV-12 they announced the results of their most recent religious survey. They interviewed over 4,200 individuals: over 3,000 adults and over 1,200 youths. Sampling error is within 2 percentage points at the 95% confidence interval. Subjects were considered to have been saved:

bullet if they agreed that they had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today, and
bullet if they selected a specific statement from among seven options provided. It was: "When I die I will go to Heaven because I have confessed my sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as my savior.

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Results from the poll

The Barna Research study , announced on 1999-NOV-12, shows that the vast majority of those who are saved experience the conversion during childhood -- before the age of 14. A person who is unsaved at the age of 14 only has a 10% chance of being "saved" later in life. The survey also showed that about 40% of all American adults consider themselves as having been saved during their lifetime. This number agrees with previous surveys.
Age range % who experience salvation within that age range
5 to 13 years 32%
14 to 18 years 4%
over 19 years 6%

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Should evangelism be concentrated on children?

Barn Research concluded: 

bullet "The data also challenge the widely-held belief that the teenage years are prime years for evangelistic activity.
bullet Most church efforts to evangelize the unsaved is directed at adults -- an age group which is relatively resistant to the message.

They concluded that more evangelical programs should be directed at children and youth.

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Should evangelism be concentrated on teens and adults?

An alternative way of looking at the same data is to consider the total percentage of individuals who are saved by the time that they attain certain ages:

Age % who experience salvation before that  age
14 years 32%
19 years 36%
Current age (adults only)   42%

The data can be interpreted as showing that, by the age of 18, essentially all members of Evangelical churches have probably already been "saved." More intensive evangelizing of their congregation's youth and adults would not result in many additional conversions.

Perhaps a conservative Christian congregation can make the most effective use of their resources by directing their evangelism programs outside their denomination, at adults who are are members of other faith groups.

By the age of 19, the vast majority of unsaved are probably:

bullet members of mainline and liberal Christian denominations, or
bullet followers of non-Christian religions, such as Islam and Judaism, or
bullet Non-theists, such as Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, secularists, etc.

Although this is where the vast bulk of unsaved individuals are located, it is particularly difficult to evangelize them, for a number of reasons:

bullet Many conservative Christians have little in-depth knowledge of non-Christian religions. Many of the resource books and web sites written by conservative Christian authors are deeply flawed and unreliable.
bullet Many conservative Christians lack thorough knowledge of the beliefs and culture of mainline and liberal Christian faith groups.
bullet Most followers of non-Christian religions have no concept of the divinity of Jesus Christ, original sin, and other important Christian topics. Many religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism believe in reincarnation, rather than heaven or hell. Convincing them to accept the gospel message is extremely difficult.
bullet Almost all non-theists (Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, etc) who do not identify with an organized religion have already considered and rejected Christian teachings about heaven, hell, original sin, the Trinity, salvation, and a host of other historical Christian beliefs. To them, the thought of a God who accepted only a small minority of persons into heaven while consigning the vast majority of humanity to punishment in hell is profoundly immoral. The concept of eternal torture for a finite thought crime (i.e. not accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior before their death) is abhorrent. Many non-theists have an intense concern for civil rights. Their rules of ethical behavior are generally derived more from human rights legislation than from the Bible. They tend to hold liberal views concerning current controversial religious topics: access to abortion, equal treatment for gays and lesbians, physician assisted suicide, etc.

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  1. "Teens and adults have little chance of accepting Christ as their savior," Barna Research press release, 1999-NOV-15. This release is no longer available online. However, it was publised in the 1999-OCT issue of Barna Reports, which can be ordered at:

Copyright 1999, 2000, & 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-NOV-12
Latest update: 2002-SEP-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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