Do Americans Really Want to "Make a Difference"?

Robert Wayne | Contributing Writer | Friday, December 12, 2008

Do Americans Really Want to "Make a Difference"?

December 12, 2008

The child awakens in a rush, performing the bedcover toss like it was an Olympic sport. Feet hit the floor only for a second before legs launch the wide-eyed pajama wearer down the stairs in a sprint toward those multi-colored gifts under the tree.

Minutes seem like hours as the tykes and tykettes await their turn tearing open the tightly-wrapped presents. Finally, their name is called and they rip into the package to find ...

Stop there for a second. So far, the Christmas morning scene is analogous to an increasing desire for a worthwhile purpose among a majority of Americans, whether they consider themselves born-again Christians or not. It is a racing-down-the-steps search to find our gifting and that place where we best fit. And the desire is growing.

“Over the last 10 years we’ve found an increase in the percentage of Americans who say ‘making a difference’ is a desirable outcome,” said David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, which conducted a recent survey showing that many Americans consider themselves to be socially conscious even if they don’t embrace spiritual labels.

Three out of every four adults (78 percent) say they are making a difference in the world while nearly nine out of every 10 Americans (86 percent) describe themselves as caring deeply about social injustice. The same percentage are concerned about the moral condition of the country.

“There is a great sensibility about wanting to make a difference and leaving a positive imprint on the world. There is a growing appetite for that; it’s a new spirituality,” said Kinnaman, who directed the study. “It may not reflect reality but at least it gives them a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves.”

There’s the rub. Like the child who opens the Christmas present only to find a pair of socks – nothing much of interest inside – the “new spirituality” may be lacking substance.

“Making a difference,” as presented in the survey, only focused on impact to the individual. The question “Just how important is it to you to make a difference in life?” may make you feel good, but does not address whether others are benefitting as well.

So are people actually making a difference or simply thinking about making a difference?

The evidence is mostly anecdotal – Barna did not query subjects on the details of their difference making – but there is some statistical data to suggest that while Americans want to be instruments of change, the desire may involve as much aspiration as perspiration.

For instance, an October Barna study showed that few adults, including Christians, have ever gone on a short-term missions trip, despite such trips typically being judged as life-changing experiences.

Although missions trips are the only barometer of “outreach,” the results still surprised Kinnaman.

“You hear in so many circles that people participate in service trips, but the reality is that even only a little amount of churchgoers have done that,” he said. “Probably more is happening out there than meets the eye, more than just short-term missions. But it’s maybe greater in the aspirational sense than actual boots on the ground.”

Kinnaman pointed out another apparent contradiction between younger Americans stating a desire to serve and actually putting their money where their mouths are.

“If you look at per capita, Americans are some of the most generous on the planet,” he said. “What may be disturbing is that younger people are giving a much smaller percent of their income than a generation ago.”

In other words, younger Americans have a greater appetite to do good than their predecessors, but a smaller capacity to do good, too, Kinnaman said.

Jeff Pinkleton, city director of The Gathering of Greater Springfield, a Christian leadership ministry in Ohio, commented on the “true and false” contradictions revealed by the Barna study.

“It’s the Barack Obama faith – getting away from labels, which is definitely true,” said Pinkleton, who has ministry experience both with teens and adults. “People are more active than ever in being for causes ... and are doing more local stuff with the local community.”

On the other hand, when Pinkleton asked a 20-something friend if younger people were serious about seeking a more simplified, less “churchy” method of ministry, he was told, “From my experience it’s a lot of talk.

What Pinkleton thinks the Barna study shows is that Americans have a deep need to be connected to and feel accepted by something larger and more authentic than the modern American church.

“The church is void of relationship,” he said. “So people are trying to build community. Unfortunately, the church doesn’t always provide it.”

If true, the church is not alone in coming off as conflicted. The Barna study showed that Americans have their inconsistencies, too. For instance, while 71 percent of adults believe they are fulfilling their calling in life, 51 percent also say they are searching for meaning and purpose. Also, while 84 percent of Americans feel very much at peace with life, and an equal percentage say they live a simple life, 55 percent reject the statement “you would not change anything significant about your life.”

And as for that peaceful life – seven out of 10 Americans (68 percent) say they are “totally committed to getting ahead in life.”

The Barna numbers show that born-again Christians and unchurched Americans are not too dissimilar in their views on “making a difference.”

Born-again Christians were more likely than others to see themselves as making a positive difference in the world (83 percent to 74 percent) and more likely to be fulfilling personal life calling (76 percent to 67 percent.)

An increasing number of Americans connecting with concepts like simplicity, personal calling, social justice and making a difference suggests effective hooks for engaging today’s culture, Kinnaman said.

But the language of spirituality – the way Christians communicate their message – will become more difficult as the nation’s population becomes more fractured along lines of age, ethnicity, technology and skepticism of organized religion, he said.

“Christian leaders who hope to have mainstream influence ... will have to find and communicate common values but also be cautious not to pursue mainstream credibility at the cost of simplistic or spiritually impotent solutions.”

Pinkleton surveys the American scene and sees people wanting to be transformed more by the truth of God than the “talk” of church.

They want to reach under the tree, tear open the box and find the gift – of giving.