The Barna Group released a new poll last week in which the proposed question was: “Are Christians more like Jesus or the Pharisees?” Christians get accused of hypocrisy all the time, so why not see if there’s some statistical evidence to back up the claim?

According to the Christian Post:

The findings were derived from 1,008 telephone interviews of which 718 respondents self-identified as Christian from Nov. 11 until Nov. 18, 2012. Respondents who identified themselves as Christian were asked 20 questions, ten of which compared their responses to Jesus’ actions and attitudes and ten of which compared their responses to the Pharisees of the New Testament.

The Barna Group’s questions included rating oneself on “Christ-like” statements such as:

  • “I listen to others to learn their story before telling them about my faith.”
  • “I regularly choose to have meals with people with very different faith or morals from me.”
  • “I see God working in people’s lives, even when they are not following him.”
  • “I feel compassion for people who are not following God and doing immoral things.”

Or “Pharisee-like” statements:

  • “I don’t talk about my sins or struggles. That’s between me and God.”
  • “I try to avoid spending time with people who are openly gay or lesbian.”
  • “I like to point out those who do not have the right theology or doctrine.”
  • “I feel grateful to be a Christian when I see other people’s failures and flaws.”

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and the chief organizer of the study, said:

Obviously, survey research, by itself, cannot fully measure someone’s ‘Christ-likeness’ or ‘Pharisee-likeness.’ But the study is meant to identify baseline qualities of Jesus, like empathy, love, and a desire to share faith with others—or the resistance to such ideals in the form of self-focused hypocrisy. The statements are based on the biblical record given in the Gospels and in the Epistles.

So what did they find?

The findings reveal that most self-identified Christians in the U.S. are characterized by having the attitudes and actions researchers identified as Pharisaical. Just over half of the nation’s Christians—using the broadest definition of those who call themselves Christians—qualify for this category (51%). They tend to have attitudes and actions that are characterized by self-righteousness.

There were other mixed categories and the break-down according to sect, age, sex, and so forth makes for some interesting reading.

Now, as Christians, what are we supposed to make of all of this? While the goal of fostering conversations within the church and possibly help pastors refocus their preaching and teaching, I want to raise a few, brief points of caution about making very much of it at all.

Pharisees? To begin, Scot McKnight pointed out the problematic but typical use of the term “Pharisee” as a cipher for unloving hypocrisy. Evangelicals need to beware of historical anachronism and any latent antinomianism associated with criticism of “Pharisees.” There is a place for it, but it needs to be done carefully, with an eye toward history.

Questionable Identification Process. Sociologists like Rodney Stark and others have criticized the Barna Group in the past for its questionable identification methods. For instance, the infamous study claiming that Christians divorce at the same rate as their secular counterparts only works if you ignore the difference between involved, practicing Christians and others. In fact, the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project lists religious practice as a significant indicator of a lower chance of divorce. This study, by nature, includes such a distinction, but the whole process of self-identification might warn us that any appearance of Christ-likeness or Pharisaism might tell us more about self-perception than reality.

Self-flagellation. Maybe I’m just being curmudgeonly, but I see this playing into another cycle of Evangelical self-flagellation. I don’t know what it is, but pastors and writers love hauling out Barna statistics about what a miserable failure the church is in any given area, in the tried-and-true method of “sanctification by guilt.” It is helpful at times to get a gauge on things like biblical literacy, or something on that order, but with a poll as subjective as “Does Barna think you’re like Jesus?”—which is what this amounts to—it’s ripe for another exercise in ritualized masochism from the pulpit. 

Pride. Of course, let’s not forget the wonderful opportunities for religious pride this offers as well. Exhibit A: The Christian Post’s lead for their summary article was: “Among various Christian groups in the United States, evangelicals were found to be the most ‘Christ-like,’ according to the findings of a recently released study on Christians.” That’s right. Apparently a whopping 23% of us measured up on Barna’s “Christ-like” scale. Take that, Papists!! Seriously though, is that the real story here or is that merely our pride finding another excuse to make an appearance?

