Throughout Barna’s Spiritually Open series, we’ve found that there is a lot of talk about Jesus—even non-Christians have a generally positive view of Christ. But, if non-Christians are looking for things that Jesus provides, have a positive opinion of Jesus and are hearing about Jesus from Christians … then why don’t more people identify as Christians?
In this article, an excerpt from our final Spiritually Open release, we’ll explore how resilient faith might be the missing ingredient to helping non-Christians pursue a walk with Christ.
Just 20% of U.S. Christians Are Resilient Disciples
Over the course of the Spiritually Open series, we’ve focused on interpersonal interactions about faith and spiritual curiosity, especially between Christians and non-Christians. You may recall that the public, including non-Christians, holds generally warm feelings toward Jesus. People tend to have a positive opinion of Jesus and his teachings, but those warm views don’t always lead to a personal commitment to Jesus.
Our research suggests that the most likely reason for this disconnect is the hypocrisy non-Christians witness among Christians. This means that the biggest challenge to the effectiveness of our spiritual conversations may lie in how people—and the Church at large—embody Jesus. Satisfying the spiritual curiosity of non-Christians and equipping Christians to share their faith will be shortsighted if these efforts are not ultimately about holistic, whole-life discipleship.
At Barna, we sometimes talk about building resilient disciples. At the moment, just 20 percent of U.S. Christians meet Barna’s definition of a “resilient disciple,” meaning they are: Christians who (1) attend church at least monthly and engage with their church more than just attending worship services; (2) trust firmly in the authority of the Bible; (3) are committed to Jesus personally and affirm he was crucified and raised from the dead to conquer sin and death; and (4) express desire to transform the broader society as an outcome of their faith.
Let’s look at how today’s Christians—including resilient disciples—are experiencing and representing Jesus. To do this, we’ve separated the Christians who are resilient disciples from two other groups of respondents: 1) Habitual churchgoers (who make up 17 percent of today’s Christians) describe themselves as Christian and have attended church at least once in the past month, yet do not have foundational core beliefs or behaviors associated with being a resilient disciple. 2) Nomads, or lapsed Christians, identify as Christian but have not attended church during the past month. Most nomads—who, overall, make up nearly two-thirds of today’s Christians (63%)—haven’t been involved with a faith community for six months or more.
Resilient disciples are highly motivated to find a way to follow Jesus that connects to their modern world, 57 percent say this is “completely true” of them. In contrast, less than one-third of habitual churchgoers (30%) and nomads (31%) answer the same way.
Resilient disciples see following Jesus as something that shapes and impacts them in a holistic way: body, mind, heart and soul. They want others to see Jesus reflected through their words and actions, and their relationship with Jesus brings them joy, satisfaction, energy and fulfilment. More than 80 percent of resilient disciples agree strongly with statements like these—approximately double the rate of habitual churchgoers and nomads.
From this data, we learn not only how resilient disciples distinguish themselves but also how church engagement alone is not enough to nurture an impactful, compelling relationship with Jesus. Christians who habitually attend church may look no different from lapsed Christians who don’t presently attend church, if they do not also have roots in scripture and a holistic approach to their faith.
Conversations about Jesus, even positive ones, may be aplenty in an era of spiritual openness. But Jesus is more than just a topic. Christians are called not just to know how and when to bring up their faith in a conversation, but to be transformed by Jesus and to represent him.
As church leaders consider how to be effective in connecting with non-Christians about faith, they must consider the ways they model and encourage whole-life, resilient discipleship. Cultivating curiosity and conversation about Jesus is about more than words.
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About the Research
The Spiritually Open project is based on a survey of 2,005 U.S. adults and teenagers (ages 13-17) conducted online from December 13–22, 2022 via a consumer research panel. The margin of error for the sample is +/- 2.0 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
This article also refers to a survey of 2,000 U.S. adults conducted online October 21–31, 2022. The margin of error for the sample is +/- 2.1 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
Quotas were set to representation by region, race / ethnicity, education, age and gender based on the U.S. Census Bureau. Minimal statistical weighting has been applied to maximize sample representation.
Additionally, a survey among 511 U.S. Protestant senior pastors was conducted online from December 13, 2021–January 3, 2023. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Proprietary Pastor Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.
© Barna Group, 2023.
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.
Openness to Jesus Isn’t the Problem—the Church Is
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