by Kurt S. Buchholz, President & CEO of Lutheran Hour Ministries
Recently I was in church on a Sunday morning and was surprised and delighted by what I saw up on the screens in the front of the church. They were displaying data and findings from Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age, Lutheran Hour Ministries (LHM) and Barna Group’s last study, which looked at how Christians’ approach to sharing their faith has changed in the last 25 years.
I was most amazed to learn that the information on the screens that Sunday had only made it into the pastor’s hands the previous night. This was a clear picture to me that when leaders are given clarity about the state of the world and the Church’s mission within it, they don’t hesitate to put that clarity into action. Our research with Barna, it turns out, is filling a great need in our churches—and leaders are not keeping it to themselves.
This reminds me of the importance of our daily work and ongoing mission at LHM: bringing Christ to the Nations, and the Nations to the Church. You see, we invested in careful research about the state of spiritual conversations because LHM is curious about how people talk about their faith and wants to equip and inspire Christians to have more fruitful discussions about these topics. Barna helped us do just that, and now we continue our partnership with a second round of cutting- edge research, Households of Faith.
Having explored the dynamics that affect how individuals share their faith, we wanted to broaden the scope to consider how faith is handed down and nurtured within households. The data pulls back the curtain and discovers powerful insights about how faith is being handled in practicing Christians’ homes. For example, we have learned that:
- Faith experiences in youth affect Christians’ beliefs and practices into adulthood.
- Faith formation and hospitality go hand in hand.
- Mothers’ spiritual influence seems to be especially positive and enduring.
- Couple households, primarily made up of Boomers and Elders, are less interactive with extended households and community.
- Spiritually vibrant households share traits that can be nurtured within any household.
It’s that last finding that has me particularly excited. The qualities of these vibrant households where faith is cultivated in a beautiful, lasting way are attainable for any household—no matter the size or makeup—which is good news for the cause of the gospel. Any spiritually dormant household can become, over time and with intention, a spiritually vibrant household of faith.
Having seen how careful thinking and strategic leadership in the area of spiritual conversations has already blessed local churches, I am confident that, by God’s grace, the study you are about to read will lead to real life change for countless households. The reality is, the size and shape and complexity of households is shifting, but the role of the household in instilling and nurturing the Christian faith remains the same. Every church is filled with parents longing to raise their children in the faith, grandparents who want to leave a spiritual legacy, singles and empty nesters who want to grow in their faith—and help others grow as well! Here, in Households of Faith, you’ll find powerful insights to help all of these groups establish the rituals and relationships that turn a home into a sacred space. I pray that church leaders, pastors and household members of every age and stage of life are as encouraged, challenged and enlightened as we have been.
At LHM, we are committed to seeing the Christian faith instilled and nurtured within vibrant households of faith. I invite you to read on and join us in this mission.
Barna Group undertook this Households of Faith study to learn how practicing Christians’ core relationships engage them in a thoughtful, transformative faith—the kind that holds up to and is passed down over time. Understanding such rituals and relationships is important because, as shown in Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age, our first report in partnership with Lutheran Hour Ministries, most people today are reluctant to even speak about faith.1 Less than one-quarter of American adults has a spiritual conversation once a month. More than half of people who claim no religion (55%) say they simply aren’t interested in the topic. Concerns about coming off as angry, disrespectful or judgmental are main reasons people feel it can be inappropriate to discuss spiritual matters.
Compared to data collected in 1993, we see that Christians, too, have had a change of heart about spiritual conversations. Whether quoting scripture (59% in 1993 vs. 37% in 2017), telling the story of how they came to believe in Jesus (57% vs. 45%) or simply feeling a responsibility to share about their faith in the first place (89% vs. 64%), Christians are generally less vocal. Meanwhile, sacred dialogue seems to have moved into the more private spheres of life. For instance, Christians today are actually more likely to seek out opportunities to discuss faith (19% in 2017 vs. 11% in 1993), but they think this is best done within established relationships (47% vs. 37%). Their preferred spiritual conversation partners include close friends and family members, usually a spouse or child.
For the Church, some of these statistics are indicators of a decline in Christianity’s public standing or of timidity among believers. But the Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age study also underscored the power of intimacy in faith formation. People who report having a major life change as a result of a spiritual conversation usually note that this interaction occurred in person (73%), through multiple one-on-one conversations (42%) and with someone they knew well (88%).
