January 5, 2012

Church Trends

Nearly three out of four Americans believe that “God has a plan for me.” A total of 41 percent “strongly agreed,” and another 32 percent “agreed” in a survey released in September by the Baylor University religion survey (Wave 3). People with higher education and incomes are less likely to believe that God has a plan for their lives or that God is engaged in their lives in a significant way.
The Baylor team conducted 512 random telephone interviews and collected another 1,202 questionnaires by mail from a random sample across the country, for a total of 1,714 respondents. The purpose of the study was to explore how beliefs about God relate to practical issues in the life of the “average” American.
The researchers found that a strong relationship with God can enrich the lives of people in many ways. Those who described their relationship with God as “warm” report nearly a third fewer mental health issues. People who strongly believe that God knows when they need emotional support also have fewer emotional problems, as do those who strongly believe that God is responsive to them. The same is true for those who strongly believe that God’s love never fails.
It would be wrong to conclude that those with a strong faith never have disappointments or suffer from depression or anxiety. These things do happen to people with strong faith. In fact, there are stories in the Bible about heroes of faith who suffered negative feelings.
2012 1501 page30What these survey data demonstrate is the way many Americans connect their religious beliefs and their emotional well-being. When opportunities come to share our faith, this emotional-spiritual connection is likely to be a crucial element for the person we are listening to and sharing with. It often does not help to talk about faith in impersonal, historic, or propositional terms.
The place in American life where opportunity for personal ministry most often occurs is in the context of work. The average American spends more time on the job than at home (awake) or in the community. You get to know people you work with, and as you spend time with them you hear about their lives. More than a third of Americans ?(36 percent) told the Baylor researchers that their pursuit of excellence in their employment is motivated by their faith. One in four views their occupation as a mission given to them by God. Among those who take the Bible literally, these percentages almost double.
At the same time, people who live on the East Coast or West Coast of the United States and those with more education and higher incomes are less likely to have these views. Young adults and White Americans are also less likely to express these beliefs.
What Do These Numbers Mean?
There are many “touch points” where your faith could connect with the beliefs and needs of the people you encounter at work, in vocational pursuits, and in your community. Are you prepared for such conversational opportunities? These are “divine appointments,” one veteran minister taught me years ago.

Do you seek to understand how the people around you think about religion, or do you assume that they have the same frame of reference that you have? As Adventists we tend to think in terms of the end of time, yet the average person thinks in terms of his or her current situation. Can you share your faith in that context?
If we learn to listen carefully to others—unselfishly—then we are more likely to be able to speak words of real hope to them. If we respectfully pay attention to the way others think about spiritual things, then we can find opportunities to meet their needs and suggest how Christ’s message can be meaningful in their lives.
Research such as the Baylor study gives us a clearer understanding of the way others think about religion and seek to relate to God. It provides valuable information for those who are serious about going on God’s errands.
Monte Sahlin is director of research and special projects for the Ohio Conference and a senior consultant at the Center for Creative Ministry. questions and suggestions can be sent to him at [email protected]. This article was published January 12, 2012.