When I write my column The Messy Table, I focus on identifying and shaping spirituality within my family. That was also the subject of “The Spiritually Vibrant Household,” a Barna Group webcast last month in which they introduced their new study, Households of Faith. Their aim was to share new research on the rituals and relationships that turn a home into a sacred space, asking the question: what does a spiritually vibrant household look like today?
Naturally, this caught my attention. As a mother of three growing children, I want my home to be safe and supportive, but also a space that nurtures a growing faith in all of us. The term “spiritually vibrant” seems to sum up those hopes beautifully. But what shape does that take? And how will I know it when I see it?
California-based Barna Group is a research company that focuses on the intersection of faith and culture. Many of their studies look at congregational life and individual practice, but this new study shifts the focus to the household. The study was built on interviews with 2,400 practising Christians, of which 500 were teenagers. Practicing Christians were defined as those who self-identify as Christian, stating that faith is very important in their lives, and who attend church at least once a month. The researchers aimed the study at “multi-person” households, intentionally using the word household rather than family to reflect the diversity found in households in today’s churches. Interestingly, only 25 percent of households in the study could be described as traditional, nuclear families, the others being childless couples, couples living with adult offspring, and friendship groups.
SO WHAT IS IT?
The Barna study defines spiritual vibrancy as the resulting intersection between devotional practices and hospitality in the home. Devotional practices and hospitality are each seen separately as good, faithful practices, but when both are present in a household’s routines, the environment changes and can be described as spiritually vibrant. This is characterised as a fun, engaging atmosphere that is intentionally nurturing and supportive of faith formation in all its members. The researchers suggested that households with young children may find this level of engagement easier or more natural because, as they noted, “kids are a catalyst for faith-related interactions.” This may be because of the questions children ask or because of a parental desire to pass on the faith. (Interestingly, 68 percent of respondents reported that their mother’s faith had influenced them the most.) David Kinnamen, president of Barna and one of the presenters on the webcast, pushed the thought a little further, suggesting that “kids bring sense of enchantment, sense of mystery into the home,” and he referred to Jesus’ own desire to spend time with children: “Let the children come to me.”
But spiritual vibrancy isn’t inevitable in households with children as neither devotional practice nor hospitality happen by accident. Intentionality is key. By deliberate faithful actions, individuals within a household are networked together. Across the full spectrum of households in the study, the researchers concluded that faith formation is deepened by the intersection of devotional practice and hospitality. While it seems obvious that devotional practice is a key marker, I was intrigued to see hospitality included. Was every household called to be hospitable? Wasn’t that something that some people were good at while others aren’t?
For Barna Group, hospitality means having non-family guests into your household, and they suggest that the most hospitable households are also the ones where the most spiritual conversations happen. These things go together. Households that are committed to welcoming others into their space are more likely to be places where individuals feel connected rather than isolated, and so are more likely to speak together about the things that matter.
This resonates with me because every week, my family has a Friday night dinner with another family from our congregation. In a way, we were set up. Shortly after we moved and started worshipping at the local church, we were introduced to this other family. You’ll get on well, we were told. You have so much in common. Sure, we thought, why not? We were both three-children families, attending the same church. It might have just been a nice welcome to the neighbourhood, but the arrangement worked really well. Those Friday nights became an anchor for us in a new city where we had no social network. My husband and I have always aimed to invite others to join us around our table, but this was difficult in a new place.
The regularity of our meetings helped us to settle. We’ve since found more friends and families to invite around our table but we still meet consistently with this family. I think that the mutual give-and-take of both receiving and offering hospitality is teaching us how to live in Christian community.
This kind of companionship works well with the ages and stages of our family; whether it would have worked when our children were younger or when they are older, I don’t know. And I don’t know if such an arrangement would work if we were two couples instead of two families. But the Barna report suggests that hospitality is a key marker of vibrant spirituality regardless of the shape of a household.
I brought this up recently with my friends Peter and Ines. Individually, they have each lived in welcoming intentional Christian communities and now they are working through the practicalities of hospitality while raising their two small boys. Peter works as a minister in the Presbyterian Church, so he brings a professional as well as confessional perspective to this discussion. When I asked them what they thought about the role of hospitality in spiritual vibrancy, Ines answered first. She told me that hospitality is vital, even if you’re bad at it. “It moves your focus away from yourself, which is part of spiritual discipline. It’s paying attention and care to another.” She then spoke about the difference between hospitality of space and hospitality of time. It isn’t always possible to open your home to others – small children’s bedtimes and older people’s health needs are two examples of impediments to home-based hospitality. But anyone can develop a hospitality of time, even if it is by simply cultivating an attitude of welcome wherever you are.
Peter agreed with this viewpoint because it addressed the question of house size and circumstance. Sometimes, there are better places than home to welcome people. But when Ines asked if he meant that inviting people to church was a form of hospitality, he said no. That was outreach. But when welcomers at the church door greeted people with warmth and openness, regardless of who they were, then they were practising hospitality.
Hospitality is intentionally creating a welcoming space for others. Maybe in our ironically isolated digital age, this is becoming increasingly vital. By framing household routines in terms of spiritual vibrancy, the Barna Group report asks us to consider intentional, deeper ways to be Christian today. It challenges congregations to ask questions about how they view their ministry with a multi-household mindset and how they might enable the variety of households that make up our congregations to become strong and spiritually vibrant.
During the webcast, Rev. Dr. Tony Cook, VP of Global Ministries for Luther Hour Ministries, put it this way: “A congregation is only as strong as the households that comprise it.” He hopes that the report will help Christians understand the importance of household activities to faith formation, and also that it will communicate the importance of expressing joy, hospitality and openness in both congregational and household contexts. In the full report – a 150-page book available through the Barna website – further observations and challenges are explored as hospitality is presented as a biblical reality and the researchers seek ways to encourage activities that include the “extended household.” Further resources, including walk-through practices and free courses, are available through Lutheran Hour Ministries.
This kind of research and resourcing can be useful to congregations and families, as it offers clarity in the midst of cultural change. When so much of our time is spent getting through the daily details, it is helpful for someone to be able to step back and assess the wider situation. By offering carefully collected observations, clear categories and definitions, research groups like Barna can suggest new and faithful ways of seeing.
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