“All religious communities have lots of highly committed people, and all religious communities have their share of marginal members whose faith isn’t all that active,” said Green. For pollsters, the challenge is asking questions that help draw lines between “self-identified believers and those who are truly active” in their faith groups, he added.
The American Bible Society, in its “State of the Bible” surveys, has tried to document ways in which beliefs about the Bible, and personal interactions with scripture, separate “practicing Christians” from “self-identified Christians.” This matters, in part, because religious groups containing a high percentage of committed believers usually maintain their members, or even make converts, while other groups struggle to survive.
The most recent ABS survey (.pdf here) was completed last January, with data collected from 3,354 online interviews with adults in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The American Bible Society began studying these kinds of issues as early as 1812.
In this survey, a “practicing Christians” was defined as someone who “identifies as a Christian, attends a religious service at least once a month” and states that “faith is very important” in his or her life. Thus, said the report, practicing the faith affected their lives “in a transformative way.” Meanwhile, “self-identified Christians” were those who “simply say they believe.” According to this study, in America:
* Evangelical churches include 58% “practicing Christians” and 42% who are “self-identified.”
* Historically Black churches – evangelical, Pentecostal and “mainline” combined – are 31% “practicing” and 69% “self-identified” Christians.
* America’s more liberal “mainline” churches – many of which still contain significant numbers of evangelicals – include 28% “practicing” Christians and 72% “self-identified….”