Five Questions to Describe a Christian

Five Questions to Describe a Christian April 12, 2012

I’m just starting a very exciting research project in which we’re looking to study day-to-day spiritual experiences. This got met thinking about measuring Christian spirituality from an applied, rather than academic, perspective.

So, here’s my question. How would you measure the quality of someone’s Christian faith (how good of a Christian they are, how much they live out the faith… not sure how to word it), how would you do it?

Specifically, how would you gauge someone’s Christian faith if you could only ask 5 true-false questions? What would those questions be? (And why)

So, basically, I would like to crowd-source this research puzzle. I have some ideas, but they feel very incomplete, so I would like your input.

Feel free to post your ideas as comments or e-mail them to me at

Thank you! I look forward to reading what you have to say.

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  • There are always the standard GSS questions about daily prayer, inerrancy of the Bible, etc. (And methodologically speaking this allows for cross-survey comparisions.) Also, I’m not sure why you are asking for T/F questions.

    Here goes some of my ideas:

    In the past month have you forgiven somebody for a significant transgression against you? (This question gets at the issue of grace towards others — one of my more difficult challenges.) If so, did you forgive them in a way that they knew they were being forgiven or only through prayer? (It would be interesting to do an open-ended probe to find out the circumstances. I use “month” as a time frame since I don’t know how often people engage in major transgressions against others, or even what constitutes “major” in major transgression — gossip? cutting in line at the grocer?)

    In the past month, have you volunteered to pray for someone who was going through a crisis? Again, was this done in a way that the person knows or did you do it “anomymously” through prayer? Have you suggested that the troubled person pray to God (or Jesus) for an answer to their troubles?

    Have you in the past several months invited somebody to come to your church and/or get to know Jesus better?

    Have you ever handed somebody a Bible or prayer book without prompting?

    Of course, all of these questions could be followed by a “true or false” response option, which would completely confuse your interview subjects … but that could be kind of fun.

    “True of False? When was the last time you handed somebody a Bible?”

    • Hello Tony,

      Thank you for the questions. I suppose “yes” “no” would be fine, as well as true false. I simplified the response categories to make it easier for the non-professional to suggest questions.

      I’ve gone through all the GSS religion questions, and there are a lot of them! What I’m looking for here is guidance on what matters most–so if we could boil down faith to five dimensions, what would they be?

  • Jay Egenes


    I can’t get it down to five. But I sometimes use Foss’s description of the six things a disciple does:

    Read/Study the Bible (preferably alone and in a group)
    Attend Worship

    Serve (the church or the poor)
    Give (to the church)
    Tell others about Jesus (this could include simply inviting someone to worship with you)

    When we think about these as having to do with the three sets of relationships as described by Mike Breen (Up–with God; In–with your Christian community; Out–with those who don’t know Jesus yet) the list gets longer than six pretty fast.

  • Jay Egenes

    It seems to me that there are at least two different ways to go at this conceptually.

    You can try to focus on the three sets of relationships as described by Breen (see my first post).

    Or you can try to focus on some particular concepts that would have to be lived out in certain ways.

    For example: Devotion to God (Lutheran pietists call this loving Jesus); Study (do you spend time actually learning what your faith teaches); Action (mission, service, evangelism, etc.); all carried out in community (because anybody who tries to do it alone isn’t really participating in a “religion” or “faith tradition”.

    You could look at the 6 practices I mentioned (Foss’s list) through either of these lenses. Just don’t know how to get it down to 5.

  • John Shaheen

    What a great question for a Sunday morning. Thanks, Brad. I appreciate your work, and I recommend you to friends and Christian leaders I know. So, to the topic at hand. Jesus said that the distinctive mark of a true believer is in how we love one another. “by this all men will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” What does this love look like? Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is an extremely high standard, higher than I believe most Christians realize or are willing (in their flesh) to practice. I include myself in the latter category. It would seem to involve risk, even death; availability in the form of inconvenience of time and use of resources; and vulnerability in the form of emotional, physical, spiritual (i.e. spiritual warfare),relational (i.e. potential conflict), financial, time. An assessment of Christian character based on this criteria would want to measure whether this results in works of an occasional nature, or whether this represents the very pattern of one’s living, one’s being. I like a quote from Dallas Willard in the latter regard. He writes that “Love is the genuine inner readiness and longing to secure the good of others.” The “readiness” suggests a life pattern of seeking spiritual opportunities to love. To “secure” the good of others suggests action, and not just for people we like, or people like us, for the command to love extends even to our enemies! Maybe one approach would be to find true stories about people, or descriptions of people who live out the standard above, and ask Christians to rate the quality and character of their Christian life based on some real life examples. I would think that an exercise like that might not only help with your research, but would also be instructive to the research subjects and to others. You could ask your readers to help find some of those stories. An example in our culture would be people who make a life of foster parenting. I hope these thoughts are helpful.

