The Missing Ingredient in Spiritual Health

by Albert L. Winseman, D. Min.
Religion and Social Trends Editor

Despite Gallup findings that religiousness among Americans hasn't significantly increased since Sept. 11, interest in spiritual matters has seen a marked increase over the last 10 years. However, the ability of faith communities to capitalize on this interest depends a great deal on their effectiveness at connecting people psychologically to their faith and to the organization itself.

Gallup looked for outcomes of that connection -- including the likelihood of members to serve and help others, to invite non-members to participate, to provide financial support and to experience life satisfaction -- in a landmark study* investigating congregational "health." More than 1,100 churchgoers were interviewed in nine Protestant congregations from four different denominations and in three states. The results strongly indicated that there are two separate dimensions at work in the way members relate to their congregational lives: congregational engagement and spiritual commitment.

Spiritual commitment is personal, and focuses on the extent to which faith permeates an individual's life. This commitment is reflected in attitudes such as religious faith that gives a sense of inner peace, and faith being involved in every aspect of a person's life. It is also demonstrated in specific behaviors, such as praying daily, encouraging others and finding the power to forgive.

Congregational engagement, in contrast, reflects how strongly a person feels a sense of belonging within the congregation. Things such as how much an individual feels his or her opinions count, whether the spiritual leaders seem to care about individuals, whether the membership expectations are clear and the depth and breadth of a person's relationships within the congregation, indicate the strength of engagement.

Perhaps the most crucial finding for religious leaders is that congregational engagement is far more likely to lead to spiritual commitment than the other way around. Members who are highly engaged in their congregations are nearly four times as likely to also be highly spiritually committed than those who are not engaged. Of those people who are highly spiritually committed, 51% are highly engaged, while only 13% of those who are not highly engaged are highly spiritually committed (see graph).

Why is this important? Because most congregational leaders focus most of their time and energy on spiritual commitment and focus little on congregational engagement. The result is that their religious communities are not functioning at an optimum spiritual health, which means the congregation is not fulfilling its mission nearly as well as it could. And that, in turn, results in fewer changed lives.

*Initial study based on telephone interviews with 700 adults, aged 18+, conducted Oct.-Nov. 2000. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±4%. Follow-up study based on telephone interviews with 1,127 adults, aged 18+, conducted Apr.-May 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3%.

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