With an awareness that Christianity has become more tense, complex or even hidden in public, we now turn the lens of our research toward how it is being nurtured and lived out in private—with the people who come and go from under Christians’ roofs. This report is the product of a series of qualitative in-person interviews with various households and quantitative online surveys of 2,347 practicing Christians (including 448 with teens between the ages of 13–17), exploring the makeup of households and the ways in which they interact, spiritually and otherwise. At the heart of these surveys are our own guiding questions: What does faith look like on a day-to-day basis, in practicing Christians’ most familiar relationships, personal environments or unobserved hours? With the help of churches, how might that everyday faith become vibrant and enduring?
The New Shape of American Households
Any study of U.S. practicing Christians should be assessed against the backdrop of U.S. adults as a whole. In this case, American households and family units have changed significantly in recent decades. We see this, for example, in Millennials’ hesitancy to get married and have children, meaning many of these young adults share their living spaces with roommates, significant others or their parents.2A plummeting national divorce rate—down 18 percentage points between 2008 and 2016—has also been attributed to Millennials, though that could reflect instability in the economy as much as prudence in relationships; 3 if college and career are regarded as the precursor to commitment, those with lower levels of education and income are less likely to take a walk down the aisle. Some young adults may come around to starting families, whether or not they have a spouse; more than half of never-married women in their early 40s have birthed a child, up 6 percentage points from just a decade ago.4The post-recession economic climate, as well as growing racial diversity, have also given rise to more multi-generational living arrangements.5
As you can see, the sing-song premise that “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage” doesn’t always apply—and if it does, it might take time. And money. As social historian and author Stephanie Coontz, says, “We’re seeing a class divide not only between the haves and the have-nots, but between the I do’s and the I do nots.”6 New economic realities persist into marriage partnerships too: Between 1960 and 2011, the share of married women who out-earn their husbands climbed from 6 percent to 24 percent.7
The forces that shape U.S. households (such as rates of marriage and divorce, living and housing costs, fertility patterns, education levels, societal values, geography and so on) are myriad and in flux. Though it’s not explored in this particular study, we can assume the practicing Christian segment is more likely to hold to some traditional ideas about marriage and family that might curb a few of these domestic trends—but not entirely. As you’ll see in the coming chapters, Christians and their households are navigating many of these same household changes and challenges.
An Invitation into Christians’ Homes
The findings contained in this report are intended not only to shed light on households of faith, but to provide insights for leaders who disciple them. If a church is much more than a building, or if a congregation is ultimately the sum of its people and families, how can a ministry contribute to the health of households? In turn, how can each household contribute to the health of the Church?
This study reveals patterns, and at times clear principles, about spiritual development in the home. It also points to some groups of Christians who might struggle (or neglect) to create time for connective moments, if only for a season of life:
- Having children in a household is a spark for conversations and activities related to faith—or anything else, for that matter—while homes without minors have less give-and-take.
- Mothers surpass fathers (and most individuals) in multiple dimensions of closeness and faith formation, even when children are grown.
- Couple households, usually made up of older empty nesters, have more secluded lifestyles marked by regular, meaningful exchanges between spouses, and rarely anyone else.
- Young unmarried adults often live in roommate contexts, and though their households are extensive and hospitable, their spiritual interactions are more sporadic.
These are just some of the ways that age, relationship status, the presence of minors or the number of housemates all have great bearing on the frequency and diversity of spiritual interactions—but robust faith engagement as a household is, more than anything, a product of intention and decision. Much of our analysis rightly examines ages and stages, noting contextual differences and tendencies, but common threads suggest that anyone—regardless of their season or station in life—can nurture a spiritually vibrant household. The importance of fostering intimacy, sharing rituals and having fun with housemates—as well as friends and other non-family guests who become a part of one’s extended household—cannot be overstated. Faith is stimulated by hospitality and formed in community.
The Proverbs proclaim, “A house is built by wisdom and becomes strong through good sense. Through knowledge its rooms are filled with all sorts of precious riches and valuables” (24:3–4). We present Households of Faith with the hope that it might impart fresh wisdom and understanding to produce spiritual vibrancy in followers of Christ, their homes and, ultimately, the family of God.