REVEAL's Key findings

If you haven't heard about REVEAL, you're behind the times. Here's your primer. REVEAL was the culmination of a three-year process of research designed to measure how people grow spiritually, what types of activities or practices trigger (or hinder) spiritual growth and how the church has met—and failed to meet—their unique needs. Willow Creek's research was both qualitative and quantitative, including more than 2.6 million data points from more than 11,000 completed surveys, including 510 electronic surveys from MPPC congregants. It represents one of the most serious efforts yet to learn about how people become like Jesus. Using advanced research methods, Willow compared and correlated spiritual feelings and attitudes (love for God, love for people) with behavioral responses (tithing, evangelism, serving, etc.) to determine predictiveness. Predictiveness is the degree to which we can predict whether or not a person is likely to behave in a certain way. After analyzing church activities, spiritual behaviors, demographics, life stages and other factors, they concluded that nothing was more predictive of a person’s spiritual growth—love of God and love for others—than his or her relational closeness to Jesus Christ. Our Mission Study Report similarly concluded, “Yet, despite apparent differences, virtually everything we read about and learned from the healthiest Christian churches and faith communities across time, revealed their centering on Jesus.” REVEAL’s Findings First, it is interesting to note what REVEAL did not find; neither gender nor age impacted spiritual growth significantly. Moreover, patterns of spiritual growth (beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that mark the spiritual journey) were consistent across all seven churches surveyed despite differences of region, denomination and size. The stability of this pattern was a critical finding and indicates that the broader REVEAL findings could be used to help discern a path for spiritual growth for all MPPC congregants. Six Key Discoveries 1. Involvement in church activities does not predict or drive long-term spiritual growth. While church involvement did drive behavior somewhat—the more people participated, the more likely they are to serve, tithe, etc—quite startling was the finding that higher levels of church activities alone did not have a direct impact on growing the heart or predicting an increasing love for God. However, there is a “spiritual continuum” (based on relational closeness to Jesus Christ) that is very predictive and powerful. All the measured behaviors, attitudes and beliefs related to a growing love for God and others advanced in lockstep with this four-stage continuum that is centered on a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. (More information on the four stages is provided in Chapter 4.) Four Stage Spiritual Continuum: • Exploring Christianity (10% of MPPC respondents): “I believe in God, but I’m not sure about Jesus. My faith is not a significant part of my life.” • Growing in Christ (17% of MPPC respondents): “I believe in Jesus, and I’m working on what it means to get to know Him.” • Close to Christ (29% of MPPC respondents): “I feel really close to Christ and depend on Him daily for guidance.” • Christ-Centered (25% of MPPC respondents): “God is all I need in my life. He is enough. Everything I do is a reflection of Christ.” 2. Spiritual growth is all about increasing relational closeness to Christ. REVEAL discovered the four segments or stages of spiritual growth based on how respondents described their relationship with Jesus. The study found that those who similarly described their relationship with Jesus also responded similarly to questions about spiritual attitudes and actions, including questions about “drivers and barriers” to spiritual growth. This conclusion reminds us that God has planted in our hearts the desire to grow in intimacy with Him; and as we draw closer to Him, we see dramatic changes in how we live our lives and relate to others. The research suggests that this intrinsic instinct for God can also be nurtured by two external elements: church engagement and personal engagement. 3. The church is most important in the early stages of spiritual growth. Its role then shifts from being the primary influence to a secondary influence. As people grow and move along the spiritual continuum, the church’s role shifts from providing organized teaching and connection opportunities to providing serving opportunities. The most catalytic church activities noted by segment are: Exploring Christianity: • Early connection opportunities with Christians are key • Weekend (seeker) services are critical Growing in Christ: • Weekend services remain important • Small groups rise in significance • Serving people in need through the church Close to Christ: • Weekend services and small groups drop in importance • Serving in church ministry and other opportunities gain ground Christ-Centered: • Church’s primary role is to provide serving opportunities • Serving the poor is significant • Opportunities to mentor and be spiritually coached 4. Forms of personal engagement in spiritual growth are the building blocks for a Christ-centered life. As church engagement declines in impact on spiritual growth, personal engagement becomes increasingly catalytic. This makes sense when we remember that spiritual growth is all about growing our relationship with God through a deepening relationship with Jesus Christ. As with any intimate relationship, the most devoted disciples of Christ spend markedly more time, energy and attention on their relationship with Christ, particularly through core personal spiritual practices such as Bible reading and reflection, solitude and prayer. Further, as people advance along the spiritual continuum, they discover that they participate