Within the last month or so, Lifeway Research, sponsored by Ligonier ministries, posted the results of the 2016 State of Theology survey, a follow-up to the benchmark 2014 study. The stated purpose of the study was to “measure the current theological awareness of adult Americans” (read full paper here). There have been many posts over at Ligonier and other blogs discussing their interpretations of some of the study results. After looking through the survey results myself, I want to share a few of the observations I made.
It would be easy to point out the glaringly obvious – generally Americans do not think properly about the gospel or God or the Bible. This survey was not necessary to surmise that many Americans lack a proper understanding of theology – this election season is proof in the pudding of where the hearts and minds of Americans are presently (see last post here). What’s more interesting to me is the answers given by so-called “evangelicals”. Oxford dictionary accurately and succinctly defines Evangelicalism as a “tradition of Protestant Christianity” that believes in “the authority of the Bible, personal conversion, and the doctrine of salvation by faith in the Atonement”. Let’s see how the survey takers did on those three key subjects:
The Authority of the Bible
40% of American evangelicals think “modern science discredits the claims of Christianity” – i.e., the world was not created in six literal 24 hour periods of time.
11% of American evangelicals disagree that “God is the author of Scripture.”
19% of American evangelicals think “The Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true.”
44% of American evangelicals disagree or unsure about “The Holy Spirit gives a spiritual new birth or new life before a person has faith.”
28% of American evangelicals disagree or unsure about “Salvation always begins with God changing a person so that he or she will turn to Him in faith.”
Salvation by Faith in the Atonement
38% of American evangelicals think that “By the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven.”
27% of American evangelicals either disagree or unsure about “Hell is an eternal place of judgment where God sends all people who do not personally trust in Jesus Christ.”
11% of American evangelicals disagree that “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.”
52% of evangelicals think “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.”
13% of evangelicals disagree that “The Bible has the authority to tell us what we must do.”
What do we do with this data? I want to ask three questions that might help serve as poignant thought provokers in light of these survey findings.
1) Are ecumenical labels useful in an increasingly postmodern world? It is increasingly easier for someone to self-identify as “Christian” or “Evangelical” without meeting the simple prerequisites. This is the nature of a postmodern world. There is no such thing as truth. A man can be a woman, and vice versa. A hotel customer who noticed the Gideon bible, cracked it open to the middle, read two verses, and tossed it aside in boredom can identify as an evangelical. When truth means nothing, ecumenical labels mean nothing.
2) Is ecumenicalism more important than the reputation of Christ? As Christ’s representatives here on earth, we are called to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27). When some ne’er-do-well postmodern “evangelicals” cause a ruckus, our reputation among the world is diminished, and the effectiveness of the gospel of Christ is weakened. Take simply as evidence the “evangelical” support for Trump in this election. Al Mohler said rightly that “Donald Trump is not just disqualified from being a Sunday school teacher. Honest evangelicals would not want him as a next-door neighbor.” If in one breath, you claim salvation through faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross for sin, and in the next breath defend the amorality of Trump (and deflection to Hilary is a defense thereof), seriously consider whether you are sending mixed messages, and tarnishing the reputation of the gospel of Christ.
3) Does truth matter to you and to your church? I was blessed to grow up in a church that valued highly the truth of scripture. From a young age, I was taught that the Scripture is the infallible word of God, and is the sufficient source of all pertinent knowledge and understanding for the Christian here on earth (2 Tim 3:16, 2 Peter 1:3). I was also taught that it is the duty of every Christian to become accurate handlers of truth (2 Tim 2:15). Do you have that same conviction for truth? Does your church? If the answers are yes and no respectively, consider a new venue to worship God in spirit and truth (Jn 4:24), that both preaches the scripture accurately and that equips its members to do the same.