Sep 27, 2005

From the Archives

New Survey Shows Areas of Spiritual Life People Feel Most Confident About – and Those They Want Help With the Most

Three out of four adults who describe themselves as Christian are able to identify an aspect of their spiritual life that they would like to see improve. However, there is no particular aspect of spiritual growth that is listed by more than one out of every seven adults. Most people rate themselves as “average” in each of seven specific dimensions of spirituality evaluated in a new nationwide survey by The Barna Group, but there was a minimal relationship between people’s self-assessment and the aspect of their spiritual life in which they desired to grow the most.

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How People Rate Themselves Regarding Spiritual Maturity

The Barna survey explored seven dimensions of spiritual development, asking survey respondents to rate themselves on a five-point scale that included being “completely developed” in the specified area of spirituality, “highly developed,” saying they were “about average” in their development in that area, or that they are “not too developed,” or “not at all developed” in the area in question.

Americans rated themselves most positively in the area of “maintaining healthy relationships.” Close to half of all self-identified Christian adults (48%) said they are “completely” or “highly” developed in that aspect, with 46% saying they are “about average” in this dimension, and just 6% claimed to be below average. An above average rating (i.e., either “completely developed” or “highly developed”) was more likely among people in the South and Midwest than among people living along the east or west coasts.

The second-most favorable rating was for serving other people. About four out of every ten self-described Christian adults (41%) said they are “completely” or “highly” developed in that aspect of their spiritual life, while half said they are about average in this area, and 8% said they are below average. Hispanics and people who attend a house church were the groups most likely to say they are above average (53% and 57%, respectively) when it comes to serving others.

Next came “consistently living out your faith principles,” for which 37% said they do an above average job, 55% claimed to be average, and only 8% admitted to being below average.

Similar scores emerged related to worshiping God and leading their family spiritually. About one-third (36%) said they were above average, half said they were average, and 13% rated themselves below average in terms of worship. Nearly identical statistics were gleaned regarding the spiritual leadership of the family by the individuals who have children under age 18 in their home (35% said they are above average, 51% average, and 14% below the norm).

The spiritual dimensions in which people were least likely to rank themselves above average were in sharing their faith with others (23% above average, 53% average, 24% below average) and knowing the content of the Bible (22% above average, 53% average, 26% below average).

Areas Selected for Improvement

Respondents were also asked to name the single aspect of their spiritual life they would most like to improve. There were two especially noticeable outcomes. The first was that many people have not thought about prioritizing a dimension of spiritual development, which commonly results in a lack of effort. The second outcome was that not even one out of every seven adults listed the top-rated dimension. People’s felt needs covered a broad range of emphases that defied a more compact categorization.

The most keenly felt spiritual needs were to increase their commitment to the Christian faith (identified by 13%) and to increase their Bible knowledge (12%). No other factors reached double figures.

Among the other needs expressed by respondents were a desire to improve their prayer life (7%), becoming a better servant to others (4%), developing better relationships (4%), understanding the Christian life better (4%), doing a better job of sharing their faith (4%), developing better character (3%), improving at forgiving others (3%), and becoming more spiritually mature overall (3%).

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Patterns and Surprises

There were some noteworthy response patterns and surprising outcomes from the survey.

  • A majority of adults consider themselves to be “average” in most of the seven areas of spiritual life that were studied.
  • There were consistent and substantial differences between evangelicals, non-evangelical born again Christians and notional Christians. Evangelicals rated themselves much higher than did everyone else in relation to each of the seven areas of spiritual life. The difference was most sizable related to consistently living out one’s faith principles (25 percentage points higher than non-evangelicals born agains, 31 points higher than notionals), worship (22 points higher than non-evangelicals born agains, 37 points higher than notionals), and Bible knowledge (20 points higher than non-evangelical born agains, 31 points above the notionals).
  • Adults who attend a house church as their primary form of “church life” are typically more likely to consider themselves to be spiritually well-developed than are adults who attend a more common congregational form of church. Overall, a larger percentage of house church participants rated themselves above average than did those involved in a congregational form of church in relation to all seven areas of faith. This gap was especially evident in the areas of worship, sharing their faith, and serving others.
  • Protestants were more likely than were Catholics to rank themselves “above average” in five of the seven dimensions tested. The exceptions were in serving people and maintaining healthy relationships, where both groups were roughly the same.
  • Residents of the Northeastern states were the least likely to rate themselves above average for five of the seven dimensions. The dimensions in which they were most similar to other people were those of serving others and maintaining healthy relationships.
  • Men and women were generally similar in their self-assessment. The exceptions were that men were more likely to say they were above average regarding biblical knowledge and women were more likely to assume an above average rating when it came to serving other people.
  • Adults under the age of 40 were less likely than older people to say they are above average regarding worship, consistently living out their faith principles, and leading their family spiritually. However, the differences were minimal – barely statistically significant.
  • There was a weak connection between the areas in which people admitted to being below average and the likelihood of specifying one of those dimensions as a priority for spiritual improvement. The survey showed that people are more likely to ignore their areas of spiritual under-development in favor of continuing to focus on the areas in which they are most comfortable or feel most self-confident.

Reflections On the Findings

The survey results did not surprise George Barna, who directed the research, but he did consider the data to be insightful. “The fact that so few people have thought about how they could intentionally and strategically enhance their spiritual life reminds us that spiritual growth is not a priority to most people,” he explained. “Americans are generally satisfied with being ‘average’ in their spiritual maturity. That betrays the fact that we do not serve an ‘average’ God, or one who is honored by people who are lukewarm about their faith.”

“It is also quite striking that the aspect of church life that receives the greatest amounts of time, attention and energy – that of teaching people the content of the Bible – is one of the two areas in which people feel least well-developed. The recent trend toward the adoption of technology to help in the teaching of important biblical truths is a welcomed addition to the toolbox of our preachers and religious educators. The research suggests,” Barna noted, “that most people do not feel as if they are learning enough about God, the Christian faith, or their role in the world ” and most of them don’t seem to care.”

The California-based researcher also cautioned people to remember that the survey relied upon people’s self-assessment of their spiritual maturity in the seven dimensions tested. “It would be useful for churches to create and utilize more specific measurements of people’s spiritual pulse, rather to rely upon how satisfied individuals are with their spiritual progress. A more well-defined and rigorous standard might well show that there is even more ground to be gained than the typical person believes.”

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Research Source and Methodology

The data reported in this summary are based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1008 adults conducted in May of 2005 by The Barna Group. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All non-institutionalized adults in the 48 contiguous states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents in the survey sample corresponds to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. The data were subjected to slight statistical weighting procedures to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative distribution of adults.

“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.

“Notional Christians” are individuals who consider themselves to be Christian but who are not born again, based on the criteria described above.

The four generations studied in this research include the Seniors (born 1926 or earlier), the Builders (born 1927-1945), the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), the Baby Busters (born 1965-1983) and Mosaics (born 1984-2002).

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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