LifeWay Christian Resources has put out an interesting survey called The State of Theology*. Alas (for them), this survey illustrates evangelical leaders’ very worst fears about their flocks and the very future of their religion.
The (Wretched) State of Theology.
Evangelicals sometimes act like they’re a monolithic group with monolithic attitudes and goals–but the truth is that there are many thousands of denominations even within that category of Christianity. The reality of evangelical Christianity’s situation is strikingly different from that pretense.
As Christian survey writers have known for years, it’s very difficult to even pin down exactly what an evangelical is. The actual definition varies by the person creating it–just like the definition of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ does.** When I was a fundamentalist, I probably would have been considered by these folks an evangelical and they’d have nodded in complete approval, I’m sure! But I would have rejected that title with all the force I could have mustered. In my day, evangelicals were Fundamentalists Lite; they didn’t adhere to the same moral codes we did, didn’t take fundamentalism nearly as far as we did, and were (gasp!) Trinitarians. Now, however, evangelicals usually define themselves by the exact same moral codes my Pentecostal tribemates used and are even more fundamentalist than we were.
So any survey of evangelical Christians must first begin by defining exactly which permutation of the term, out of many dozens of options, these particular evangelicals are using. Some people call themselves evangelical but do not fit the surveys’ definition at all; others refuse to use the title but fit the definition perfectly. As I said last time we met up, it’s complicated. (It’s just sooooo weird that there’s not some book or something they could consult to figure this stuff out.)
The only hard-and-fast rule you can count on is that whatever definition any given Christian group uses, it will perfectly fit their own group members’ particular doctrinal positions and beliefs. Generally, and remember that this is in no way universal, evangelicals are Christians who:
- think the Bible is authoritative regarding every single aspect of modern life (even though they don’t know much about it, so this works out to meaning that whatever their pastor or favorite apologist says the Bible says is authoritative),
- are sure that their interpretation of that authoritative Bible is “biblical” while others are not,
- buy wholly into the ideas of Heaven and Hell,
- think that the Bible is a totally accurate science and history book,
- are positive that “God” totally does miracles and answers prayers,
- hold to the “personal lord and savior” model of Jesus,
- have a disturbingly Calvinist theology (see here for the doctrines if you must),
- believe that evangelism is terribly important even if they don’t actually do much of it themselves,
- take a Republican-culture-warrior position on equal marriage, abortion, “religious liberty,” and Ayn Rand-style capitalism,
- and think there’s some totally accurate way to do Christianity, which is completely synonymous with their own way, of course (see note** below), which makes everybody else’s way of doing the religion absolutely wrong wrong wrong, thankyousir, goodday.
So definitions are the first problem. The second is that these survey creators have to ensure that whatever the survey is about, it ends up confirming that the writers’ own form of evangelical Christianity is doing just great–in fact it’s growing and thriving! And everyone outside the group is totally curious and friendly toward the evangelicals within it! And their culture wars are totally going to win! Yay Team Jesus!
This exact problem is why Thom Rainer himself always comes out of his “surveys” with the idea that his fans should do whatever they’re currently doing, just harder and more of it. There’s always an ulterior motive with these people. Indeed, in today’s survey’s own white paper, we learn that the people responsible for it are LifeWay Research, which is the mouthpiece of the Southern Baptist Convention (and Thom Rainer’s own group), and Ligonier Ministries, the evangelism group LifeWay commissioned to run the survey itself.
Ligonier’s mission is “faithfully presenting the unvarnished truth of Scripture to help people grow in their knowledge of God and His holiness.” They’re not interested in actually finding the real answers; they want to sell their ideology and apologetics junk above all else. If anything, they sound even more chirpy, humanity-negating, and reality-divorced than LifeWay does, which might be because they flog the log of their founder R.C. Sproul like it owes them money–he’s a very big-name Calvinist and one of the very worst of a very nasty bunch of chirpy, humanity-negating, and reality-divorced propagandists.
(One of these days, friends, we’ll simply have to pore over his breathlessly-titled The Psychology of Atheism. I’m sure it’s groundbreaking.)
Despite the group’s assurance that they tried super-hard to keep bias and whatnot out of the survey, you really need to tread lightly when it comes to their work. As we’ll see, the conclusions that they draw from this thoroughly disastrous survey sound very suspiciously self-serving and not even a little related to reality.
