HOW IMPORTANT ARE
We are living in the most “connected” era in human history. Yet the obstacles to authentic, meaningful relationships are many.
In Barna’s 2019 global study of 18 to 35-year-olds—appropriately called The Connected Generation—we found that 77 percent of young adults in 25 countries say events around the world matter to them. More than half sense a connection to people around the world.13 This is likely nurtured by digital access, social media, globalization and younger generations placing a great value on community.
At the same time, only one-third of 18–35-year-olds often feels deeply cared for by those around them or feels that someone believes in them. Some young adults—especially those who are unemployed, students, women, unmarried or anxious—encounter feelings of loneliness. This paradox of being connected-yet-disconnected is pronounced among Millennials and Gen Z and no doubt relates to technology—teens and young adults are quick to recognize how devices separate them from others. Relational burdens, however, are not unique either to younger generations or to a digital era. In a 2019 Barna study, anxiety (42% U.S. adults, 37% practicing Christians), depression (39%, 33%) and loneliness (32%, 29%) surfaced as the primary challenges to relationships and were consistent inside and outside the Church.
After the onset of the pandemic, social distancing only compounded modern conditions for isolation. In the winter of 2020, according to Barna research conducted with Susan Mettes for her book The Loneliness Epidemic, about one in six people who attend church regularly (16%) said they were lonely all the time. A majority was lonely at some point in any week.
Barna’s research over the years has flagged these and other challenges to relationships—as well as the benefit of being in community, especially when it includes a church.
The Blessings of Relationships
It’s important for pastors to take note of how relationships are integral not only in well-being but in discipleship and faith formation.
For instance, in a 2018 study of U.S. households, we observed that hospitality is correlated with an increase in spiritual activity. Households that regularly hosted nonfamily guests were more likely to come together to talk about faith, pray or read the Bible. Interestingly, these homes also witnessed an increase in other less explicitly spiritual activities like shared hobbies, deep conversations or recreational interactions. Households that prioritized faith generally prioritized togetherness, and these values permeated their routines.
Relationships are integral not only in well-being but in discipleship and faith formation
David Kinnaman and his Faith for Exiles co-author Mark Matlock also found that meaningful relationships within the Church are a crucial ingredient in being a “resilient disciple.” The overwhelming majority of young adults who meet this definition says church is a place where they belong, that someone encourages them to grow spiritually and that they are connected to a community of Christians. These ties aren’t new, either; typically, resilient disciples admire the faith of their parents and had close friendships with adult churchgoers in their growing-up years.
At any age, churchgoers may have their life and faith changed by the people they get to know in lobbies, sanctuaries, Zoom rooms or small groups.
Relational Flourishing Today
So, we’ve learned that relationships are keys in connection, in faith—and, further, we’ve learned that relational flourishing plays a significant role in human flourishing overall. In fact, regression analysis showed that this variable has a strong relationship with life satisfaction when controlling for the effects of other variables.
What is the state of relationships in the U.S. Church today?
As of summer 2021, overall, churched adults fare better than the general population in their relationships, though they are still split in their relational flourishing. Just over half (52%) are strong in this dimension (vs. 28% of the general population). Fifty-four percent score highly (nine or 10) in their relational satisfaction and 58 percent score highly in their relational contentment, the two items assessed by the Church Pulse. For practicing Christians, the percentage with a high relational flourishing score overall ticks up to 61.
As you might expect, close family helps to foster relational flourishing. Churched adults with spouses or young children see a boost in reported contentment and satisfaction in relationships (58% with children at home and 61% who are married have high scores in the relational dimension vs. 49% of those without children at home and 43% of all single churched adults).
The Church’s Impact
Consistent church attendance is a factor in relational flourishing, with 60 percent of churched adults who attend weekly having high scores in this category. Other measures of commitment—such as leading in some capacity at a church (61%), staying in a church for a long tenure (58% who have been in a church more than 10 years) and experiencing “a lot” of spiritual growth in the past year (70%)—also hang together with high scores in relational contentment and satisfaction.
Thus, we see that adults who are flourishing relationally commonly report a quality of thriving churches: connected community (see page 78 for more). Among the half of churched adults who score highly in their relational satisfaction and contentment, 68 percent report high scores for their church community, saying they feel connected there and they have church relationships that encourage accountability. By comparison, just one in five churched adults who aren’t flourishing relationally experiences this connected community at church.
Relationally flourishing churched adults don’t just have connections at church that are meaningful, they also have many connections; a slight majority (54%) reports knowing more than 15 people at church well, with one in three (34%) knowing more than 30 well.
This research can’t clarify the direction of these trends—that is, whether people who are engaged in church then see improvement in relationships, or if people who are driven by or secure in relationships tend to find their way to church engagement. Likely, it’s some combination of both. Other individual factors, like marital status or personality, or church factors, like programs or congregation size, may also be at play.
The bottom line is the same: A rooted church life and a flourishing relational life often go together.
Relating to Relational Needs
Barna research has shown that many practicing Christians report investing most of their relational time and energy into their churches, second only to their families. Their commitment isn’t just to listen to a sermon, receive sacraments and pass an offering plate; for many, their commitment is to the people.
Churches can continue to nurture that commitment, perhaps by better addressing areas of relational need and the people who are most likely to face them. For example, across the board, single adults are on the lower end of relational flourishing compared to their married peers. Yet, as of 2019, pastors and priests said they rarely mentioned unwanted singleness in their sermons (37% once a year, 22% never); few even felt equipped to do so (17% “very” equipped).
A church that not only welcomes and connects people but also operates out of an awareness (if not a proficiency in) in the realities of what it takes to be content and satisfied in relationships today is key in supporting the whole-life flourishing of congregants.