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The Four Signs Research


The Dynamic Catholic Institute was founded to re-energize the Catholic Church in America by developing world-class resources that inspire people to rediscover the genius of Catholicism. This mission is driven by an insatiable desire to engage disengaged Catholics. In order to build the most effective learning systems and programs we began by researching the difference between highly engaged Catholics and disengaged Catholics. These research findings will drive unprecedented intentionality in all we do in the coming decades. This is what we discovered…


The 80/20 Study

Several years ago I was having dinner with a group of priests in Minnesota before an event. I was the only non-cleric at the table, and some of the priests started talking about different things that were happening in their parishes. One of the priests was very young, and he was lamenting about how few people were actively involved at his parish. My mind was starting to drift toward what I was going to speak about at the event when I heard something that jolted me back into the moment. Sitting at the head of the table like a king was a warm, humorous, and completely down to-earth priest who must have weighed 350 pounds and been almost eighty years old. Waving a finger down the table, he said to the young priest, “Listen, I have been the pastor of seven parishes over the past forty years, and I can tell you that it doesn’t matter where you go, you will discover the same fifty people do everything in a parish.”

The comment got my attention. I immediately wondered if it was true. In the following weeks I started making informal phone calls to some pastors I knew. I asked them questions like:

  • Who are your most engaged parishioners?
  • Why are they so engaged?
  • What percentage of registered parishioners are actively involved in the parish?
  • What percentage of parishioners give regularly to the parish?

The answers they gave me seemed to anecdotally support the priest’s comment, but I wanted data.

There is a concept known as the Pareto Principle. It states, in essence, that roughly 80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of causes. In business this same concept is often referred to as the 80/20 principle. The idea is that 80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your customers. For example, while Coca-Cola has literally billions of customers, its largest are companies such as McDonald’s, Marriott, and Delta Air Lines, who serve millions of people Coca-Cola products every day. The concept can also be applied to products. Eighty percent of most companies’ profits tend to come from 20 percent of their products. For example, consider a Barnes & Noble bookstore. There maybe a hundred thousand different titles on the shelves in any given store, but 80 percent of their profits will come from 20 percent of those titles—the books that sell over and over again.

I had always been curious about whether the 80/20 principle would apply to the Church, and the priest’s comment had piqued my curiosity. Did the rule hold true in Catholic parishes? The only way to find out for sure would be to obtain some hard data. Over the course of many months I studied a series of parishes from coast to coast, examining two areas in particular: volunteerism and financial contribution. Both are significant signs of engagement. What I found left me speechless.

Did the 80/20 principle hold true in Catholic parishes? No. Not even close. This is what I discovered:

  • 6.4 percent of registered parishioners contribute 80 percent of the volunteer hours in a parish
  • 6.8 percent of registered parishioners donate 80 percent of financial contributions
  • There is an 84 percent overlap between the two groups

Note: Unless otherwise stated, all statistics come from research conducted by The Dynamic Catholic Institute.

I was amazed. Roughly 7 percent of Catholic parishioners are doing almost everything in their faith community and paying almost entirely for the maintenance and mission of the parish. This led me to the seminal question: What is the difference between engaged Catholics and disengaged Catholics? It came as a staggering surprise to discover that there was no significant research available on this question.

The future of the Catholic Church depends upon us finding out what makes this small group of Catholics so engaged. If we cannot identify what drives their engagement, we cannot replicate it.

For the rest of the book I will refer to these highly engaged parishioners as either the 7% or Dynamic Catholics. There is much we can learn from them. It is, however, critical to understand before we go any further that generalizations can provide incredible insight, but they can also be very dangerous if taken too far or out of context. The 7% are by no means perfect, but there is something about them that is worth exploring. Most of them are not spiritual champions, and they would be the first to admit that. They are also often quick to point out that it doesn’t take much to be at the top of the heap among Catholics today. The bar is not exactly set very high. But the 7% are the most highly engaged among us. I will refer to their less engaged counterparts as the 93%.

There are almost endless ways to segment both the 7% and the 93%. Not everyone in the 7% is the same. Even among this group, engagement, attitudes, and spiritual habits differ significantly. Needless to say, among the other 93% there are enormous differences. Some in this group come to Mass every Sunday while others are almost completely disengaged. Keep in mind that this group includes everyone from 7.01 percent to 100 percent (more than seventy-one million of the seventy-seven million Catholics in America).

At first I found these results very discouraging, but it turns out this might be the best news the Catholic Church has received in decades. Why is it good news that only 7 percent of American Catholics are highly engaged? Well, think about the tremendous contribution that the Catholic Church makes every day in communities large and small across America and around the world. Every single day we serve Catholics and non-Catholics around the world by feeding more people, housing more people, clothing more people, caring for more sick people, visiting more prisoners,and educating more students than any other institution on the planet. Now remember that all this is less than 7 percent of our capability. That is good news.