Maybe they shoulda stuck to the psychology of atheists.
I’ll take “Shit We Already Knew” for $600, Alex.
They say they tried to account for various demographics–religion, gender, income levels, educations, etc., but especially they tried to compare responses from churchgoing Christians and ones who’d disengaged, and from people who consider themselves evangelical and those who don’t. And here is the upshot of these two surveys.
In some ways, Christian beliefs softened over two years.
In 2014, 45% of respondents agreed that “the Bible was written for each person to interpret as they choose.” In 2016, that shot up to 51%.
In 2014, 41% felt that the Bible was not literally true. In 2016, that was 44%.
In 2014, 68% thought that there’d been a literal, physical resurrection of their savior. In 2016, that had dropped a bit to 64%.
And the number of people who think Jesus Christ will return to judge everyone is falling slightly. In 2014, 63% agreed with the idea, while in 2016 only 59% did.
The number of those who believe that Heaven is a literal place dropped a small amount (67% to 60%), but the number of people thinking that about Hell plummeted: 61% to 40%. Some of that might be the piss-poor way they worded the question the second time, but I’ll just note that I knew a surprising number of pagans who believed in angels–but very few who believed in demons. In fact, if you look at the percentages who “agreed strongly” and “somewhat,” you notice some real movement. In 2014, respondents were 41% “strongly” and 20% “somewhat,” while in 2016 that was 23% and 17%. Most of the movement happened in the “strongly” group.
Probably the most alarming thing, to Christian leaders at least, is the huge rise in people who agree that their religion isn’t the only way to Heaven. 45% of respondents agreed that “there are many ways to get to Heaven” in 2014, rising to 64% in 2016. In fact, the number “agreeing strongly” rose from 21% to 44%. The number of those disagreeing with the idea went from 42% to 24%.
In other ways, those beliefs didn’t change much at all, or hardened.
In both surveys, 2/3 of respondents agreed that their god was perfect and infallible (63% and 65%) and that their god answers prayer (66% both times).
In 2014, 48% of respondents thought that “the Bible alone is the written word of God,” while in 2016 that rose to 52%. The percentage of respondents who thought the Bible was 100% accurate rose from 43% to 47%.
n 2014, 18% of respondents agreed that “even the smallest sin deserves damnation,” and in 2016 that had risen to 19%. The numbers of those disagreeing went from 75% to 74%.
Most strikingly in my opinion, the 2014 survey had 61% of respondents agreeing that “God has authority over people because He created human beings.” 28% of respondents disagreed–14% strongly. In 2016, the percentage of people agreeing had risen to 65%,with 24% disagreeing–15% strongly. Evangelicals, of course, tend to agree way more often with that idea.
A startlingly few number of people understand that human rights aren’t dependent upon divine creation, and evangelicals understand this least of all. Little wonder they view evolution as a major threat and insist that if schools are allowed to teach real science to kids that civilization will surely collapse.
Evangelicals, especially those who say they attend church at least once a month, are more likely to agree with their leaders’ party lines (outlined in the list above).
In 2014, 66% of respondents agreed that their god answers prayer. That stayed stable in 2016. However, in the 2016 survey, evangelicals agreed 94% of the time to this question. Regarding that infallibility question, evangelicals agreed 97% of the time. Regarding the physical-resurrection question, they agreed that it’d really happened 98% of the time.
And as one might expect, evangelicals had a very different take on whether or not their god answers prayer. In 2014, Christians generally agreed strongly with that idea 38% of the time–while evangelicals who attended church agreed strongly 78% of the time. The 2016 survey doesn’t say what percentage of evangelicals are in strong agreement with this question, but I can say that it looks like 66% of general respondents agreed somewhat or strongly while 94% of evangelicals agreed.
The needle hasn’t moved like tons and tons, and some of that movement might just be margin-of-error stuff. I’m not totally sold on the survey’s methodology by a longshot, and the way they present this information is really wonky (often comparing apples to oranges, adding or removing questions, and rewording others in ways that seem like they’d markedly change the answers they get). However, it does seem very much like yes, in the main, Christians are becoming slightly more compassionate, less zealous, and less certain of Calvinist bullshit.