    • John Shaheen

      By the way…I am not a foster parent, so I am not guilty of any self-congratulations. Also Paul reinforces the importance and distinctive of Christian love in I Corinthians 13, as most of us know.

    • Thank you, John, for the very thoughtful response. I’ll be mulling it over.

  • Mark

    Trying to understand your own depth of faithfullness to Jesus is fine but be cautious about trying to set up a system to judge the faithfullness of others. Read John 21:20 and notice that Jesus clearly says that the fate of other christians is not your concern. Keep your eyes on Jesus himself and stop wasting time worrying about the other guy. If you call yourself a Christian they you sould be interested in what Jesus actually said.

    The step from loving and serving your fellow man to judging him is a very short one in this day and age. I have seen every pitiful excuse presented by today’s famous pastors why they think its really ok to judge others. It is not ok. It has never been ok and the consequences for you will be eternal.

  • buddyglass

    Some ideas:

    1. Frequency of church attendance.
    2. Amount of prayer per week, in minutes.
    3. Charitable giving (all recipients) as a percentage of total income. (This might only be meaningful for members of faiths that require or commend charity).
    4. Willingness to marry someone of a different faith. (Ask married respondents to answer hypothetically as if they were single. This might only be meaningful for members of faiths that require or commend marrying within the faith.)
    5. “How important is it to you that your children share your faith.” (May only be meaningful for members of faiths that are in some way exclusive, e.g. Christianity, Islam, Judaism.)

    • Thank you, that’s very helpful. Hadn’t really thought of #5.

      • buddyglass

        No problem. #3 seems like a big one to me. Not to downplay prayer or church attendance, but forking over a non-insignificant amount of one’s income (when one isn’t hugely wealthy, which most people aren’t) is kind of where the rubber hits the road. Seems like it might be a better gauge of “seriousness” than simple church attendance since there’s more sacrifice involved.

  • KB

    What’s so intriguing about this question for me is the balance -with only 5 question – between knowledge/belief and behavior. How do you properly balance Ro 6:23 (salvation is not about our works) & James 2:14-17 (faith evidenced by works) in evaluating one’s Christianity? I’m interested in how that will be represented in your findings.

  • Colleen

    A good Christian chooses to Love rather than hate.

  • Jen

    I am currently going through my own question of my belonging to the Christian community. I have a faith in God/higher power and believe the teachings of religion a good guidance. However, to fully live the teachings of Jesus and the Bible is something I want to explore but not sure if they are solely that which I wish to embrace.

    As a Catholic I have lived my life with love for others, giving to my community, contributed financially to organisations who practice Christian care and lived my life with respect to both myself and others. However, as I am exploring the meaningness of my own faith and how it prescribes to a religion is what I wish to understand. I have no wish to denounce my Christian upbringing but to affirm my faith and how I practice it going forward.

    Your questions and the comments are an interesting consideration. From my own point of view, how much someone contributes financially and how often one attends church is not a gauge for faith or practice. How one lives their life, embraces others that differ in values and practices to them, and supports their community of family, friends and neighbours, is the true practice of faith. Personal prayer and study of the Bible is personal development and engagement with that practice.

    I look forward to learning more from the Patheos community.

    • I think you’re right about many of these things. Seems like the questions end up revolving around relationship with God and relationship with others.

  • Another Good Topic for us

  • Brad…exceedingly difficult to quantify quality Christian living in five questions. So as not to repeat what others have said, maybe Gal. 5:22-23 has an ethos you could follow:
    1) Have you given of your resources to help others in past month (love/kindness)?
    2) Have you enjoyed your faith life the past month (joy)?
    3) Have you grown in your patience the previous month ?
    4) Have you grown in your gentleness the previous month?
    5) Have you stopped doing something you felt was detrimental to your faith in the past month (self-control)?