What is the role of friendship in discipleship community?
Both historically (see 1 Thessalonians 2:8) and currently, Christians see friendships as foundational to healthy discipleship. Disciplemaking involves actively helping someone else grow closer to Christ, requiring those involved to look outside themselves.
This article shares data from Growing Together—a Barna report created in partnership with The Navigators—to explore what percentage of U.S. Christian adults view their spiritual lives as entirely private and how friendships with other Christians can support discipleship.
Younger Christians Are Less Likely to View Their Spiritual Lives as Private
Privacy might seem like the natural habitat for faith formation in our increasingly individualized culture. Indeed, 56 percent of Christians feel their spiritual life is entirely private.
This majority of Christians is less likely to say it is very important to see progress in their spiritual life (30% say progress is important vs. 54% of those who don’t consider their faith private), less likely to say their faith is very important in their life today (45% vs. 66% agree strongly) and less likely to have weekly time with God (51% vs. 66%). In other words, the idea that faith should be kept private is one part of a bigger swirl of negative conditions that need to be addressed for people to see spiritual growth.
A private approach to spirituality is pervasive, even among Christians who are in discipleship community: 46 percent still say they consider their spiritual lives to be private, and that percentage climbs for younger Christians who are making disciples. There is an interesting generational difference to note between older and younger Christians.
Boomers are the generation least likely to be part of discipleship community and are also the generation most likely to believe their spiritual life is entirely private (63%). Gen Z, meanwhile, are more than twice as likely as Boomers to be part of discipleship community and are the least likely generation to believe their spiritual life is private (46%). At first glance, this data suggests a discipleship gap for Boomer Christians today.
Christian Adults Desire Friendships That Challenge Them to Grow in Their Faith
Even before COVID-19, individuals expressed feeling distant from others, and Christians are not exempt. Part of this can reasonably be attributed to the rhythms of our digital society. We have become accustomed to experiencing hyper-connection and disconnection all at once (read reporting on this topic here).
Discipleship is a powerful way to meet a communal need for vulnerability and companionship—think back to the scripture reference noted above from 1 Thessalonians 2:8. Those who are part of discipleship community seem to share this delight. Discipleship provides meaningful, growth-oriented friendships, confronts loneliness and shows love and care for others. In short, a Christian has many reasons to expand their social-spiritual life.
As defined in Growing Together, people who are in discipleship relationships have at least one connection marked by mutual accountability, encouragement, support and spiritual growth. These are generous, intentional and intimate connections! Thus, friendship is often foundational for healthy discipleship, and deeper friendship may also be one of the positive benefits that comes from a discipleship relationship.
Most Christians are aware of the need for this spiritual synergy. In fact, more than four out of five (82%) agree, one-third strongly so, that friends should challenge each other to grow in healthy ways. Unsurprisingly, almost half of Christians in discipleship community (48% vs. 20% of those not engaged in any discipleship) agree strongly with this idea.
Broken down by generation, about one-quarter of Boomers (23%), one-third of Gen X (33%) and about two in five Millennials (42%) and Gen Z (43%) strongly agree that friends should challenge each other to grow. Although younger Christian generations are more likely to believe that friendships should lead to healthy growth—and may be in a stage of life marked by more rich and more concentrated friendships to begin with—few in any age group disagree with this (at most, 21%, among Boomers).
The data suggest that, in general, American adults desire friendships that challenge them. That’s vulnerable territory, but we’ve been given a strong role model. When Jesus discipled the 12, the spiritual and day-today matters of their lives intermingled. Life was not private or compartmentalized. Meals and miracles, frustration and affection, sermons and naps, trials and celebrations—they shared it all.
Christians should consider what it would mean to do the same today.
Additional reading and resources:
- If you’re interested in learning more about day-to-day disciplemaking, check out Growing Together in Barna’s online store or on Barna Access Plus.
- For past research on discipleship in America, check out The State of Discipleship, available both in Barna’s online store and in Barna Access Plus.
- Listen to these recent ChurchPulse Weekly episodes that discuss discipleship: Amy Gannett & Justin Kendrick, Jim Sheppard & Julie Bullock
- Learn what five trends are shaping discipleship among the youngest generation, Gen Z.
About the Research
This quantitative study consisted of two online surveys.
First, an online survey was conducted among 2,511 adults who self-identify as Christian and live within the United States. The adults who completed this survey were randomly selected through online research panels. This survey was conducted from December 22, 2020 to January 18, 2021. The margin of error for the data is +/- 1.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level, meaning Barna researchers are 95 percent confident that the true national numbers lie within this small margin of error.
Second, an online survey of 2,930 U.S. adults was conducted from June 1 to July 4, 2020. The margin of error for this data is +/- 1.5 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. 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.
© Barna Group, 2022