Alone in her bedroom in Detroit about 16 years ago, Erin Tanana underwent a spiritual transformation and became “born-again.”
“I remember praying when I was about 4 years old — and I really do believe I knew what I was praying — [I] told the Lord that I knew I was a sinner and needed something outside of myself to forgive my sin and make me right,” Tanana, now a 20-year-old junior studying Christian education and anthropology at Wheaton College, recalled recently. “From that point, it’s been a process.”
Like Tanana, half of all Americans say they have experienced at least one “spiritual transformation” in their lifetime, according to an unprecedented study released late last week by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
Nearly 65 percent of those who say they have undergone such “spiritual transformations” (or about 38 percent of all Americans) use the term “born-again” to describe their experience, according to NORC’s National Spiritual Transformation Study.
‘They are quite enduring’
The majority of people (60 percent) who undergo spiritual transformations do so before age 30, and such experiences tend to have long-lasting effects, the study found.
“The most interesting thing was the fact that on average, the spiritual transformation happened about 13 years ago, which for most people wasn’t recent, yet there is no indication that the impact of the spiritual transformation dissipated over time,” said Tom W. Smith, director of NORC’s General Social Survey, an ongoing study that, since 1973, has been tracking social change in the United States.
“Not that anyone doesn’t have a period of falling away, but on average, they are quite enduring,” Smith said. “They are not flashes in the pan when you feel transformed one day and the next week it’s dissipated. On average, it lasts years and years.”
For Tanana, an evangelical Protestant who attends Harvest Bible Fellowship in Rolling Meadows, “the transformation of being made more like Jesus Christ” happened over time.
“I can look back over my life and see definite periods of time and situations or moments in my life that I really see as landmarks for my relationship with the Lord and continuing to grow in him and get to know him and fall in love with him.”
First scientific tally
The spiritual transformation study was part of NORC’s general survey, and its results were based on one-on-one interviews with more than 1,300 randomly selected people across the nation over a five-month period in 2004, Smith said.
While several studies have looked at spiritual experiences, such as transformations, near-death experiences and accounts of being “born-again,” the study represents the first time such experiences have been scientifically quantified.
The study’s other findings include:
*About half of those who had spiritual transformations said they were preceded by religious activity, such as attending a retreat or worship service, or by a personal problem, such as illness or the death of a loved one.
*Blacks (64 percent) are more likely to have a spiritually transforming experience than whites (50 percent).
*Spiritual transformations are more common among Protestants (62 percent) than Catholics (30 percent).
*Such experiences are least likely in New England (24 percent), most likely in the South (60 percent) and average in the Midwest (42 percent).
“One of the big limitations of previous studies . . . [was] that they are all anecdotal,” Smith said. “We wanted to do a national high-quality survey, and then when we determine which ones of those people have had spiritual transformations, ask them open-ended questions that say, ‘Tell us about it. What happened? What caused it?’ “
Statistics ‘pretty much in line’
The study’s findings didn’t surprise Mark Ashton, pastor of “spiritual discovery” (aka “evangelism”) at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, a “seeker-friendly” congregation with a weekly attendance of more than 20,000, yet they were still helpful.
“The statistics sound pretty much in line with what we’re experiencing every day,” said Ashton, 37, who reports three specific moments of spiritual transformation in his own life between the ages of 7 and 19. Ashton credits the plethora of ministries for young people with the statistical peak in spiritually transforming experiences before the age of 30.
“The vast majority of churches put a disproportionate emphasis on children’s and youth ministries, compared to a 40s ministry or a 50s ministry, and because of that, they create a real context in which spiritual transformation is more likely to take place,” he said. “Adults are trying to squeeze it in between a mortgage and child rearing and all these other things.”
Church historian Martin Marty, emeritus professor of religious history at the University of Chicago, says the study does not represent “a turning point, that American spirituality can now measure in a special way.”
But “theologically, there is something implicit here,” Marty said. “For a spiritual transformation to happen, you’ve got to be either a sin-sick soul or the inhabitant of a culture that convinces you that you are a sin-sick soul.”