Nov 29, 2004

From the Archives

Americans Describe Sources of Spiritual Fulfillment and Frustration

Change is hard for most people. Deciding what and how to change spiritually is apparently no easier for people than it is in any other area of their life, according to a new national survey by The Barna Group, of Ventura, California. The study discovered that about half of the adult population is able to identify something in their spiritual life they would be willing to change, and many of those ideas are quite general in nature.

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Spiritual Satisfaction

Eight out of every nine adults (87%) is able to identify an activity that they say brings them the greatest degree of spiritual satisfaction or fulfillment. No particular activity or effort was named by more than one out of every four individuals as providing such satisfaction. The most common effort was attending church services and events, which 23% named as the most fulfilling spiritual activity in their life. Half as many (12%) indicated that spending time with their family produces the greatest sense of spiritual satisfaction, while the same proportion (12%) mentioned any of a variety of creative and leisure endeavors as their greatest source of spiritual fulfillment. Those outlets included engaging in music, art, or other creative media; participating in sports or hobbies; secluded meditation; and enjoying nature.

One out of every eleven adults (9%) identified prayer as the most fulfilling spiritual activity they undertake, while Bible reading was named by 7% and helping other people was listed by 6%. Interestingly, just 3% mentioned the maintenance or enjoyment of their relationship with God as their greatest source of spiritual fulfillment and only 1% said their relationships with other believers was their source. Less than one percent listed worshipping God as their means of fulfillment, and a similarly miniscule number claimed that leading someone to Christ was their major source of satisfaction.

Spiritual Change

Although most adults (62%) consider themselves to be “deeply spiritual,” nearly half of the public (46%) is satisfied enough with their spiritual condition that they have no aspects of their spirituality that they would like to change. The proportion of adults with no specific changes in mind ranged from two-thirds of atheists and agnostics (67%) and six out of ten adherents of non-Christian faiths (58%) to a low of just 13% of evangelical Christians who were unable to list a single facet of their faith dimension that they would change. Like evangelicals, born again Christians were less likely than average to mention that there were no spiritual factors they would alter in their life (33%), which compares to 58% among adults who are not born again.

Among the one-half of adults who would like to enhance their spiritual make-up, the desired transformations varied greatly in nature, resulting in no single change being listed by more than one out of every eight people.

The most commonly noted shift was the desire to be more heavily involved in a church. That was named by 12% all adults – almost all of them already active in a church or religious center. The next most prominent transition, suggested by 7%, was a desire to be more devoted to spiritual things, ranging from the stated need for more time to devote to spiritual matters to developing a deeper or stronger faith in God.

Beyond that, 5% said they would like to figure out how to be a better person, and another 5% mentioned more knowledge or reading of the Bible as their top priority for spiritual change. Having a better prayer life was offered by 4%, while 3% gave each of a trio of alternatives: doing God’s will or being more Christ-like, being closer to God, and having a more dynamic faith experience with their family. There were no other transitions listed by 3% or more of the population.

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Different Groups Have Different Ideas

Several attitudinal patterns were evident in the survey data. For instance, men were twice as likely as women to say there was nothing in particular that gave them a sense of spiritual fulfillment. Other population segments that were comparatively more likely to not specify anything that produced spiritual fulfillment in their life included Hispanics, self-defined liberals, and residents of the western states.

Evangelicals were three times more likely than other adults to suggest that reading or knowing the Bible gives them their greatest spiritual satisfaction, while the non-evangelical population was six times more likely to indicate that spending time with family (in either religious or non-religious pursuits) was the dominant source of spiritual fulfillment.

Age differences also emerged. Adults 40 years of age or older were almost 40% more likely than younger adults to cite church involvement as a source of spiritual fulfillment. The younger adults were also highly unlikely to mention fellowship with other adherents of their faith as satisfying but were somewhat more likely to list prayer as their most common path to spiritual satisfaction.

Black adults were twice as likely as whites and three times as likely as Hispanics to list reading or knowing the Bible as their top route to spiritual fulfillment.

Church size also affected the responses generated. Adults attending churches of 100 or fewer people were the least likely to identify church participation or prayer as their most certain means to spiritual fulfillment, and they were more likely than others to suggest that creative and leisure endeavors (such as creative arts, sports, nature, and hobbies) were their greatest source of spiritual fulfillment. People who attend churches of 500 or more adults were more than 50% more likely to mention prayer as their source of fulfillment than were adults who attend smaller congregations.

Regarding the single aspect of spiritual change most desired, born again Christians differed substantially from non-born again adults. The born again segment was significantly more likely to list traditional spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading, prayer and leading a Christ-like life. Those transformations were named by 21% of the born again crowd, but by only 4% of other adults. (Among evangelicals, a subset of the born again public, those three shifts were listed by 46%!)

Protestants and Catholics have clearly divergent ideas regarding spiritual change. A majority of Catholics had no specifics they wanted to alter, compared to only four out of ten Protestants who failed to identify a specific change. Protestants were also three times more likely than Catholics to name Bible knowledge, prayer, being more Christ-like or being closer to God. Catholics, on the other hand, were somewhat more likely to list increased family-oriented faith experiences.

Unexpectedly, adults under 40 were much more likely than older adults to say they desire more involvement in or connection to a church.

Challenges Regarding Spiritual Growth

The response patterns in the survey prompted the survey director, George Barna, to question people’s commitment to faith development. “Americans are busy people and have no qualms about admitting that they find it difficult to successfully juggle all the pieces of their life. However, when close to half of all adults say there is nothing they would change about their spiritual life in order to optimize their faith fulfillment, and another quarter gives general answers such as going to church more often or having more time to integrate spiritual activities into their life, one could easily conclude that most Americans have no plan for spiritual advancement and are not exerting much effort to grow in their faith,” the researcher noted.

Barna related the findings of this research to other studies he has conducted this year that have shown that most Americans are ill-schooled in the content of the Bible; they do not believe they have experienced the presence of God in the past year; they have not been instrumental in assisting another person in significant spiritual growth; and that less than one out of every five churched adults has any process or system designed for spiritual accountability. “It is curious how few adults seem to have criteria that help them evaluate their spiritual standing and development,” he stated. “For instance, the people who do not pray showed the least inclination to increase their prayer activity. Individuals who are not actively serving needy people were lowest in desiring to be more active in helping other people. Adults who lack biblical perspectives on various principles we tested were also the people least likely to desire greater Bible knowledge.

“More often, people expressed an interest in increasing the degree of the spiritual activities in which they presently engage. In other words, they have little interest in expanding their spiritual life to be more well-rounded and robust. Instead, most adults would like to become more proficient in one or two spiritual dimensions in which they are already active.”

Barna indicated that he hopes this information will enable religious leaders to help individuals evaluate their spiritual strengths and weaknesses more accurately, and to encourage people to broaden their spiritual growth efforts. “The survey suggests that nearly 120 million adults are seeking to become more spiritually adept. To accomplish that goal, they need guidance, a plan of action and some realistic forms of accountability. Doing more of the same activity that got them where they are today is not the solution to getting them to where they want to be tomorrow.”

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Research Methods

The data described in this report are based on a nationwide telephone survey conducted during September 2004 by The Barna Group. In total, 1010 adults were interviewed, providing a maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

People in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those individuals coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. The data were subjected to minimal statistical weighting to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the telephone sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys 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 were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; contending that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; stating that Satan exists; maintaining that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; asserting that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; saying that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Further, respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.” Being classified as “evangelical” is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

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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