In his book Futurecast, George Barna details a two-decade-long downward spiral in religious belief and behavior on the part of U.S. adults.
Barna’s most important finding?
Although more U.S. adults today claim to have accepted Jesus as their Savior and expect to go to Heaven, they continue to drift away in large numbers from active membership in institutional churches. This finding demonstrates itself in specific behavior:
- In 1991, 24% of U.S. adults did not attend church. In 2011, it’s 37%.
- In 2011, more U.S. adults in 2011 than in 1991 reported that they haven’t attended church in the past six months, except for special occasions like funerals or weddings.
This weakening of institutional affiliation is true for every U.S. subgroup: religion, race, gender, age, and region.
Nowhere is this weakening more true than when it comes to doctrine. For example, Barna reports that only 7% of the adults surveyed believe in the 7 essential doctrines of Christian faith, as these have been defined by the National Association of Evangelicals’ Statement of Faith.
Barna theorizes this weakening of institutional affiliation mirrors American society writ large. He notes:
We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs—our clothing, our food, our education. Now it’s our religion…America is headed for 310 million people with 310 million religions.
So, it should not prove surprising that increasing numbers of U.S. adults are matching their religious faith with personal preferences. According to Barna:
People say, “I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.”
Who’s to blame?
In so far Barna is concerned, pastors deserve some of the blame. He writes:
Everyone hears, “Jesus is the answer. Embrace him. Say this little Sinners Prayer and keep coming back.” It doesn’t work. People end up bored, burned out and empty. They look at church and wonder, “Jesus died for this?”
Agree or not with Barna’s methodology, data, or interpretations, his findings depict much of what has transpired in the U.S. Catholic Church since the 1960s.
In his new book, Maximum Faith, Barna details new research describing four barriers U.S. adults have identified that keep them from developing deeper faith. These include:
- commitment (only 18% of those surveyed describe themselves as totally committed to their spiritual development);
- repentance (only 12% reported feeling “devastated” by their sinfulness and need for God);
- activity (spiritual disciplines are not practiced with sufficient frequency to make much if any difference); and,
- spiritual community (only 21% of self-identified Christians say it’s necessary to be part of a community of faith to grow spiritually).
To assist adults to overcome these barriers, Barna presents three challenges to pastors.
The first challenge: don’t confuse tools with expectations.
While laudable, preaching about the tools—-to worship and evangelize, to be disciples, to practice stewardship and service, and to form community—misses the goal of deepening faith. As Barna rightly notes, faith development requires being motivated to meet high expectations. Focus upon high expectations—the purpose of faith—to provide the foundation for deeper faith, not vice versa.
The second challenge: assist adults to embrace suffering and sacrifice with the goal of surrendering and submitting to God.
Barna argues that spiritual growth occurs when adults embrace their brokenness—to be broken people—not by concealing it. But, they need exemplars. Barna suggests that pastors identify the experiences of members of the faith community who have suffered for their faith, that is, the pain they endured through personal crises, their prolonged commitment to spiritual growth, and their increasing practice of spiritual discipline. For example, preaching about these exemplars teaches selflessness and inspires hope in adults that they can also experience victory in deepening faith.
Barna’s third challenge: get adults to perceive and experience the faith community as a vital support system in the pursuit of deepening one’s faith.
Slightly more than 25% of self-described Christians meet during the week for Bible study, prayer, or life sharing; however, many of these meetings are primarily a means for creating community and a sense of connection to the larger church, the product of which oftentimes is a combination of knowledge and comfort, not commitment and the application of faith to real-life. These meetings, while helpful for personal and perhaps spiritual growth, oftentimes do not get translated into the “fruit” of deeper faith: personal, congregational, and cultural transformation.
Barna believes that pastors should redefine “success” when it comes to motivating adults to overcome the four barriers to deepening their faith. He notes that typical measures—attendance at church and program attendance/completion—demonstrate little correlation with deeper faith. What pastors should focus upon is “plowing the ground”—the stuff of deeper faith—rather than “pruning the vines”—providing programs—if the pastoral goal is to effect the transformation of all things in Christ.
Adult Catholics who are serious about deepening their faith and strengthening their affiliation to the Church might consider discussing Barna’s findings and challenges with their pastors. Think about it: Were Sunday homilies to integrate each of Barna’s three challenges effectively, it is likely the adults in the congregation would perk up, listen, and consider the stuff of a deeper Catholic faith: character change, lifestyle shifts, and attitudinal transitions. They might even practice spiritual discipline more frequently and make a greater commitment to the life of the Catholic faith by developing parish-based programs to assist their peers to deepen their faith.
For information about Futurecast, click on the following link:
For information about Maximum Faith, click on the following link: