A majority of U.S. adults desires a spiritual dimension to life. Are Christian leaders ready?
By David Kinnaman, Barna CEO
In the artist formerly-known-as Prince’s song “1999,” he alludes to the hope and anticipation of a new millennium. So far, I feel the 2000s haven’t lived up to the hype. We’ve lived through 9-11, the worst recession in recent history, a global pandemic, racial upheaval, political unrest, soaring inflation, rising interest rates and now the ongoing threat of COVID in all its variants. No medical intervention has inoculated us from the psychic effects of a world in turmoil.
But Americans seem open to a different antidote to help make sense of life in these chaotic times.
In an October 2022 Barna survey of 2,000 U.S. adults, three out of four (74%) say they want to grow spiritually. Additionally, the same proportion (77%) say they believe in a higher power. Nearly half (44%) say they are more open to God today than before the pandemic.
Barna has been tracking the state of Christianity for nearly four decades. Though the trajectory of Christian commitment in the U.S. has been on a downward slide and is in need of urgent interventions, our new data give Christian leaders cause for hope.
Signs of Hope
Overall, 80 percent of Americans say they think there is a spiritual or supernatural dimension to the world. Eleven percent say they don’t think such a dimension exists, but it is possible. Meanwhile, only 9 percent say they do not believe it exists.
Though religious affiliation and church attendance continue to decline, spiritual openness and curiosity are on the rise. Across every generation, in fact, we see an unprecedented desire to grow spiritually, a belief in a spiritual / supernatural dimension and a belief in God or a higher power.
Looking Forward to an Open Generation
Some of the greatest signs of hope for the Church come from our recent study—our largest one to date—of teens around the world, including in the U.S. Findings from The Open Generation indicate that young people may be fueling this rise in spiritual hunger. Overwhelmingly, Christian teens today say that Jesus still matters to them; 76 percent say “Jesus speaks to me in a way that is relevant to my life.”
In a culture that has generally downgraded the reputation of Christians and relegated Sunday worship and other church-related activities to the sidelines of society, teens remain refreshingly open to Jesus as an influence in their lives.
It doesn’t really matter where they are coming from, people are weary of the constant tension and division we see played out on the public stage and in our social media feeds, of hurtful rhetoric and of love with limits. But it seems that this coming generation still believes that there is a person who reminds us that there is a good and right way to live.
Teens’ openness to the world and all its potential is striking. Granted, no matter what context a teen lives in, they are in the early stages of developing their worldview and character. Their openness is, on some level, a reflection of youth. But that fact doesn’t diminish the reality of their overall optimism, which is all the more surprising considering they responded to our survey during a global pandemic.
The teens in our study are not jaded or cynical. They are open to different faiths, including Christianity, and they’re open to friends, causes, and ideas. Though parents, educators, and others who mentor young people have a tall task to provide wise guidance to emerging adults, today’s teens are confronting the church with something that I think we haven't seen before—a kind of blank slate; a chance to imagine a different future.
Where Will This Openness Lead Us?
Our data on the rising spiritual openness in America, coupled with The Open Generation research, reveal a tremendous opportunity for faith leaders. The majority of Americans has signaled that they’re willing to consider exploring spirituality. They are open to more that truly satisfies.
The challenge facing the Church and parachurch ministries is whether they are ready and able to meet the spiritually open—where they are, as they are. Our data show the Church has real work to do to bridge the trust gap for people who are spiritual but not religious.
In the months ahead, with sponsorship from He Gets Us and Gloo, Barna will be launching a new initiative to deeply understand the needs of this spiritually open and curious cohort. Each month, we will be releasing ongoing data, insights and practical tools for churches and ministry leaders to effectively reach and receive faith explorers.
We have an unprecedented opportunity to share Jesus with a world in need. But how will we do anything unless we are desperate for Jesus ourselves? As we embark on this journey to meet, know and love people who may be on the cusp of integrating spirituality into their life and discovering the transforming power of Jesus, may we be found ready and able to guide them.
About the Research
For this study, Barna Group interviewed 2,000 U.S. adults online between October 21 and 31, 2022. This group was quota sampled by age, gender, race / ethnicity, region, education and income to maximize representation. Minimal statistical weighting has been applied and the margin of error is +/- 2.1%.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2023