If just 7 percent of Catholics are accomplishing more than 80 percent of what we are doing today, imagine what 14 percent could do. Not to mention what 21 percent or 35 percent could accomplish. Our potential is incredible. The Catholic Church is a sleeping giant. We literally have the power to change the world.

If we engaged just another 1 percent of your parishioners over the next year, transforming them into Dynamic Catholics, it would be a game changer. It would result in 15 percent more volunteer hours, which would allow you to serve other parishioners and your community that much more effectively. It would also bring about a 15 percent increase in revenue, which would allow your parish to invest in powerful and important ministries that would further drive engagement. All this as a result of a shift from 7 percent to 8 percent—just 1 percent more highly engaged Catholics.

Then I started to think, imagine what we could do if we could transform another 7 percent into highly engaged parishioners over the next seven years. One percent each year. It would not mean every person in the parish would be passionately interested and engaged—just 14 percent. And imagine the incredible outreach, service, and spiritual development your parish could deliver.

This is the 1 percent that could change the world. If we can focus on engaging 1 percent more of our parishioners in a really intentional way each year, we can literally change the world. If you have a thousand adults in your parish, that means transforming just ten more into highly engaged members this year.



The Difference Between Highly Engaged Catholics & Disengaged Catholics

For months after this discovery, I was constantly thinking about how we could go about increasing the number of Dynamic Catholics in a parish. Then one day the obvious finally occurred to me: We needed to do some more research. We needed to find out what made the 7% different. What do the 7% do, think, and believe that is different from what the 93% do, think, and believe?

There are many things that make the 7% different from the rest of Catholics. But there are four things that the 7% have in common. I have named these four defining attributes and behaviors the four signs of a Dynamic Catholic. These four signs are the life-giving spiritual habits that animate their lives. I am convinced that if we work intentionally to help people develop a vibrant spirituality through these four signs, we will see incredible things happen in their lives and in the life of the Church.

For too long we have been hypnotized by complexity. There is so much to Catholicism. It is so rich and deep. As a result, when we try to share the faith with others they are often quickly overwhelmed. Those who yearn for spiritual renewal in their lives usually don’t know where to start. The four signs cut through the complexity and provide a practical and accessible model for engaging Catholics. They provide a simple and understandable starting point. They also provide an enduring model for continually taking Catholics who are already engaged to the next level. Wherever you are in your spiritual journey, whether you are engaged or disengaged, I hope you will find in the four signs a model for renewal.

The Four Signs – an Overview

The things we do repeatedly determine our character and destiny. This is equally true for an athlete, a business leader, a parent, or a Catholic. Life-giving spiritual habits are what set the 7% apart from the rest. When I studied the lives of Dynamic Catholics I discovered many things they did that the other 93 percent of Catholics tended not to do. In fact, I identified 264 behaviors or qualities that were unique to the 7%. I then examined the cause-and-effect relationship between all 264 behaviors, and the overlap that existed among them, to arrive at the four signs of a Dynamic Catholic.

For example, some of the highly engaged Catholics among the 7% pray the rosary every day with great discipline, others attend daily Mass, and some have a big, comfortable chair where they begin each day in prayer and reflection. Each of these finds its place under the first sign: Prayer.

There are some among the 7% who will tell you that going to daily Mass is the very core of their spiritual life. The danger is to think that is the answer for everyone. Daily Mass is fabulous and has transformed many lives, but less than 1 percent of American Catholics go to daily Mass. More important, for most people it is simply not possible. We need solutions that are accessible to all, that inspire people to say, “I can do that!”

There are many ways to live out each of the four signs; I witnessed this among the people interviewed. The four signs are sufficiently focused to produce the intended result and yet sufficiently broad to allow each person to approach them in his or her own way.

Once again, let me point out that the 7% are by no means perfect. In fact, the research discovered many things about them that repel the 93%. The 7% do things that discourage others from becoming more engaged. They can be territorial, excluding others from joining groups or activities. They often speak in a “church language” that the 93% don’t understand. They suffer from what I would call spiritual amnesia, meaning that they have forgotten or block out how resistant to God they were at different times in their spiritual journey, or how far from God they have been at times in their lives. This spiritual amnesia robs them of the ability to relate to others who are less engaged. It also often makes them intolerant of less engaged Catholics, thinking that those people should just “get with the program.”

Whatever shortcomings the 7% have can be overcome if they embrace the four signs more completely. The four signs are not only a model to reengage disengaged Catholics but also a model of continuous renewal for even the most highly engaged Catholics.

