In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Jonathan Merritt present a variety of evidence that spiritual language is in decline:
He commissioned a Barna survey of 1,000 American adults that showed:
More than one-fifth of respondents admit they have not had a spiritual conversation at all in the past year. Six in 10 say they had a spiritual conversation only on rare occasions — either “once or twice” (29 percent) or “several times” (29 percent) in the past year. A paltry 7 percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly.
But here’s the real shocker: Practicing Christians who attend church regularly aren’t faring much better. A mere 13 percent had a spiritual conversation around once a week.
Merritt says that similar data can be found from the Google ngram (“a collection of millions of books, newspapers, webpages and speeches published between 1500 and 2008”):
A study in The Journal of Positive Psychology analyzed 50 terms associated with moral virtue. Language about the virtues Christians call the fruit of the spirit — words like “love,” “patience,” “gentleness” and “faithfulness” — has become much rarer. Humility words, like “modesty,” fell by 52 percent. Compassion words, like “kindness,” dropped by 56 percent. Gratitude words, like “thankfulness,” declined by 49 percent.
Why is this? The survey showed the following reasons:
Some said these types of conversations create tension or arguments (28 percent); others feel put off by how religion has been politicized (17 percent); others still report not wanting to appear religious (7 percent), sound weird (6 percent) or seem extremist (5 percent).
A few reflections on his op-ed:
First, I appreciate the research he has done on the subject. It helps to have clarity and specificity about the issue.
Second, I think that what we are practicing in RZIM Connect can be part of the solution. By learning (or re-learning) how to communicate with respect, kindness, and empathy in this community, we will be more prepared for the same approach outside of this community. This is an ideal environment to ask questions, listen well, and habituate ourselves to the skills of a great conversationalist. Just watching and learning from the examples of other members is a valuable training exercise.
(If you want additional practice and training, I do recommend the Everyday Questions small group curriculum that RZIM offers).
Third, I’d be curious to hear how each of you are wisely engaging in spiritual conversations with your friends. What are you seeing that works? Where are you getting stuck?
Fourth, if you aren’t in the American context, I’d love to take this conversation to a global perspective. Do you see similar trends in your culture and place? Or are things moving in a different direction?