The Sound of Zealots Denying Reality.
Whatever definitions one is using, this survey has got to have evangelical leaders frantic. Reading it and its questions, I found myself going “ooh, ow, oh dear” more than a few times.
Christianity Today, one of the larger evangelical websites out there, got a couple of big-name Christian professors to comment on the survey. They tried to put a good face on things by saying that at least most of the responses were generally consistent regarding stuff like the Trinity. But it wasn’t hard at all to read between the lines to see a lot more than just disappointment.Their experts were all totally sure of a few key things:
First, that church leaders at the local level should totally be doing more “doctrinal teaching” about “basic Christian orthodoxy.”
Lockstep about doctrinal matters has always been important to fundagelicals, but they’ve been crowing for years about how much better they are than liberal Christians because they don’t “water down” their doctrinal teachings. “WE TEACH THE BAH-BULL!” they crow. And they’re damned proud of it. I’ve read more times than I can count their leaders and their laypeople’s thunderous denunciations of churches that do anything else. “They just didn’t teach the Bible!” is a very common lament (see comments on literally any fundagelical blog on the topic–like this one). So exactly where are these churches that aren’t doing this teaching? And are they the churches whose leaders would care about this sort of hand-wringing?
These experts were also very distressed at how little “discipleship” is going on at churches, saying that “most evangelical churches have largely abandoned” that hardcore scholarship stuff that supposedly would keep their members’ butts in pews and keep them from wandering off. (This assertion is one that I’d contest.) They assume that the people leaving are those who haven’t been “discipled,” but I’m not sure I can agree with that. The more hardcore fundagelical denominations are losing fewer people than the mainline churches are, but they’re still losing a whole lot.
CT’s experts lamented how sooooooooo many churches today are “cults of personality” with “charismatic superstar pastors” who don’t care about this “basic Christian orthodoxy” and instead preach their weird little homebrew ideas to the crowds.
Of course, as far as every Christian church is concerned, they already teach exactly that.
Second, that Christians ache for this “basic Christian orthodoxy.”
But then in the very next breath, seriously, in the very next goddamned sentence, the expert they found to declare that “charismatic superstar pastors” are making all these “cults of personality” went on to say, with more than a little unwarranted confidence, that “people are hungry for orthodoxy.”
Which is it?
You can’t have both, I’m afraid. Either cults of personality are forming around superstar pastors with no interest in preaching orthodoxy, or else people are eager to learn orthodoxy. Because people who want orthodoxy aren’t flocking to churches that preach it. They’re flocking instead to megachurches with charismatic young preachers who teach weird little homebrews. The little bitty church plants full of earnest, super-sincere pastors waving Bibles from the pulpit are dying left and right. The only churches that are really growing these days are in fact the megachurches, which are generally cannibalizing the smaller ones. And even after doing so, these megachurches are still experiencing a drop in attendance.
As any pastor could tell these people, Christians church-hop at the drop of a hat–when they aren’t simply melting away. The days of a pastor having a guaranteed flock that stayed in the same church from cradle to grave are long, long gone. I don’t think anybody’s studied exactly how often Christians change churches within the same basic denomination, an odd oversight in itself. Pew studied people who switch affiliations entirely, but it’s not the same thing. But the religion’s leaders know that it’s a problem and are thinking about how to lower the rate at which it happens (spoiler: usually the answers, to them, lie in flexing greater authority over congregants’ lives and shaming them for daring to want a church that fulfills their needs).
So people definitely are aware that if they aren’t getting something they need from their current church, they can leave and find one that provides whatever it might be. If they felt they needed orthodoxy, by which we mean, of course, strict adherence to Ligonier’s and LifeWay’s exhaustive list of doctrines, then they could certainly go get it if they wanted it. Many do exactly this.
Others, however, clearly don’t.
Unsurprisingly, the Ligonier people themselves come out of their survey with the reaction we’ve come to expect out of fundagelicals who finally realize that they’re failing: do more of what you were doing, only more of it and harder:
Faithful Christians can look at these survey results and lament the state of theology in America. Or, we can look at these results and engage our Great Commission work with a renewed urgency and purpose. Ligonier Ministries is taking the latter approach. It is easy to get distracted by cultural trends and apply our resources toward chasing novel methodology. This survey reminds us of the necessity of teaching foundational truths. . .
