It's fitting to write this while our church is hosting a weekly homeschool community through Classical Conversations. CC's motto is "To Know God and make Him known." It permeates everything they do. I hear my wife singing to her group of "Apprentices" about the Boston Tea Party and the class directly across the hall is using a clap/stomp beat to learn Latin. At the core of the CC curriculum is knowing God, who is the author of Truth and has revealed Himself to us.
Recently the 2020 State of American Theology report was released by Lifeway Research. For research nerds this was like Christmas morning. Nothing warms our souls like fresh data neatly arranged in spreadsheets and tables with a robust statistical analysis. As a pastor, it's also like Christmas morning because we can get a sense of not only the theological worldview of the church but the culture at large! There's so much value from the study, and if you're a pastor or ministry leader you'd be wise to read it.
Here are my 9 takeaway from it:
1) Non-evangelicals hold to non-evangelical positions - It shouldn't be a surprise at all that on issues of theology, ethics, sexuality, and salvation that there are distinct breaks between what people who claim to be evangelical and those who don't believe. It shouldn't be a surprise as the culture at large moves slowly away from traditional/historic understandings of morality. This magnifies the difficulty that many Christians have in engaging their neighbors and friends.
2) Evangelicals also hold to non-evangelical positions - Surprisingly, there were a few places where those who identify as evangelical had views that were a bit off. For example, almost half of evangelicals polled believe "God accept the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam," and around 30% agree that "Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God," and over half agree with "The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being." While Obi Wan would be pleased with that last one, it's not a biblical view.
3) Entertainment isn't as important as we think - One of the more interesting findings was that almost half of non-evangelicals thought churches needed to provide entertaining services to be effective. One of the myths that we buy into is that if we're going to reach people we have to dangle some kind of carrot of entertainment to capture their attention. As a pastor, it's encouraging to know that we don't have to compete with Disney World, we just need to stay in our lane and be faithful in our worship and service planning.
4) Staying home is a real factor - Almost half of those who identify as evangelical agreed that "Worshiping alone or with one's family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church." When this was written it was before COVID. No telling what that number is now. Beyond the pandemic, it confirms what has been presented by others like Thom Rainer that "regular" church attendance can be defined as around 2x a month. We're seeing a lesser emphasis on the local church gathering. As pastors, this is tough. We need to teach, lead, and model that there is an invaluable element to the church gathering in-person. Virtual and streaming options are fine to do, but they cannot replace the in-person nature of corporate worship.
5) Abortion & Homosexuality are the Hot Buttons - No surprise here. Around 40% of non-evangelicals believe abortion is sinful, compared with almost 90% of evangelicals. Less than 20% of evangelicals agreed that the Bible's views on homosexuality don't apply today, while more than 60% of non-evangelicals held to the same view. Going forward, these will likely continue to be the flash points in the public square as we continue to see a growing chasm.
6) Gender identity is a generational discussion - When asked about "Gender identity is a matter of choice," there were clear breaks along age lines. Adults 18-34 were 50/50, while Americans aged 50-64 were much more likely to disagree (> 60%). Among evangelicals, almost 25% agreed with the statement. Navigating the complexity of the issues of gender and sexuality is something Christian leaders and pastors need to be trained on. I commend the work of the SBC's ERLC and Barna's research on helping to understand the climate.
7) Politics and Religion are Mixed - Only about 1/4 of evangelicals agreed that "Christians should be silent on issues of politics." And even fewer older evangelicals agreed with that statement. The extent and context of those political views aren't listed. But it confirms what we see in the news cycle every election season and especially in the Trump Era of Christian political engagement. If anything, the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s served as a third launching point of Christians into political engagement (after abolition and prohibition).
8) Science & Scripture need a DTR - Almost 40% of non-evangelicals agreed with the statement "Modern science disproves the Bible," and less than 20% of evangelicals agreed with it. I honestly expected the non-evangelical number to be much higher (it was among Americans 18-34). The correlation of disagreement is connected to the number of times attending a worship service in a month. Those who attend more frequently are less inclined to believe science disproves the Bible.
9) Truth matters - Surprisingly, almost 1/3 of evangelicals agreed with the statement "religious belief is a matter of personal opinion; it is not about objective truth." It's not a surprise that more than 70% of non-evangelicals would agree with that. But it is a bit surprising that it's as common within the church. The same population affirms the resurrection as a historic event (98%), and that the Bible is 100% accurate in what it teaches (91%), but leaves a lot to opinion. It's been said that the current state of Christianity in America is that there is an appreciation for the Bible, but not a reliance on the Bible.
Much to take from the research. Feel free to share your reflections and thoughts on it!
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.