in these practices because they want to, not because they are obligated to, and thus, the church need not “handhold” those moving into later stages of growth. The most catalytic forms of personal engagement at each particular stage of growth include: Exploring Christianity: • Prayer • Bible Reading Growing in Christ: • Bible Reading • Frequent Prayer • Spiritual Friendships/Mentors Close to Christ: • Frequent Reflection on Scripture • Daily Prayer • Frequent Solitude • Tithing • Spiritual Friendships/Mentors Christ-Centered: • Daily Reflection on Scripture • Daily Solitude • Spiritual Friendships/Mentors • Evangelism • Tithing • Serving Those in Need Independent of the Church 5. A church’s most active evangelists, volunteers and donors come from the most spiritually advanced segments. Considered one of the most significant yet surprising findings, REVEAL discovered that the more one grows, the more one serves, tithes and evangelizes. Given this finding—and its potential impact for the Kingdom—churches should do everything they can to increase the number of those who are fully surrendered disciples of Christ. 6. More than 25 percent of those surveyed described themselves as spiritually “stalled” or “dissatisfied” with the role of the church in their spiritual growth. In addition to the four stages noted above, REVEAL also highlighted two other groups of respondents: “Stalled” and “Dissatisfied.” The “Stalled” group wrestles with lost momentum in their spiritual growth while the “Dissatisfied” group is unhappy with all major church activities (weekend services, classes and small groups) but continues to fully participate in them. While there are differences in the two groups, in both cases they still look almost exclusively to the church to lead their spiritual growth. Thus, the church can address the heart of their unhappiness by helping them realize that much of the responsibility for their own spiritual growth belongs to them. • Stalled: “I believe in Christ but I haven’t grown much lately.” They tend to be found in the early to middle growing stages of the continuum. Those in the stalled category have experienced a season of exceptional growth but are now unhappy with their current stagnation. They are not prioritizing their spiritual life, and therefore, investing significantly less time in personal spiritual practices. They also have relatively higher rates of emotional issues, addictions, and inappropriate relationships. This indicates that the church can play a role in helping them get back on a vital spiritual growth path. • Dissatisfied: “My faith is central to my life and I’m trying to grow, but my church is letting me down.” They tend to be long-time church congregants and come from the more Christ-focused group. Though they are disappointed with major church activities, they are still highly involved in them. More than 60% of this group is considering leaving the church. Since they want the church to challenge them and keep them accountable, the church can provide tools such as a personal growth plan or spiritual mentor to spur further growth and help retain them. Other Important Discoveries While there were many other interesting findings from the REVEAL study, the Task Force is highlighting three of them: 1. As they advance along the spiritual continuum, people express a growing need for a community of spiritual friendships that “holds me accountable.” Spiritual relationships play an increasing role as people grow. In all stages, spiritual friends or spiritual mentors/confidants were viewed as more important to spiritual growth than a person’s small group. Respondents also expressed an increasing need for these spiritual friendships to be authentic, truth-telling relationships where they can be held accountable for their actions. (In addition, the Christ-centered group is committed to mentoring or helping others grow spiritually.) 2. Pain and difficulty in life can be times of exceptional spiritual growth. This can refer to emotional pain due to a life circumstance, a struggle with a major decision or coming to a crossroads in life. In times like these, it is crucial for the church to provide ways of coming around people to offer appropriate care and support. 3. People want seven primary benefits from their church. The top two needs are critical across the board for all stages. The next five vary in importance depending on the stage, with the first three being most essential in the earlier stages of growth and the last two more relevant to the advanced stages of growth. The top two suggest that what people want is actually what most church leaders agree they need:
Top Two Church-related Benefits for All Stages: 1) Challenges me to grow and take next steps 2) Helps me understand the Bible in greater depth Five Church-Related Benefits that Change Along the Continuum: 1) Provides compelling worship services 2) Helps me feel like I belong 3) Helps me develop a personal relationship with Jesus 4) Helps me find relationships that encourage accountability 5) Provides opportunities to serve those in need
In general, churches are doing a reasonably good job meeting these needs, with 60-80% very or extremely satisfied. However, there is a wide discrepancy in the average satisfaction level between the top six and bottom six congregations. This indicates that best practices do exist. Notably, the churches that had the most positive responses to these top benefits had significantly smaller “Dissatisfied” groups. This indicates that addressing these expectations will lower the number of “Dissatisfied” congregants and help to prevent some of the more Christ-centered people from leaving the church. This is excerpted and edited with permission from Menlo Park Presbyterian Church's Growing Faith Task Force Report, of which I was a member.

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