Note: The Patheos Evangelical Future of Faith Forum, of which I was asked to participate, compiles insight to the future of faith in America largely based on flawed data from Pew Research. Pew’s data related to Evangelicals over the last several decades has used dissimilar criteria in its research and polling questions that erroneously define whom an evangelical is or what an evangelical believes. (There are four well-known criteria used among academics.) Inconsistent criteria create incomparable and unreliable results.
Instead, the Bible, quite simply, offers the best guidance on assessing the nature of Christianity and Evangelicalism in America. After all, wouldn’t those who claim to follow Jesus gain the most insight from what he says?
Depending on how the data is assessed, it’s possible that Christianity in America represents a spiritual famine. Understood another way through Jesus’ parable of the sower, roughly 25 percent—not 70 percent—of Americans are genuine believers and followers of Christ, which changes the discussion, and should cause grave concern, and the need for biblical discernment.
America’s Famine: Roughly 25 Percent, 80 Million, Are Christians
America is experiencing a spiritual famine. Jesus’s parable of the sower helps clarify why most who identify as Christians when questioned about their beliefs cannot identify basic Biblical principles they claim to believe.
According to a recent Pew Research poll, 70 percent (223 million) of approximately 319 million Americans identify as Christians.
But researchers George Gallup and Jim Castelli clarify the fundamental problem:
“Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”
According to Barna Institute, American Culture and Faith Institute, and Gallup Polling Company data, of self-identifying Christians:
- Only 13 percent read the Bible every day;
- Few can name more than two or three of Jesus’s twelve disciples;
- Sixty percent can only name less than half of the Ten Commandments;
- 82 percent believe “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse;
- More than 50 percent of graduating high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife; and
- A considerable number of poll respondents believe Billy Graham preached the Sermon on the Mount.
Significant lack of biblical knowledge partially stems from the teachings of the prosperity gospel, emergent church and prophecy movement. Lack of knowledge is easily manipulated by oft-used qualifiers categorizing Christians as Conservative,” “Liberal,” “Mainstream,” “Progressive,” “Evangelical,” “Orthodox,” “Calvinist,” “Neo-Calvinist,” “Anabaptist,” “Liberation Theology,” “authentic,” and “nominal/secular.”
No wonder so many people are confused about Christianity.
Morphing Christianity into political parties has only worsened this confusion. After former president Jimmy Carter publicly declared he was “born-again,” Newsweek dubbed 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical.” Subsequently, the media, politicians, academics, and non-Christian strategists began bombarding Americans with misinformation about Christianity.
Carter introduced his “deep Christian faith” into the democratic platform by frequently invoking “evangelical” vocabulary that had largely originated from a little-known document, the “Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern,” whose authors first introduced the term “Progressive Evangelical.”
To counter Carter and other democrats of the “Religious Left,” Republican strategists found their own “evangelicals” to redirect political dialogue and ushered in the “Religious Right.” Sadly, politicians from every political party appear to continue to make false claims about Christian beliefs and basic biblical concepts.
Despite attempts to politicize Christianity, Barna noted that 90 percent of the “theologically conservative” pastors he recently polled affirm that the Bible speaks to cultural and political issues but refrain from encouraging their congregants to engage in the political process. When he asked them, “Well, are you teaching your people what the Bible says about those issues?” Barna says, “the numbers drop … to less than 10 percent who say they will speak to it.”
He surmises the pastors he polled “won’t probably get involved in politics because it’s very controversial. Controversy keeps people from being in the seats, controversy keeps people from giving money, from attending programs.”
America’s Christians are in a predicament. On the one hand most self-identifying Christians are biblically illiterate. On the other, those who are literate are largely misunderstood by “political Christianity.” And this confusion affects everyone. Americans living in the “breadbasket of the world”—ironically— are famished.
And this famine has impacted every area of society.
As Charles G. Finney articulated in 1873 in The Decay of Conscience,
“Brethren, our preaching will bear its legitimate fruits. If immorality prevails in the land, the fault is ours in a great degree. If there is a decay of conscience, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the public press lacks moral discrimination, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the church is degenerate and worldly, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the world loses its interest in religion, the pulpit is responsible for it. If Satan rules in our halls of legislation, the pulpit is responsible for it. If our politics become so corrupt that the very foundations of our government are ready to fall away, the pulpit is responsible for it. Let us not ignore this fact, my dear brethren; but let us lay it to heart, and be thoroughly awake to our responsibility in respect to the morals of this nation.”
Famine can be mitigated. Even dry land can be transformed into fertile soil.
The Good News
Jesus’s disciples Matthew, Mark, and Luke recorded a parable Jesus told of a sower whose seed fell on four types of ground: on the side of the road, rocky places, among thorns, and on good soil. One quarter was eaten by birds. One quarter withered away. One quarter was choked out. The last 25 percent—only one quarter of the seed fully matured and developed in order to yield a crop.
According to Jesus’s illustration only 25 percent who hear, receive, understand, and obey the gospel actually bear fruit. And this fruit (genuine Christians) manifests another crop (new believers/disciples) yielding a harvest of 30 to 60 to 100 fold.
While 25 percent appears to be a small number, the good news is its yield is immeasurable—with the potential, at a minimum, for compounded harvests of 30, 60, or 100 fold.
After the initial 12, Jesus chose another 72 disciples. He told them:
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
In order to do this, America’s famine rooted in biblical illiteracy must be remedied. Biblical instruction is paramount for new growth that produces fruits of knowledge and wisdom. Americans are starving because so few know how, or are limited in their ability, to feed them.
A.W. Tozer’s 1960 warning still holds true today:
“If Christianity is to receive a rejuvenation it must be by other means than any now being used. If the church in the second half of this century is to recover from the injuries she suffered in the first half, there must appear a new type of preacher. The proper, ruler-of-the-synagogue type will never do. Neither will the priestly type of man who carries out his duties, takes his pay and asks no questions, nor the smooth-talking pastoral type who knows how to make the Christian religion acceptable to everyone. All these have been tried and found wanting.
“Another kind of religious leader must arise among us. He must be of the old prophet type, a man who has seen visions of God and has heard a voice from the Throne. When he comes (and I pray God there will be not one but many) he will stand in flat contradiction to everything our smirking, smooth civilization holds dear. He will contradict, denounce and protest in the name of God and will earn the hatred and opposition of a large segment of Christendom. Such a man is likely to be lean, rugged, blunt-spoken and a little bit angry with the world. He will love Christ and the souls of men to the point of willingness to die for the glory of the one and the salvation of the other. But he will fear nothing that breathes with mortal breath.”
From 12 men to 72, their Spirit-led efforts reached American Christians 20 centuries later. America’s genuine believers have an incredible opportunity to sow the Word of God into the hearts of new disciples to reach even more generations. This life cycle always reverts to and is sustained by what is preached (or not preached) from the pulpit about Jesus Christ who claimed he was the “The Bread of Life” and “Living Water” who alone forever quenches hunger and thirst.
Increasing the yield of the 25 percent will only come from the pulpit from which the “whole counsel of God” is preached. The future of faith in America rests in God and his spirit-filled sowers and doers who hear his living, spoken words because they read, memorize, commit, and joyfully live by them.