Most American Christians don't know their purpose in life is to 'love, serve God': survey

Volunteers prepare food at the annual Thanksgiving in the Park gathering where residents of the farm worker community of Immokalee are provided with a free Thanksgiving meal on November 28, 2019, in Immokalee, Florida. Now in its 38th year, the event is sponsored by area faith based organizations and serves approximately 1,500 people on Thanksgiving Day. The Immokalee community is made up mainly of seasonal farm workers. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New data from a multi-part survey exploring how Americans view the world shows that while the majority believe life has a specific purpose, less than one-fifth say life’s purpose is knowing and loving God.

In the latest installment of the bi-weekly American Worldview Inventory from the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, new findings reveal that Americans overwhelmingly are unsure about what life’s purpose is.

The data is based on a nationally representative sample of 2,000 American adults and includes interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1,000 adults via telephone and 1,000 adults interviewed online. The data has an error margin of 2 percentage points. 

According to the data, 86% of Americans believe there's a “universal, shared purpose” that human life possesses. About two-in-three respondents (66%) believe they have a “unique, God-given calling or purpose.” 

But only 18% believe the universal purpose is “knowing, loving and serving God.”

“Even among the 71% of Americans who consider themselves to be Christians, fewer than 20% adopt the biblical view that our purpose is to know, love and serve God,” an analysis of the data reads.  

These percentages reveal that the vast majority of Americans — including those who identify as Christians — appear to be seeking meaning without God at the center of their thinking.

The study shows that Americans differ significantly as to how they define their life's purpose. The most widely-held view among 23% of survey respondents is "experiencing happiness and fulfillment" is the ultimate reason for living.

About 18% indicated that their life's purpose was to evolve to their "full potential physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.” 

Another 10% of those surveyed said their purpose in life is “furthering the development of humanity” or “living a long, healthy life.”

One-quarter of Americans defined success as "living a healthy, productive, and safe life." Approximately one-fifth of adults said that success was either “being a good person” or living a lifestyle of “consistent obedience to God.”

The survey also found that among churchgoing adults, no Christian church affiliation claimed a majority who believed that life success involves “consistent obedience to God.” 

“Evangelicals came closest (47%), followed by those attending Pentecostal churches (42%),” the analysis explains. “[B]ut only 23% attending mainline Protestant church and just 16% of Catholics include obedience to God in the definition of success.”

The results reveal a significant generational and political disparity when it comes to God factoring into one's sense of purpose. 

The older a person is, the more likely they are to adopt a biblical view of life's purpose.  Meanwhile, Americans who range in age from 18 to 29 are least likely to espouse God as part of their purpose. 

Those with politically conservative views are three times as likely to say God gives purpose to their life than political liberals, the survey indicates.

“The disconnect is staggering,” said CRC Director of Research George Barna, a longtime evangelical pollster and founder of The Barna Group. 

“As a nation, we yearn for purpose and calling, ideas deeply rooted within our nation’s historical Christian faith and biblical understanding of God,” he added in a statement. 

“Americans hold on to these basic biblical ideas of what makes human existence meaningful, yet, at the same time, refuse to recognize reliance on God or even His existence when talking about their happiness or purpose.”

The release of the research in the American Worldview Inventory was going to coincide with the launch of the Cultural Research Center at ACU in Glendale, Arizona, in March. But the center's formal event had to be postponed until the fall as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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