The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic are:


These may not seem like any great discovery at first glance. What I find most fascinating is the way Dynamic Catholics approach each of the four signs. What I find most admirable is the almost unerring consistency with which they apply themselves to the four signs, especially the first and second.

While I have dedicated a section to each of the signs, I think it would be helpful to take a quick journey through the entire model as an overview.

The First Sign – Prayer

Dynamic Catholics have a daily commitment to prayer.

God is not a distant force to these people, but rather a personal friend and adviser. They are trying to listen to the voice of God in their lives, and believe doing God’s will is the only path that leads to lasting happiness in this changing world (and beyond).

Am I saying the other 93 percent of Catholics don’t pray? No. Their prayer tends to be spontaneous but inconsistent. The 7% have a daily commitment to prayer, a routine. Prayer is a priority for them. They also tend to have a structured way of praying. Many of them pray at the same time every day. For some it means going to Mass in the morning and for others it means sitting down in a big, comfortable chair in a corner of their home or taking a walk, but they tend to abide by a structure.

Some start by simply talking to God about their day. Others begin their prayer by reading from the Bible. Still others have a favorite devotional book that they begin with. When they arrive at the time and place in their day for prayer, they have a plan; it is not left to chance or mood. They have a habit of prayer, which they cling to with great discipline.

This daily habit of prayer is the result of real spiritual work. Different things work for different people. Beginners in prayer struggle because they try one thing and it doesn’t work, and they get discouraged. Too many people don’t have someone they can turn to and discuss the intricacies of developing a practical and sustainable prayer life. In most cases the 7% have developed their routine of prayer painstakingly through trial and error over the course of decades.

What is important to recognize is that Dynamic Catholics have a time to pray, a place to pray, and a structure to their prayer.

The 93% certainly pray, but it tends to be when the mood strikes them or when some crisis emerges. The 7% pray in this way also, but their spontaneous prayer is deeply rooted in their daily discipline and commitment to a prayer routine.

The Second Sign – Study

Dynamic Catholics are continuous learners.

On average Dynamic Catholics spend fourteen minutes each day learning more about the faith. They see themselves as students of Jesus and his Church, and proactively make an effort to allow his teachings to form them.

Jesus doesn’t just want followers. He wants disciples. To be a Christian disciple begins by sitting at the feet of Christ to learn. We all sit at the feet of someone to learn. Whose feet do you sit at? For some it is a talk show host and for others it is a politician; for others still it is a musician, an artist, a pastor, or a business leader. But none of these are a substitute for Jesus. The 7% are keenly interested in learning from Jesus and about Jesus. More than just a historic figure, he is seen as a friend, coach, mentor, and Savior. They believe that Jesus teaches them through the Scriptures, Christian tradition, and the Church.

Highly engaged Catholics read Catholic books, listen to Catholic CDs, watch DVDs about the faith, and tune in to Catholic radio and television programs. They go on retreats more regularly than most Catholics and attend spiritual events and conferences. They are hungry to learn more about the faith. They are continuous learners.

It is also important to note that even though they tend to know much more about the faith than the 93%, they have a position of humility, which is a critical element of the second sign. If they disagree with a Church teaching, they approach the issue in this way: “Why does the Church teach what she teaches? It is unlikely that I know better than two thousand years of the best Catholic theologians and philosophers. What am I missing?” From this perspective they explore what the Church teaches to further understand God’s way, eager to discover the truth.

When the 93% disagree with a Church teaching, they tend to approach it altogether differently. Their attitude tends to be: “The Church is wrong. The Church needs to get with the times. The Church doesn’t understand me. I know better than two thousand years of the best Catholic minds.” Most striking is that these conclusions are often reached with little more than a surface understanding of what the Church teaches and why.

The second sign is all about continuous learning, the daily discipline of exploring the way of Jesus and the genius of Catholicism.

The Third Sign – Generosity

Dynamic Catholics are generous.

Dynamic Catholics are filled with a spirit of service and are generous stewards of their time, talent, and treasure.

The 7% are universally described as being generous, not just with money and time, but with their love, appreciation, praise, virtue, and encouragement. They see generosity as the heart of Christianity and the proof that the teachings of Christ have taken root in their lives.

The most fascinating thing that came out of the interviews in relation to the third sign is that Dynamic Catholics believe that it starts with financial generosity. They describe love of money and attachment to the things of this world as a primary impediment to spiritual growth, and see this as something that everyone struggles with regardless of how much or how little we have.

Financially, Dynamic Catholics give several times more to their parish and other nonprofit organizations (as a percentage of their annual income) than their counterparts in the 93 percent.

