By Aaron Earls
Building relationships with other believers seems to come naturally to Protestant churchgoers, however, for many, those relationships are built apart from Bible study and spiritual growth.
The 2019 Discipleship Pathway Assessment study from Nashville-based Lifeway Research found 78% of Protestant churchgoers say they have developed significant relationships with people at their church, including 43% who strongly agree. Fewer than 1 in 10 disagree (8%), while 14% 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 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 on 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%) strongly agree they have significant relationships within the congregation compared to 38% 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% to 33%).
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%) agree with the statement, “I intentionally spend time with other believers to help them grow in their faith.” This includes 19% who strongly agree. The same number (19%) disagree.
“There is a different element to relationships at church that the majority of churchgoers haven’t prioritized,” said McConnell. “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%). 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%).
Hispanics (32%) are more likely to strongly agree than African Americans (22%), whites (17%) or churchgoers of other ethnicities (17%).
Black Protestants (24%) and evangelicals (21%) are significantly more likely than mainline Protestants (12%) 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.
According to the survey, 35% of churchgoers attend a class or small group four or more times in a typical month. Fourteen percent attend two to three times a month. Almost 4 in 10 (38%) Protestant churchgoers do not attend a class or small group in a typical month, while 13% attend once a month.
“For much of church history, small groups or classes have been one of the most effective ways churches offer for attendees to connect with others, study the Bible and serve together,” said McConnell. “This avenue of seeking God together is both relational and devotional.”
White churchgoers (41%) are more likely to say they never attend a small group of some kind than African Americans (35%) and Hispanics (26%).
Mainline Protestants (48%) are more likely to never attend a small group than black Protestants (36%) and evangelicals (35%).
Blessed are the peacemakers
In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), one group of people Jesus described as “blessed” are the peacemakers. Half of churchgoers (49%) say they intentionally try to make peace at church, including 24% who strongly agree.
Almost 4 in 10 are noncommittal (38%), while 13% say they aren’t trying to be peacemakers.
“As Jesus prayed about His future followers, His priority was their unity,” McConnell said. “It takes work to keep the peace among a group of people. Stepping in to make that happen benefits everyone in the church.”
Younger churchgoers (28%) are most likely to strongly agree they intentionally try to be a peacemaker.
Hispanic (34%) and African American churchgoers (32%) are more likely than white churchgoers (19%) to strongly agree they try to bring peace at church.
Black Protestants (32%) are most likely to strongly agree they try to be peacemakers followed by evangelicals (24%) and mainline Protestants (16%).
Building relationships is one of eight signposts measured in the Discipleship Pathway Assessment and addressed in Lifeway’s Bible Studies for Life curriculum. For more information, visit DiscipleshipPathwayAssessment.com.
Aaron Earls is senior writer/editor of LifewayResearch.com.
The online survey of 2,500 Protestant churchgoers was conducted Jan. 14–29, 2019. Respondents were screened to include those who identified as Protestant/non-denominational and attend religious services at least once a month. Quotas and slight weights were used to balance gender, age, region, ethnicity, income and denominational affiliation. The completed sample is 2,500 surveys. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 2.0%. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.