Distracted from God: A Five-Year, Worldwide Study

Michael Zigarelli

(c) 2008, Christianity9to5.org

Impediments to a life with God abound. Both internal obstacles (like pride, fear, and greed) and external obstacles (like cultural conditioning, legal constraints, and that annoying co-worker in the next cubical) combine to make daily surrender a daily challenge. Still, God’s call resounds: “whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6).

Among the primary obstacles to walking “as Jesus did” is today’s frenetic pace of life. Busyness, hurry, overload, burnout, over-extension–it’s known by many names. But there’s one common outcome: the accelerated pace and activity level of the modern day distracts us from God and separates us from the abundant, joyful, victorious life He desires for us.

For the past five years, I’ve researched the pervasiveness and dimensions of this overload problem among Christians. What God is revealing through this study is quite arresting, one might even say scandalous. It seems that Christians worldwide are simply becoming too busy for God.

The Five Year Study

From December 2001 to June 2007, I collected data from 20,009 Christians age 15 to 88, across 139 countries, using an online tool called The Obstacles to Growth Survey. You can find the specifics of the survey and methodology in the Appendix to this article.

Tables 1 and 2 provide an overview of my sample, with Table 1 describing the number of Christian survey respondents from each continent and Table 2 describing the number of Christian respondents from the subset of countries I examined for this study.

Table 1
Continent Number of Christians in the sample
North America 16,222
Asia 687
Europe 595
Australia 488
Africa 384
South America 109
Unknown 1,524

Table 2
Country Number of Christians in the sample
United States 15,299
Canada 831
United Kingdom 436
Australia 326
South Africa 186
New Zealand 142
Philippines 136
Singapore 136
Nigeria 124
India 97
Malaysia 97
Kenya 88
Hong Kong 47
Indonesia 43
Uganda 35
Germany ** 22
Ireland ** 16
Mexico ** 15
Japan ** 14
** Because the sample size in this country is smaller than 30, we should exercise significant caution when drawing conclusions about this country. More data are necessary to gain confidence about the results below.

Among the many survey items on The Obstacles to Growth Survey are several related to the busyness, hurry and overload in one’s life. The two survey items I analyzed in this article are indicative of the problem: “I rush from task to task” (a measure of the pace of our lives) and “The busyness of my life gets in the way of developing my relationship with God” (a measure of our distraction from God). When responding to these survey items, survey-takers had the option of selecting “this statement is never true of me,” “rarely true of me,” “sometimes true of me,” “often true of me,” or “always true of me.”

The eight bar charts below report the percentage of survey respondents in each continent and country who say that these statements are “often” or “always” true of them. To put it in plain English, we can interpret these statistics as the percentage of Christians who are usually hurrying through their day, and who are usually too busy for God.

A Global Problem of Busyness and Hurry

Figures 1, 2 and 3 report the findings for the item “I rush from task to task.” On average, more than 4 in 10 Christians around the world say that’s “often” or “always” true of them, with results varying slightly by continent (Figure 1) and by gender (Figure 2). But most notable here, I think, is the ubiquity of the problem around the world. Busyness and hurry are not problems that are unique to the United States or to the West, as some might suspect, but seem to be pervasive globally. Moreover, the pace-of-life issue is not predominantly a male or female issue. Both genders are afflicted, as shown in Figure 2, with men only slightly outpacing women everywhere except in North America, where women report rushing from task to task a bit more often than do men (all gender differences are statistically significant at the five percent level).

Figure 3 is also illuminating, reflecting the results in 19 countries. Pace-of-life varies greatly for Christians across these countries, with Christians reporting the greatest challenges in Japan, the Philippines, South Africa, the UK, Mexico, and Indonesia, and the least challenge in Uganda, Nigeria, Malaysia and Kenya. Still, even in these less-hurried cultures, about one in three Christians report that it’s their default condition to rush from task to task. These are preliminary results, of course, because of the nature of this study and some of the countries’ sample sizes, but they are suggestive of a global problem.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

A Global Problem of Distraction from God

The next three bar charts summarize the findings regarding Christians’ distraction from God. Here the results seem even more egregious, given the Biblical call to continual communion with God and the dangers of a mere intermittent relationship with Him.

Across continents (Figures 4 and 5) we see that about 6 in 10 Christians say that it’s “often” or “always” true that “the busyness of my life gets in the way of developing my relationship with God.” The distraction is most encumbering in North America, Africa and Europe, and more likely to afflict men than women (except, again, in North America), but overall, the problem is clearly a worldwide concern. However, the country comparison (Figure 6) suggests that Christians in some countries are more distracted from God than those in other countries, with South Africans, Nigerians, Canadians reporting the greatest challenge, and Christians from Hong Kong, India and Indonesia reporting the least. Even among these latter three, though, almost half of Christians say they’re usually too busy for relationship with God.

 Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6

Pastors are the Most Hurried Professionals, Adversely Affecting their Relationship with God

Examining the problem by profession is also instructive. I’ve only analyzed a handful of professions to date, but what I’ve found thus far is that the 300+ pastors in my data set are the most likely to say they rush from task to task (Figure 7). And looking at the spiritual consequences across professions (Figure 8), 65% of pastors””about two out of every three pastors””say that their busyness gets in the way of their life with God.

It’s tragic. And ironic. The very people who could best help us escape the bondage of busyness are themselves in chains.

Figure 7

Figure 8

Brainwashed Believers

My data set does not include sufficient information to pinpoint why Christians are so busy, so hurried, and so distracted from their relationship with God. But if you’ll allow me to conjecture, I think the problem may be described as a vicious cycle, prompted by cultural conformity. In particular, it may be the case that (1) Christians are assimilating to a culture of busyness, hurry and overload, which leads to (2) God becoming more marginalized in Christians’ lives, which leads to (3) a deteriorating relationship with God, which leads to (4) Christians becoming even more vulnerable to adopting secular assumptions about how to live, which leads to (5) more conformity to a culture of busyness, hurry and overload. And then the cycle begins again.

If Christians have indeed become trapped in this downward spiral, and if that is indeed compromising their relationship with God, their sanctification, and their ability to live the lives God has ordained, then the cycle must be broken. One logical and faithful place to start is by adopting the wisdom of the Apostle Paul, who offered a remedy to the pernicious effects of cultural conformity: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

Breaking this cycle, according to Paul, begins not with re-ordering our lives, but with re-ordering our thinking””our minds, our worldview, the way we think about who God is and how He wants us to live our lives. Slowly, but inexorably, many Christians have been brainwashed into adopting a way of life that relegates God to the periphery. It’s as invisible as it is insidious. But slowly, and inexorably, scripture says, those effects can be reversed. God will renew our minds, aligning our thoughts with His thoughts, to produce a saner, healthier, more peaceful, more God-honoring life, despite the fact that we’re marinated in a speed-addicted culture. Co-laboring with Him, we can once and for all break the vicious cycle that has us in bondage to busyness.

How to do that is the subject of many volumes, including the fine contemporary works Freedom of Simplicity (Richard Foster), Margin (Richard Swenson), and Boundaries (Henry Cloud and John Townsend). LifeWay Christian Resources has also published a four-week Bible study curriculum to help attack the problem, Freedom from Busyness: Biblical Help for Overloaded People (Michael Zigarelli), a multimedia study with text, video, audio and other small group resources. Regardless the resource we use, though, it’s imperative that we extinguish this threat””this incursion on our thinking that’s led to an incursion on our time, our relationships, and our health.

Christians are afflicted worldwide. This study suggests that the epidemic of busyness and distraction may in fact be a pandemic, touching every corner of the globe. But the good news is that this is a curable disease. Paul diagnoses it as a disease of the mind: as we think, so we do. And as such, we should begin by treating our minds, re-calibrating our assumptions about how to live, and reversing the secular brainwash that holds us in captivity. No other antidote will be a permanent one.

Appendix: The Methodology of this Study

I collected data for this study through an online survey, The Obstacles to Growth Survey, hosted on Assess-Yourself.org, which provides survey respondents with an estimate of their spiritual condition. I advertised the survey site in Christianity Today magazine in late 2001, and also placed it prominently on the website Christianity.com. These promotions generated several thousand initial responses from Christians around the world; word-of-mouth advertising then culminated in the submission of many thousand more surveys.

Some of the survey items are sensitive questions, so to encourage the submission of truthful responses, I made the survey an anonymous one. I did not ask respondents to provide a name or email address or any other information that would permit me to track them. Accordingly, respondents had no incentive to lie or to provide “socially desirable” responses. In fact, just the opposite is true. They had every incentive to submit the most truthful answers possible, because they then receive more accurate estimates of their spiritual condition from the survey site.

For this study, I also ensured that I was analyzing data from Christians exclusively. In the demographics section of the survey, I asked respondents to provide information about their religious denomination and the number of years they have been a Christian. As such, I was able to filter out responses from non-Christians.

Lastly, to minimize the chance of a person being in the database more than once, I did two things. First, I put in place what’s called an “IP block,” which ensures that from any given computer (IP address), only one set of survey responses can go into my database. And second, I also asked respondents to indicate whether they had taken the survey before and made answering this question a “required field” in the survey (i.e., they could not submit the survey and get their results without answering this question). If someone answered “yes” to this question, their information did not go into the database.

If you want more information about The Obstacles to Growth Survey, including information about its psychometrics, please visit www.assess-yourself.org/design/

Michael Zigarelli is a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College and founding editor of Christianity9to5.org.