Jan 28, 2009

From the Archives

American Spirituality Gives Way to Simplicity and the Desire to Make a Difference

Americans are some of the most spiritually minded people on the planet. However, a new study from The Barna Group shows that as Americans rethink their lifestyles and priorities, many also consider themselves to be socially conscious and living “simple” lives, often more so than embracing common “spiritual” labels.

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Beyond Spirituality

The nation’s population has always possessed an appetite for active spirituality. This streak continues to shape the thinking of millions of Americans, who describe their religious faith as personally very important (71%). Two-thirds of the nation’s adults think of themselves as “deeply spiritual” (64%). All of this focus on spiritual matters seems to provide people with a confident self-assessment: 82% of adults describe themselves as “spiritually mature.”

Yet, in addition to spiritual identities – and in some ways beyond spiritual labels – Americans also think of themselves as difference-makers and concerned about the world around them. In all, three out of every four adults say they are “making a positive difference in the world” (78%). In fact, close to nine out of every ten Americans (86%) describe themselves as “caring deeply about social injustice.” A similar percentage of adults are “concerned about the moral condition of the country” (86%).

Searching Continues

While most Americans want clarity about their life’s purpose, they portray a personal search that is challenging and often conflicted. At times Americans put a positive face on their reason for being; other times they admit to not living up to their ideals. For instance, while 71% of adults believe they are “fulfilling their calling in life,” 51% also say they are “searching for meaning and purpose.”

Another conflicted self-assessment shows up when asked to describe their sense of peace and simplicity in life. Most Americans feel “very much at peace with life” (84%) and the vast majority say they “live a simple life” (84%).

However, most Americans also acknowledge they need to make major life changes. For example, most adults reject the statement “you would not change anything significant about your life” (55%). Also, their sense of peace and simplicity is often thwarted by their strong desire to make more money and do more in life: seven out of ten Americans say they are “totally committed to getting ahead in life” (68%).

Gaps and Overlap

How does the Christian community compare on these self-perceptions? In many ways, the self-perceptions of born again Christians are remarkably similar to those of Americans who are not born again. Not surprisingly, the largest gaps showed up related to spiritual self-perceptions. For instance, born again Christians were much more likely to describe themselves as deeply spiritual, to desire a close relationship with God, and to prioritize their faith when compared with other non-born again Christians.

Yet, on social awareness, matters of lifestyle, and the desire for simplicity, the self-identities of born agains and others were very similar. Only two of the non-spiritual self-perceptions showed any difference, and those gaps were minimal: born again Christians were slightly more likely than others to see themselves as making a positive difference in the world (83% versus 74%, respectively) and slightly more likely to be fulfilling personal life calling (76% to 67%).

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David Kinnaman, who directed the study, addressed a common question about the difference between perception and reality. “Measuring what people think of themselves provides a simple yet compelling insight into society and the people living in it. Keep in mind that people’s self-identities are often ‘aspirational’ – that is, their self-views reflect how they ‘aspire’ to live or how they hope to be seen by others. The fact that so many Americans resonate with concepts like simplicity, personal calling, social justice, and making a difference suggests effective hooks for communicating and engaging today’s culture.

“One aspect of communication is realizing what language works and does not work with the broadest segments of society,” commented Kinnaman. The Barna Group president indicated that “as the nation’s population becomes increasingly fragmented in terms of ethnicity, age, media, technology, and religion – including a projected increase in the number of spiritual skeptics – the language and imagery of spirituality and relationship with God figure to be rarer connecting points across a diverse audience. Christian leaders who hope to have mainstream influence within this fragmenting culture will have to find and communicate common values but also be cautious not to pursue mainstream credibility at the cost of simplistic or spiritually impotent solutions.”

About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with two random samples of adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older. One study was conducted in January 2008, with 1004 adults, and the other was conducted in August 2008 (N=1004). The maximum margin of sampling error associated with each study 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.”

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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