When asked to identify the single most influential Christian leader in the U.S. today, two out of every five Americans (41%) are unable to think of anyone who would meet that description.
Billy Graham is the name mentioned most often in response to the unaided survey question (a measure often described as “top-of-mind” awareness). One out of five Americans names the nonagenarian evangelist, with 19% of adult residents identifying Mr. Graham as the nation’s most influential Christian leader.
Half as many adults (9%) believe “the Pope” or Pope Benedict to be the most significant Christian leader in the nation. Nearly the same proportion (8%) considers President Barack Obama to hold this prominent role.
One out of 20 U.S. adults (5%) think that Joel Osteen is the most significant Christian leader, more than double the proportion that name Charles Stanley (2%) or Joyce Meyer (2%). A variety of individuals – including pastors, ministry leaders, authors, politicians, and other public figures – are considered the highest ranking Christian leaders by 1% of U.S. adults each. These include: Franklin Graham, George W. Bush, T.D. Jakes, Oprah Winfrey, James Dobson, and Maya Angelou. All other individuals are named by less than 1% of Americans.
Some differences emerged in a review of the findings by faith segments and by age of respondent as noted below:
- Evangelical Christians are more likely than average to name Billy Graham (35%), Joyce Meyer (12%) and Franklin Graham (5%) as the most influential Christian leaders in the U.S. today. No evangelicals consider Pope Benedict, President Barack Obama, George W. Bush, T.D. Jakes, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, or Charles Stanley to hold this role.
- A majority of adults who are atheists and agnostics (65%) or of a non-Christian faith (52%) are unable to think of anyone they would name as an influential Christian leader.
- Those of another, non-Christian faith are more inclined to name Charles Stanley (7%), George W. Bush (4%), or Oprah Winfrey (4%) as the most significant Christian leader.
- Protestants are more likely than average to name Billy Graham as the most significant leader (31%), while Catholics are just as likely to name the Pope (32%).
- Elders, ages 66 and older (31%), and Boomers, ages 47 to 65 (27%) are more inclined to name Billy Graham as the most influential leader, while younger adults – Busters 28 to 46 (12%) and Mosaics 18 to 27 (4%) – are far less likely to do so.
“Researchers place a lot weight on top-of-mind awareness measures,” explained Lynn Hanacek, Barna Group vice president of research and project director. “It is a type of unaided awareness measurement – meaning that respondents answer on their own with no response options presented to them. It reflects the very first name that comes to mind – and is typically given even greater importance since it suggests that the person, brand or organization has made a lasting impression.”
Although most Americans can name someone they consider to be a highly influential Christian leader, few leaders have made such an impression on the population. “Looking at the big picture, only a limited number of individuals come to mind when Americans consider leadership of Christians on a national scale,” remarked Hanacek. “However, bear in mind that a different type of measurement such as aided awareness, in which respondents are asked if they ever heard of a specific name, may have yielded different results.”
The research illustrates some challenges and opportunities for Christians in the U.S. Long-time leader Billy Graham has more than twice the top-of-mind awareness of any other individual mentioned – but he is most well-known among older Americans and barely mentioned by the youngest adults in this country. In terms of national Christian leadership, there may well be a gap to be filled. However, it is also likely that leadership may be perceived differently at this time in our society. If the role and relevance of national faith leadership is waning, it suggests an opportunity for more local and regional Christian leaders to emerge – whether in churches, ministries or a variety of other capacities.
“There is an interesting but not surprising commonality among those top Christian leaders in this study,” noted Hanacek. “All of them have a strong media presence – whether through their own active ministry efforts or through various types of media coverage.” Those organizations and individuals who aspire to lead and serve on a broad national scale will clearly need to make effective use of all types of media and communications technologies.
About the Research
The research relied upon for this report is based on a nationwide survey of a random sample of 1,007 adults, ages 18 and older, located in the 48 continental states. Telephone interviews were conducted August 1 through 14, 2011, and included a sub-sample of people drawn from cell-phone households. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.
"Born again Christians" are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as "born again."
"Evangelicals" meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as "evangelical."
“Notional Christians” are defined as individuals who described themselves as Christian but did not meet the born again criteria (outlined above).
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. It conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries.
Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources are also available through this website.