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The 4 Percent Panic-Attack

This masquerading stat/lie goes something like this: “The percentage of young people who are Bible-believing Christians is steadily decreasing, and right now has dropped to a rock-bottom 4 percent.”

The 4 Percent Warning has entered unopposed into the church’s vocabulary of accepted fact. But every time I hear it I cringe because it’s so ridiculously over the top. So I tracked down the stat’s nefarious origins—it comes from an April 2003 report by the Barna Research Group:

“The Barna statistics show that the percentage of teens who are evangelicals—i.e., those who are not only born again but also believe in the accuracy of the Bible, personal responsibility to evangelize, believe in salvation by grace alone, and possess orthodox biblical views of God, Jesus, and Satan—have declined from 10% in 1995 to just 4% today. This demise (sic) is attributable to growing numbers of teenagers who accept moral relativism and pluralistic theology as their faith foundation. This decline parallels a similar drop among adults: 12% were evangelicals in 1994, but just 5% fit the criteria today.”

1. First let’s tackle the sweeping term “Bible-believing Christian.” The Barna 4% statistic is based on that organization’s definition for “evangelical.” To qualify, respondents must:

  • agree that they’ve made a personal commitment to Jesus;

  • believe they’re saved because they’ve confessed their sins;

  • say that their faith is “very important” in their life today;

  • agree that they have personal responsibility to share the gospel with non-Christians;

  • agree that Satan exists;

  • agree that salvation is possible only through grace, not works;

  • agree that Jesus lived a sinless life on earth;

  • agree that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches; and

  • describe God as the “all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.”

By these standards, Barna researchers say just 7% of the adult American population can be classified as “Evangelical”—statistically equivalent to the 1995 figure, 6%. (Curiously, in the 4 Percent Survey cited above, Barna classifies 12% of American adults as evangelical in 1994.)

But according to Gallup, another giant research organization that does a great deal of work in the Christian community, more than a third  (35%) of all Americans can be classified as “evangelical.” Why the huge disparity? Well, Barna is using a stricter measuring stick, and if you answer “maybe” or “no” to even one of his nine classifications, you’re not “evangelical.”

Think about that relative to teenagers and “the Bible is totally accurate” qualifier—most teenagers have a hard time believing the Bible is “totally accurate in all it teaches” when it says we should never “cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard” (Leviticus 19:27). Those who quote the 4 Percent Warning equate “total accuracy in all it teaches” with “Bible-believing,” and that means a lot of Bible-believing teenagers—and adults, for that matter—don’t qualify because they struggle with the words “totally accurate.”  

2. Is “evangelical” the same as “Bible-believing”? The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals says evangelicalism “denotes a style as much as a set of beliefs.” That means the definition of “evangelical” shifts according to the standards of the person using the term. For example, compare historian David Bebbington’s definition of evangelical to Barna’s:

  • a belief in the need to change lives through conversion;

  • a commitment to expressing the message of the gospels through activism;

  • a strong regard for the Bible as a guide for life; and

  • a stress on the importance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

If we used Bebbington’s standards instead of Barna’s, that 4 percent figure would go way up for both teenagers and adults. The point is that “Bible-believing” is such a broad term that it’s irresponsible to tie it to one organization’s definition of “evangelical.” 

3. Are teenagers any different than today’s adults? A lot of attention (and outright panic) has been focused on the 4 Percent Warning as an indictment of today’s teenagers and of the church’s outreach to them. But look back to the source, Barna’s survey report, and you’ll find that only 5 percent of adults today meet the organization’s evangelical classification. Allowing for the survey’s margin of error, there’s no difference in the stats for teenagers and adults. But the people who are raising red flags about teenagers are…adults. It might be time to heed Jesus’ warning and “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” 

4. Are “moral relativism” and “pluralistic theology” to blame? Barna makes a remarkably broad assertion that creeping moral decay and wimpy theology are to blame for the slide in “Bible-believing” teenagers. There’s little evidence to pinpoint these two “usual suspects” as the only guilty parties. But in a Barna survey of teenagers who were asked to report on the “outcomes” of their church experiences when they were children, the lowest-scoring outcome was “understanding enough of the Bible so that every decision you make is based on biblical principles.”

Barna says that only half (53%) of churched young people say, as children, they learned to base every decision on the Bible. I teach an adult Sunday school class, and my guess is that half of the people in my class are still struggling to understand the Bible well enough to apply its wisdom to “every decision” they make. The point is that some of these “Bible-believing” standards are ridiculous when you consider how they’re applied to children, including teenagers.  ♦

Rick Lawrence has been editor of GROUP Magazine for 18 years. You can reach him at

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The 4 Percent Panic-Attack

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