Chronological Snobbery. Another instructive finding was that younger people are more “Christ-like” than the elderly, only 6% of whom apparently measure up. Then again, if instead of addressing our attitude toward homosexuality, it asked about sexual holiness as a whole, the value of everyday wisdom, scriptural fidelity, hard work, or a commitment to overseas missions of the sort that defined prior generations, I wonder if our own would measure up quite so well. We need to beware of a built-in chronological snobbery within a research methodology that identifies key cultural issues that are pressing in the consciousness of younger Christians as the sum total of Christian piety. Each generation has its own struggles and strengths. This Barna Poll seems more than a little skewed to privilege the “empathetic,” anti-doctrinal, and, quite frankly, antinomian Jesus—because apparently it’s Pharisaical to “correct error” in thought or practice—so prevalent in pop evangelicalism. 

If this poll shows anything worthwhile, it is that Christians still need Jesus. Of course, that’s unsurprising for anyone reading the New Testament. While Jesus’ church is full of perverts, tax collectors, and other undesirables, it is also occupied by some of those smirking Pharisees Jesus invited to join the party. This side of the Second Coming the Church is still a mixed body, a group of imperfect, but being-perfected sinners of all types.

This is not simply a plea to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the broad issues facing the church. Rather, it is a call for pastors and church leaders to do the hard work of examining their own, specific congregations in light of the word of God—all of it—instead of letting problematic polls set the agenda.


  1. Another Barna study reveals that Christians/the evangelical Church are/is in deep trouble? Stop the Press!

    I’m with McKnight and think the label ‘Pharisee’ needs to be seriously rethought or else retired. I’m with you that this data is good fertilizer for either religious self-congratulation or self-flagellation. Good thoughts.

    How does this little pastor cope with the flow of Barna studies? Ignore them as best I can and love my people/community and preach the Word.

  2. The “Christ-like” questions seem likely to predict moralistic therapeutic deism much better than conformity to the model of Jesus as we know him from the Gospels.

  3. Spot on! When radical muslims attacked on 9/11, did you turn the other cheek and forgive or did you beat the war drum with the rest of the evangelicals?
    I’ve stopped using the word christian and refer to evangelicals as Paulians. I don’t know too many christians who actually follow Jesus’ teachings anymore.

  4. Derek: I had some questions about the Barna piece when it came out, but I give it more credence in broad strokes than some. First, the critiques. The questions really are problematic. Some aren’t bad but they are built too much on stereotypes. Second, when reading the full release from Barna, I was struck that they distinguish between “Christian” and “Evangelical”. The evangelicals do better at Christ-likeness (but still a minority) but that left me wondering who was in the other set.

    That said, there are some real issues here I’ve been pondering (see last month’s blog post on separatism: One axis that does seem to be present in the questions, however flawed, is an in-group/out-group distinction. The more there’s a focus on being with “my people” who “believe the right things” and avoiding “evildoers”, the more likely one is to fall on the self-righteous side (I’m glad they dropped the Pharisee label for reasons you and McKnight reviewed well). The more inclusive one’s approach, the more one scores on the Christ-likeness side.

    I’m not suggesting that evangelical Christians need to abandon their doctrinal beliefs and/or social positions. But I am assuming that in a post-modern religiously pluralistic world, we’ll need to learn to take the broader rather than the narrower rhetorical position.

  5. Christianity Today printed a letter to the editor of mine about major problems with the methodology Barna in response to the “Only 71 percent of Southern Baptist pastors have a biblical worldview.” I found the survey items actually used in a Master’s degree thesis which just happen to be not sourced anywhere. Pretty good chance that Billy Graham and Carl Henry lacked that little thing called a biblical worldview.

    I teach research methods at the grad and undergrad level. What we have here is a failure to operationalize the concept “a biblical worldview” almost certainly not.

    Think about this “Christ-like” survey item: “I see God working in people’s lives, even when they are not following him.”

    I can separate the “wheat from the chaff” and tell who is and who isn’t following in Christ’s footsteps. What we have here by Barna is a request to practice blasphemy.

    From Christianity Today (link below).

