Building relationships with other believers seems to come naturally to Protestant churchgoers. But a new study, released Wednesday (May 8), finds that for many those relationships are built apart from Bible study and spiritual growth.
The 2019 Discipleship Pathway Assessment study from LifeWay Research found 78 percent of Protestant churchgoers say they have developed significant relationships with people at their church, including 43 percent who strongly agree. Fewer than 1 in 10 disagree (8 percent), while 14 percent neither agree nor disagree.
The survey of Protestant churchgoers identifies building relationships as one of eight signposts that consistently show up in the lives of growing Christians. The survey, conducted Jan. 14–29, is part of the 2019 Discipleship Pathway Assessment, a larger study identifying traits of Christian discipleship.
“In an American culture in which significant relationships are hard to form, most churchgoers have had at least some success at making friends at church,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “But the majority aren’t as confident as they could be about the significance of those relationships.”
While there is no evidence of a gender divide in developing significant relationships at church, age does play a role in the likelihood someone has strong friendships at church. More than 4 in 10 churchgoers 65 and older (46 percent) strongly agree they have significant relationships within the congregation compared to 38 percent of 18-34-year-olds.
Unsurprisingly, those who attend worship services more frequently — four times a month or more — are more likely to confirm strongly they have developed such relationships than those who attend less frequently (47 percent to 33 percent).
Relationships, not discipleship
Fewer churchgoers, however, are intentionally leveraging their relationships with other believers to help them grow in their faith. Fewer than half of churchgoers (48 percent) agree with the statement, “I intentionally spend time with other believers to help them grow in their faith.” This includes 19 percent who strongly agree. The same number (19 percent) disagree.
“There is a different element to relationships at church that the majority of churchgoers haven’t prioritized,” McConnell said. “One of the ways a believer shows they have love for God is by investing in other believers. The relationship isn’t just about mutual interests; it is about proactively being interested in the faith of others.”
While older churchgoers (65 and older) are more likely to say they have significant relationships, they are less likely to strongly agree they intentionally spend time with other believers to help them grow (13 percent). Young adults (18 to 34) are the most likely to strongly agree they are intentional about investing time in the spiritual growth of others (26 percent).
Hispanics (32 percent) are more likely to strongly agree than African Americans (22 percent), whites (17 percent) or churchgoers of other ethnicities (17 percent).
Black Protestants (24 percent) and evangelicals (21 percent) are significantly more likely than mainline Protestants (12 percent) to agree strongly they are intentional about spending time to help others grow spiritually.
While many churchgoers aren’t seeking to spend time with others to help them grow, they aren’t spending time with a small group that could benefit their own personal discipleship either.
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Source: Baptist Press