three people in a Christian chapel

Recent research has led to a narrative that church attendance in the United States is decreasing, and that more and more people consider themselves “spiritual.” But what does this mean—and why does it matter?

We know there is more to the story, but there is little research into the range of perspectives behind these words and what this means for our personal, communal, and societal wellbeing. So, in the spirit of inquiry and embracing the unknown, we are working on our inaugural Study of Spirituality in America.

Through this study, we seek to understand what spirituality means both inside and outside of traditional religion, to people who consider themselves spiritual, and also to those who don’t. We also want to understand how spirituality informs and guides people’s relationships to themselves, their communities, and the natural world.

In 2019 we will launch a nationally representative survey to systematically explore these concepts. In preparation and in true Fetzer fashion, we’re beginning our work with conversations. Through focus groups and interviews with people across the country, we are listening to learn what spirituality means to them.

Rigorous research and authentic inquiry underpin all we do at the Fetzer Institute. This study seeks to fill a gap in the field of spirituality research: How do people communicate about their own spirituality? And what does their spirituality mean for how they engage with the world? With a clearer picture of what people long for, how they find meaning, and what motivates their commitment to building a better world, we can also shape our own work in the years to come.

Advisory Group, Focus Groups, In-depth Interviews
We also strive to connect people across disparate ideologies, perspectives, and experiences. More than just a research project, this study and its subject matter are an arena for convening. To that end, we’ve brought together an advisory group of nine whose backgrounds in research, theology, activism, and practice are helping us navigate this rich and complex field. These diverse experts join us from around the country and are lending their expertise to each phase of the research. While something as ineffable as spirituality is difficult to investigate systematically, we seek to stand on the shoulders of the researchers, experts, and deep thinkers who’ve come before us, and let their learning guide our approach.

Starting with ten focus groups in three cities across the country—Birmingham, Alabama; Des Moines, Iowa; and Seattle, Washington—we are exploring how people visualize spirituality, the cultural narratives they hold about spirituality, and how their own relationship to spirituality affects their daily lives and informs their views about the world. In one-on-one in-depth interviews with people across the country, we’ll investigate where definitions and understandings of spirituality comes from, and how spiritual identity forms over time.

We are eager to share everything we learn. Building up to the final study report, we will be sharing many of the stories, ideas, questions, and other bits and pieces that arise from our conversations along the way. Because as with spirituality itself, we know that this journey will be at least as important as any destination.

Peter Cellier, senior associate at Hattaway Communications, helps coordinate the advisory group for this study.