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March 8, 2003
Column #1,123

(first of two parts)

Do Spiritually Committed People Live Their Faith?

     As the season of Lent begins, millions of Americans re-examine their spiritual health. I think this is an excellent season for churches to diagnose their spiritual effectiveness.

     What percent of your church members would say they are "spiritually committed," with an "inner peace from God" whose faith has given them "hope, meaning and purpose in life," yet who also feel "the need to experience spiritual growth" in their daily lives?

     Remarkably, a new Gallup Poll reports that 79.8% of Americans would say yes to these questions which measure an "Inner Commitment" to God, a vertical relationship with Him. 

     Now a tougher yardstick which measures an "Outer Commitment" of faith. What percent of your church members feel God is calling them "to be involved in the lives of the poor and suffering," who actually give their time "to serve and help others," whose "first priority in spending money is to support the work of God," and whose friends and neighbors would affirm that your church members truly "love God?" 

     Nationally, a big 69.5 percent of Americans would say that their faith is being lived out in service to others. Would seven of 10 of your church members agree?

     Probably. In fact, among weekly church attenders, 91 percent have the Inner Commitment, and 85 percent are living their faith in service. But among those who rarely attend, only 53 percent feel the same spiritual commitment to God and 41 percent live to serve others.

     "These findings are thrilling," said George Gallup Jr. in a press conference this week. "We now have a measure of the relationship of the love of God and love of neighbor. These factors are more important than any economic or political factors. What drives this country is faith. And the deeper the faith, the greater the impact in one's life."

     Religiously inactive people would probably disagree, and would predict that relatively few active believers are also living their lives in service to the poor and the suffering. Of course, we have all know people who say they love Jesus, but who are more self-indulgent than serving. 

     However, hypocrites are the exception to the rule, according to America's first "Spiritual State of the Union 2003," a new poll by the Gallup Organization and the Center for Research on Religion & Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania.

     Next year and in subsequent years, there will be a similar "Spiritual State of the Union," released at about the same time the President delivers his State of the Union address.

     However, when Rev. Scott Jones, pastor of Grace Community Church in Tempe, AZ, worked with Gallup to develop a deeper measure of the spiritual maturity of Christians - the results were not so encouraging. 

     While 75 percent believe in the God of the Bible and that God is involved in their lives, only 42 percent say they "take unpopular stands when my faith dictates," 34 percent "have an inner contentment even when things go wrong," 28 percent regularly study the Bible and a slim 22 percent assert, "I control my tongue."

     Also, only 44 percent hear God calling them "to be involved in the lives of the poor and suffering" and "allow other Christians to hold me accountable for my actions." A mere 31 percent say their "first priority in spending money is to support God's work."

     It gets worse. Only a fifth of Christians keep their "composure even when people or circumstances irritate me," and a thin 19 percent think they are known "for not raising my voice."

     Scott Jones asked 30 key questions of his own congregation, developed with Gallup, to measure ten core beliefs, ten core practices and ten virtues. What he found was that the professed beliefs of his church members had very little to do with their Christian character. "It is easy to believe something, but is harder to put it into play," he says. 

     "What's needed is spiritual transformation."

     To promote that he scrapped his sermon focus. "We were answering questions that no one was asking," he confesses. "Why are so few sermons on practical issues?" 

     He created a "Spiritual Formation Calendar," and began preaching less on what people should believe, and more on how they should become more patient or gentle, for example. 

     Would you like your house of worship to ask probing questions on the spiritual health, practice and virtue of your church members? It might make your sermons more relevant!

     See next week's column for details.

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