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The right way to make a religious New Year's resolution
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More than half of Americans have made a faith-related New Year's resolution at some point in their lives, according to a new survey. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Joe Carter loves New Year's resolutions, even if he's terrible at them. Every January 1, he launches a plan to be a better version of himself, whether by ditching bad habits or developing new ones.

Often, his resolutions overlap with his Christian faith. In the past, he's set goals to read the Bible more and memorize verses, but he's failed at most of these, too.

"Whether resolutions are faith-based or otherwise, life gets in the way," said Carter, an editor and writer for The Gospel Coalition.

More than half of Americans (52 percent) have, at some point in their lives, chosen a New Year's resolution around building a stronger relationship with God, making the goal more popular than using time more efficiently (43 percent) and spending money more wisely (37 percent), according to a new survey from LifeWay Research. Researchers found that religious New Year's resolutions are only 5 percentage points less common than planning to be healthier in the new year.

As Carter's experiences illustrate, faith-based resolutions can flop just as easily as others. And failing at them can take a toll on someone's spiritual outlook, because he or she may feel guilty about disappointing God and more hesitant to form religious goals in the future, according to leading resolution and religious experts.

Like other goals, plans to attend church more often or pray each night before bed require a thoughtful approach, wrote Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, author of "Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture," in an email. Being specific can help, too: By making concrete plans to attend a worship service once a week or join a study group rather than speaking abstractly about growing closer to God, people will have a better chance at having a faith-filled 2016.

A risky mentality

Making a New Year's resolution is a common holiday habit, like eating too many cookies on Christmas or rewatching "Home Alone."

And yet by participating in this ritual, people seem to set themselves up to fail. Only 8 percent of New Year's resolutions are successfully achieved each year, according to a 2013 University of Scranton survey.

Although the start of a new year can feel like a magical time when anything is possible, people need to be careful about how they think about resolutions, especially when they're forming a goal related to religious practice, Lamb-Shapiro noted.

"Habits are deeply ingrained," she said, noting that it can be just as difficult to start reading the Bible each morning as it is to skip dessert after dinner. When people resolve to strengthen their relationship to God, they risk damaging whatever faithful inclinations they already have, just as people who want to diet might actually end up gaining weight.

Choosing a resolution related to faith can also be problematic if it leads to guilt, said Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research.

"There's a danger that somebody is going to get on a kick for a few weeks" and then forget about their resolution to draw closer to God, just as they might forget they planned to work out every morning, he said. When religious commitment is at stake rather than your waistline, failure often feels worse.

Planning for success

Religious resolutions are risky, but there are steps people can take to improve their chances, according to Lamb-Shapiro and McConnell.

In LifeWay Research's survey, the "relationship with God" resolution topic included a variety of activities, such as setting a goal to read the Bible daily or attend church twice a month. These more specific activities are likely where people find the most success, because it's easier to hold yourself accountable when your goal is quantifiable, McConnell noted.

"A lot of the theory around change management says you should keep it simple and concrete," he said. "If your resolution is just to have a better relationship to God, it's hard to say in December whether you made it or not."

Similarly, Lamb-Shapiro highlighted how important it is to think through the steps to success.

"The trap is thinking that the work is somehow going to happen somewhere else, instead of recognizing that you are the one who needs to do the work," she said. "If you want to rededicate yourself to faith, be specific about what steps you will take to do so. Write them down. Look at them often. And put them into practice daily."

People also need to be aware of the potential for missteps so that they can find a way to move forward instead of putting off further action until next January, Lamb-Shapiro said.

"You need to address the inevitable fact of failure and figure out how to get back on track when you inevitably get distracted," she said.

Carter took advantage of this approach while implementing one of his most successful faith-based resolutions. He planned to read every book of the Bible 20 times, and he told himself that lapses in progress weren't going to be permanent.

"Early in the year, I missed about two months (of reading) and I had to restart. But I told myself I didn't want to wait until next year" to keep going, he said.

McConnell acknowledged that many of the people making religious resolutions likely won't have much spiritual growth to report in December, but he said spending time reflecting on faith is still an admirable way to start 2016.

"That's what resolutions are about: thinking about your priorities as a person and deciding what you want to invest your time into," he said.

McConnell added, "Don't dwell on the fact that we sometimes fail. Dwell, instead, on the idea that God is asking us to commit to him and depend on him."
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