That strategy clearly has been failing for years, but surely it will succeed soon if they just keep at it! Right? Right?
Another Ray of Hope In These Dark Days.
This wasn’t the world’s best survey in a lot of ways. However, it does show us that even when evangelicals do their damndest to create a survey that paints their faith system in a good light and gives themselves permission to keep doing the terrible things they’re doing, it’s beyond clear that their religion is not doing as well as they pretend. There are some very serious rays of light piercing the darkness here.
This survey points, first and foremost, to the utter disintegration of Christian denominations. They are fractured beyond all recognition. Even on the most basic doctrines, believers are all over the map. Evangelicals might be hard-asses about some of those points, like divine infallibility and omniscience, but they’re just as fragmented as their peers are regarding a host of their leaders’ other doctrinal and culture-war positions.
Some of the doctrinal points are defined more by disagreement than consensus–like how evangelicals are 95% likely to agree that “the Bible alone is the written word of God” versus 42% of Christians generally. These splits point to such a growing degree of difference that one can really see evangelicals and non-evangelicals as following totally different religions that just happen to start off from the Bible and use some of the same terminology for their ideas.
It’s clear that Christian leaders’ crusade against science literacy has only confused the hell out of their flocks. 51% of Christians generally agree that the Bible isn’t 100% literally true in all particulars. Only 17% of evangelicals agree with that idea–but that’s 17% of a group whose leaders push that idea 24/7. Likewise, 56% of Christians generally agree that the Bible should be left up to the individual to interpret as they please, while 30% of evangelicals think that–which is a 30% their leaders would condemn!
Considering how often inerrancy and literalism crop up in definitions of evangelicalism, it’s surprising that this many evangelicals don’t buy into it.
We can also see that there is nowhere near consensus about those culture-wars that their leaders do so love. As much as evangelicals want to pretend that all of them are bigots-for-Jesus who condemn abortion, that’s clearly not the case. I wrote about this a little last year when I showed y’all the surprising sight of pro-choice evangelicals, but that gap has only widened in that time. Considering that the sex lives and abortion-seeking habits of evangelicals look pretty much like those of any other Christian (or non-Christians), I’m not all that surprised to hear that evangelicals are starting to question those culture wars.
Only 49% agreed that abortion is a sin in the 2016 survey, with only 33% going with strong agreement. And evangelicals agreed 87% of the time with that assertion. By the same token, 42% of respondents didn’t think homosexuality was a sin anymore, with evangelicals agreeing 19% of the time. That’s huge. That’s more than 1-in-10 evangelicals being okay with abortion to some extent, and almost 1-in-5 being okay with gay people. (Ligonier didn’t appear to ask these two questions on the 2014 survey.)
Indeed, in 2016, 54% of respondents agreed that their churches should “be silent on issues of politics.” Even 39% of evangelicals agreed with this idea. That’s a dramatic rise from 2014, when 43% of general respondents agreed. (Interestingly, 23% of general respondents disagreed in 2014 versus 16% in 2016.) I’ve been sensing a great deal of weariness with culture wars in the flocks, and this survey definitely confirms that impression. That’s about one-in-six evangelicals (and almost half of the rest!) who are ready for these wars to be over.
I know that isn’t much, but gang, I’ll take whatever the hell I can get this week. Christians are getting just as sick of their leaders’ over-politicization as the rest of us are. Christians are still the major force behind the election of possibly the worst expression of that over-politicization that could possibly happen, but maybe that stunt will backfire. Next time, I want to touch on suggestions about moving forward. We ex-Christians already know what doesn’t work… but there are some things that do. See you soon.
* H/T to Able to Choose.
** TRUE CHRISTIAN™: a shorthand used on this blog to indicate someone who is a perfect Christian who believes the right things, hasn’t been caught doing anything really bad, and dies in the traces of the religion. Every TRUE CHRISTIAN™ believes that they and their particular little group of like-minded peers are the real deal, while anybody who does something hypocritical, believes the wrong doctrines, or deconverts is, obviously, a false Christian who is hellbound. I will leave for the reader (for now!) the exercise of working out why it’s such a bad idea for Christians to think this way.