But it is how comprehensively generosity is woven into their lives and the spontaneity with which they dispense it that was so inspiring to me. They are generous lovers, they are generous parents, they are generous with their colleagues at work, and they are generous with strangers who cross their path. They are generous with their virtue—generous with patience, kindness, and compassion. Generosity is not a religious requirement for the 7%; it’s a way of life, a way of bringing the love of God to the world.

The Fourth Sign – Evangelization

Dynamic Catholics invite others to grow spiritually by sharing the love of God with them

Having seen how a vibrant spiritual life has transformed them and every aspect of their lives, highly engaged Catholics want others to experience the joy that flows from having a dynamic relationship with God.

Are you an evangelist? This is one of the questions we asked the 7% in the interviews. Less than 1% replied affirmatively. When they replied no, they were asked whom they considered to be an evangelist. The most common answers were evangelical preachers of the past or present. Not even John Paul II got a mention, even though he preached the Gospel to more people than any other person in history. So while evangelization is at the core of our Catholic mission, it is important to note that most Catholics do not resonate with the idea and remain uncomfortable with this concept and practice.

At the same time, Dynamic Catholics regularly do and say things to share a Catholic perspective with the people who cross their paths.

During the interviews, the 7% were asked about the latest Catholic book they had read. They would start talking about the book and we would ask them where that book was now. As often as not they looked confused by the question. We then asked if the book was on their bedside table, on a bookshelf, or somewhere else in the house. They responded, “Oh, no, I gave that book to my friend Suzie at work.” They were then asked about the best Catholic CD they had ever heard. “Where is it now?” “I sent that to my son in California,” or “I gave that to my friend.” And perhaps most telling, the 7% are significantly more likely to invite someone to attend a Catholic event than the 93%.

Though they don’t consider themselves to be actively evangelizing, they are constantly trying to help people develop vibrant spiritual lives by discovering the genius and beauty of Catholicism.

In some cases I was able to speak to family and friends of the 7%. In these interviews it became evident that in conversations Dynamic Catholics were much more likely to encourage a perspective that included God and the Church.

It is, however, important to point out that of the four signs, even among the 7%, this is the most underdeveloped. This is where even our best and brightest are the weakest.

Nonetheless, highly engaged Catholics instinctively know that this is an essential part of the Christian life. Sharing the faith (Evangelization) is not something they do; it is a part of who they are. Evangelization is a natural overflow of the first and second signs. In the same way they are generous with their time and money, they generously share their spirituality whenever the opportunity emerges. They yearn to help people find answers to the questions they have about the faith. They want others to experience the joy that comes from having a vibrant relationship with God. But even the most highly engaged Catholics need to become much more intentional and proactive when it comes to the fourth sign.

How Are You Doing?

The four signs can manifest themselves in different ways from one person to the next. But imagine for a moment if everyone in your parish did these four things:

  • Spent ten minutes each day in prayerful conversation with God
  • Read five pages of a great Catholic book each day
  • Gave 1 percent more of their income to support the mission of their parish than they did last year
  • Did one thing each week to share the genius of Catholicism with someone else.

How would your parish be different after one year? How would it be different ten years from now?

Prayer, Study, Generosity, and Evangelization. It is a simple plan, but complex problems demand simple solutions. It is the simplicity that allows widespread adoption and participation.

So, before we move on, how are you doing? Are you a DynamicCatholic? Give yourself a score between 1 and 10 for each of the four signs over the past year. (Circle your score.) If you wish, go back and reread the descriptions of each of the four signs, one at a time, and then score yourself.

Prayer 1•2•3•4•5•6•7•8•9•10

Study 1•2•3•4•5•6•7•8•9•10

Generosity 1•2•3•4•5•6•7•8•9•10

Evangelization 1•2•3•4•5•6•7•8•9•10

How did you do? Over the course of more than three thousand interviews, the 7% rated themselves at 6.5 on average across all four signs, or 26 out of 40. They rated themselves highest in the first sign (Prayer) with 7.3, lowest in the fourth sign (Evangelization) with 4.9. In the second sign (Study) they rated themselves 6.8 and in the third sign (Generosity) 7. So it is clear that even the 7% realize that they have much room for improvement.

As human beings we have a great psychological need to know we are making progress, and so finding ways to measure progress is critical even in an area like spirituality, which is so difficult to measure.

It is also critical to be mindful that the four signs are interrelated. For example, if you read five pages of a good Catholic book each day (Study), your prayer life would no doubt improve (Prayer), you would be more likely to talk with others about the ideas you are reading about (Evangelization), and the more you know God and his Church the more likely you are to be generous with God and neighbor (Generosity).


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