Worship and spirituality: what helps us grow spiritually?

For the most part, people feel their spiritual needs are being met within their congregations. The U.S. Congregational Life Survey found that more than 8 in 10 worshipers (84 percent) feel this way.

But it isn’t all because of stirring worship -- in many cases, people who attend worship are also doing things in their personal lives to draw closer to God and deepen their faith. Almost three in four worshipers (72 percent) spend time in private devotions at least a few times a week, the survey found.

While 39 percent of worshipers list the sermons or preaching in their congregation as one of the things they value most there, only about one in five (21 percent) list a Bible study or prayer group as what they value most.

In the typical congregation, most people are satisfied with worship, and many attribute their growth in faith to the congregation-worship, Bible study, and caring people. In fact, 43 percent of worshipers say they have grown in faith in the last year and that their congregation is the primary reason for that growth. A few say that other groups or their own personal activities have been the source of their spiritual growth, but unfortunately about four in six have not experienced significant growth in the last year.

That’s not to say that worship is not of central importance. In the typical congregation, the survey found, at least three in four people said they usually or always experience joy and inspiration or feel God’s presence during worship.

Seven in 10 said they’re rarely bored during worship, and more than half said that worship and other activities of the congregation help them in everyday life.

What this survey doesn’t measure, however, are the views of people who don’t come to worship. Most likely, those in the pews are there because they get something out of the services -- they have a desire to worship God and to feel connected to a community of faith. (A few acknowledge they come to worship out of obligation.) But what’s not reflected here are the views of those who don’t show up, some of whom may have tried worship in the past and found it boring or irrelevant, not worth their time or energy. So, this measure reflects an inherently positive skew.

There also seems to be a symbiotic connection between meaningful worship and spiritual growth. In some places, the congregation’s leaders stress the connection -- that spending more time in private prayer and devotion may make worship more meaningful. And worship which soars -- where people feel touched by the presence of God -- might make them more interested in focusing on their relationship with God at home as well.

Congregations that score highest on the Meaningful Worship Index also tend to be places where people say they are growing spiritually and where the leaders empower people to get involved.

Congregations with strong scores on the Growing Spiritually scale, those doing better than average, tend to have other strengths, too -- particularly in giving people in the congregation a sense of belonging, getting them to participate in activities, providing strong worship, and bringing in new people.

Smaller congregations tend to score better than average on the Growing Spiritually Index -- one of many strengths smaller congregations exhibit -- but the age of worshipers doesn’t seem to make a difference. Younger congregations are not spiritually stronger than older ones, or vice-versa. Likewise, there are no significant differences by age in overall satisfaction with worship, although younger people are more likely than older ones to say they are bored and to place a higher value on the quality of the sermons or homilies.

And there were ways in which participating in a congregation’s worship life and having private time devoted to spiritual growth seem to reinforce each other. Congregations with beyond-the-ordinary worship experiences also tend to have higher percentages of people who attended worship regularly (in those congregations four of five people attended worship every week). Worshipers in strong congregations also regularly spend time on their own praying, reading Scripture or using other materials to help them better understand and deepen their faith.

In other words, congregations where people spend time on their own cultivating their faith tend to have extraordinary worship as well. They’re bookend strengths.