    The Source of Bad Stats

    Kudos for publishing the long-overdue survey of American religious research [“Chicken Little Was Wrong,” January]. Ed Stetzer correctly notes the dangers of drawing conclusions from research that may not apply to the larger public or various subgroups therein.

    Stetzer didn’t address the widely reported research of the Barna Group. One of Barna’s most publicized findings has been the decline of church leaders with a biblical worldview. One oft-quoted statistic: Only 71 percent of Southern Baptist pastors have a biblical worldview. That is impossible. The alternative? There must be something wrong with the way the concept is measured. The survey that measures biblical worldview includes eight statements. The person being surveyed must agree with all of them to classify as someone with a biblical worldview. Disagree with one, and you don’t have a biblical worldview.

    I can easily imagine both CT’s founder and original editor not agreeing with at least one of the statements, depending on one’s views on inerrancy, the source of moral truth, God’s activity in the universe, and so on. Could it be that puzzling findings on Americans’ religious beliefs are simply a function of method?

    Stephen V. Anderson
    Albany, New York

    1. I don’t see a problem with saying that “I see God working in people’s lives, even when they are not following him.” By itself, this statement can simply mean that God works in and through pagans like Cyrus, or that God makes the rain fall on (gives blessings to) the unjust, or that God gives growth to the seed of the word of God that’s planted in those who aren’t yet believers.

      I do agree with your concerns about Barna’s worldview survey.

  6. I think I may be the only, what most conservatives would label, liberal in this city, so my experience with Christians since Obama’s election might not be the norm. It was hellacious. The ugliness from every quarter unrelenting. Pharisaic? Yes, and worse. If the gospel has apparently done nothing for so many for so long in the way of love, then what is being taught by most Christian leaders, and maybe the whole evangelical movement, must be a farce…and that is what I started to think.
    I could no longer listen to Christian TV or music. I could no longer in good conscience go to services. The political partisanship was so obviously out of sync with Christ, so unabashedly worldliness (at enmity with God), that the efficacy of American Christianity was empty. A real test, it would appear, yet I kept my faith in Christ; it was Christianity I lost faith in.
    Outside of politics, however, a difference was clearly evident. Most understood their brokenness and came from what seemed a genuinely humble place,appearing generous and kind and loving. The contradiction was difficult to hold; “brood of vipers” stuck in my head.

  7. Good article, Derek. You really put your finger on some key problems here. An “antinomian Jesus” indeed.

  8. Some good points Derek. Strange that “I like to point out those who do not have the right theology or doctrine.” is a question our Lord Jesus would have had to answer Yes to. I guess the Pharisees did some things right, even if from the wrong motives.

    More likely is that most “Christians” are more like Judas than anyone else in the Bible: pretending to believe in the Christ until the time comes that betraying Him seems more profitable to them.

    We need to be more concerned with what God’s Word tells us we should be doing, including how to judge ourselves and others within the house of God and how to proclaim the only way to salvation boldly, regardless of how the unregenerate will react.

    Just my 2 cents.

    1. Off-topic but I don’t care: Why oh why, Turkman, do you save the fantastic geek-references only for Twitter and blog comments, and not explore them in your Pyro pieces? We both know the Baptists and doctrine-wonks and YRR types desperately need this. They also need to see real, Biblical, truth-based “cultural engagement” that glorifies God for joy, and not the kind of silly posturing and world-imitation that goes on among certain leaders and organizations named after nonexistent Scripture chapters.

    2. If you’re talking about the Gospel Coalition, pretty sure they discuss comic book movies too… Mike Cosper had a piece about the Avengers that would have fit right in around these parts (not that I liked it much, but you can’t say TGC types never write about these things).

    3. Oh, Frank Turk is definitely different from The Gospel Coalition. (I am glad to see their contributors warming more gradually to the topic of fiction in novels and films. :-) )

    4. I think that’s an exaggeration. ;-) Also, as a regular reader of Pyro, my distinct impression is that Frank is only different from The Gospel Coalition insofar as he is frequently found to the right of them. :-D

    5. Frank Turk is a category of one, which is why some of us love him, even to the point of willingness to engage his gospel of comic theology. :)

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