In an effort to define the current reality of American Christianity, which often times can be painted more positively or more grimly by Christians than it is, one researcher found that most Protestant churchgoers are not where they should be in their spiritual formation.
According to Brad Waggoner, vice president of B&H Publishing Group, and his survey findings, only 17 percent of Protestant churchgoers in America demonstrated a "decent" level of discipleship or spiritual maturity.
This minority scored 80 percent or higher on a Spiritual Formation Inventory (SFI) that was developed to measure key areas of Christian discipleship. These discipleship characteristics, which were validated by a panel of experts, were considered to be "clear biblical expectations of any follower of Christ that can be observed and, thus to some degree, measured," Waggoner writes in his new book, The Shape of Faith to Come: Spiritual Formation and the Future of Discipleship.
His passion to see spiritual transformation and true disciples among Christians was the springboard for conducting the study and writing his latest book.
After surveying 2,500 Protestants who attend church regularly – at least once a month – Waggoner had major concerns about the lack of focus on qualitative discipleship in many churches and he wants spiritual leaders to be challenged to reject the mediocrity among believers.
"When you consider the cultural context in which we reside, this is not the time for weak or average Christians or the time for weak or average churches," he writes in his book.
"Much is at stake. I am convinced that things must change," he also states. "At present I believe that too many of us are settling for easy goals. It is one thing to grow a church numerically. It is quite another to seek the transformation of heart, mind, and character."
Other findings showed that only 16 percent of Protestant churchgoers read their Bible daily while another 20 percent read it "a few times a week."
Only 23 percent "agreed strongly" with the statement, "When I come to realize that some aspect of my life is not right in God’s eyes, I make the necessary changes."
Also, 47 percent of Protestant churchgoers admitted to just "going through the motions" often during the singing and prayer portions of worship services while one-quarter strongly disagreed that they merely go through the motions.
And in the past six months, 29 percent of respondents said they shared with someone how to become a Christian twice or more, 14 percent reported doing it once and 57 percent said not at all.
One year later, a majority of the churchgoers said they believe they grew spiritually over that year, yet their actions and practices evidenced little change.
"We discovered a problem with these self-perceptions for growth or decline," Waggoner states. "Fifty-five percent of our respondents believed they had grown spiritually in the last year. However, based on SFI scores, only 3.5 percent showed a statistically significant level of growth."
While Waggoner called many of the results "disturbing," he did not want to become the "'Chicken Little' to the church crying, 'The sky is falling!'"
"Even though our research reveals reasons for concern, my underlying theology allows me to maintain confidence," he writes. "I believe God is on His throne without any threat to His sovereign rule. The church, the body and bride of Christ, will be triumphant."
Still, Waggoner acknowledges the challenge of keeping a balance of biblically grounded optimism while facing the hard facts of reality.
The survey was conducted on the 2,500 church attendees in May 2007 and then again in May 2008. For this study, Waggoner defined disciple as being "a learner and a follower of Jesus Christ" and evaluated seven domains of spiritual formation among respondents. The domains include: learning truth, obeying God and denying self, serving God and others, sharing Christ, exercising faith, seeking God, and building relationships.
"We need to evaluate our churches by far more than the typical quantitative metrics," Waggoner writes. "This study is about qualitative perspectives related to spiritual formation. We need to be satisfied with nothing less than true biblical transformation."