As President Obama and other political leaders reference scripture more often in important speeches, including the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it prompts questions about Christianity and the level of spiritual growth in America today.
Pollster George Barna, whose years of research on religion gets to the core of Christianity, recently conducted a survey asking Christians, “What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ?” and “What are the duties and obligations of someone who calls himself/herself a Christian?”
These are pertinent questions to wrestle with in light of the highly debated “signs of the times” and second coming of Jesus Christ among evangelical leaders today.
Barna’s recent book, Maximum Faith, concludes that without complete determination to live like Christ and for Him, the path to complete transformation and spiritual growth is blocked.
“There are several barriers to overcome before many people are likely to persevere and maximize their connection with God,” Barna says in his book.
He found out that only a small percentage of born-again Christians stick with the spiritual growth process long enough to become the mature followers of Christ and world changers that they are meant to be.
Nearly 65 percent of all Christians in the United States say they have confessed their sins to God and asked for His forgiveness, research concludes.
However, Barna’s evidence is quite clear that relatively few Christians are serious about abandoning the lure of sin and handing total control of their lives over to God.
He also discovered that Christians today do not take their faith community or church seriously, whatever type it may be, as a place where they should be open and held to biblical principles.
Barna says there are barriers to spiritual growth. They are broken down into four categories; commitment, repentance, activity and spiritual community.
He notes that most churches in America encourage congregations to engage in religious activities, which is good, but they are not the only answer to spiritual growth. “While growth in worship, discipleship, stewardship, service, study and other activities is important, people often fail to realize the end game of spiritual development is godly character, not worldly accomplishments,” Barna said.
“God does not need His followers to achieve things on His behalf for them to become more acceptable or valuable to Him.”
He concludes that more than three out of four Christians (78 percent) strongly agreed that spirituality is very important to them.
“Yet, less than one in five Christians claims to be totally committed to investing in their own spiritual development,” he said.
“These figures help explain why a majority of Christian adults (52 percent) believe that there is much more to the Christian life than what they have experienced.”
Research also indicates that sometimes people get so wrapped up in church programs or producing specific religious results they lose sight of the purpose of their faith, which is to have a life-changing relationship with Jesus.
Barna noted that it becomes easy to substitute laudable religious activity for intentional and simple engagement with God. American Christians, in particular, have become known for doing good works and religious exercises rather than simply being friends and imitators of Christ.
Another challenge Barna found in the issue of spiritual maturity is the ability to embrace sacrifice and suffering in order to surrender and submit fully to God.
He said Christians must grow through brokenness during sacrifice. "But churches," he said, "find this unappealing."
He added, “Until such brokenness occurs, people’s transformation and growth is hindered. The church should raise those who suffer for their faith and give God full control of their lives, as champions, positioning such selflessness as victory rather than loss.”
Barna said if individuals are not sacrificing for God in their church, it may be time for them to rethink their disciple-making process.
A third challenge to spiritual maturity listed by Barna is the importance of perceiving a faith community or church as a vital support system in the pursuit of a deeper relationship with God.
Bible study, prayer, and life sharing activities, in or outside the worship building, are relied upon by conventional churches as a means of creating community and a sense of connection to the church.
The goal of these groups is usually about knowledge and comfort instead of commitment and application.
Only three percent of all Christians in America have come to a place in their spiritual lives where they have surrendered control of their life to God, submitted to His will for their life, and devoted themselves to loving and serving God and other people, according to recent studies.
Barna says he is currently working on helping faith communities rethink how they measure “success” in their ministries that are supposed to help Christians grow closer to God.
Most agree with Barna that spiritual fruit is grown through character change, lifestyle shifts, attitudinal transitions, and spiritual process and commitments.
Barna's survey involved a national random sample of adults (18 or older) selected from across the 48 continental states.