Two Studies that Reveal a Lot

The Point John Stonestreet

The Point John StonestreetThough I have never been able to track down a source, I heard several years ago that Chuck Colson once claimed to have good news and bad news: “The good news is that there are more Christians than ever before; the bad news is, it doesn’t seem to be making any difference.” According to two studies published today, there is still bad news but no longer any good news.

Two studies published today demonstrate the declining influence of Christianity in America. First, the American Religious Identification Survey showed an overall drop in the numbers who self-identify as “Christian” from 86.2% in 1990 to 76% in 2008.

The upside here is that 90% of this drop comes from mainline denominations who either flirt heavily with liberalism (like Methodists, Presbyterian USA and Lutherans) or have capitulated to it altogether (like Episcopalians and United Church of Christ). The decline among these churches has been steady for a long time, of course, and their demise overdue.

If you fail to offer the actual Gospel then there is nothing left to actually offer that someone cannot get elsewhere. Why go hear a boring sermon about being good on weekends when Oprah can help you every afternoon? In fact, the only growth within these denominations has been among those who claim to be “evangelical” or “born again,” terms that would cause strong consternation among mainline seminary professors everywhere…

The most striking thing reported in the survey, at least in my view, is the growth from these three non-Christian groups: (1) those who identify as non-religious: the number of outright atheists has doubled since 1990 with a total of 12% claiming atheism or agnosticism and another 12% deism; (2) New Religious movements such as Wicca, pagan, and scientology grew faster in this decade than in the 90’s; (3) the Muslim proportion of the population has grown to .6%, up from .3% in 1990.

Among the Christian population, the growth that has occurred has been among those who claim to be “non-denominational,” up to nearly 12% of the population from 5% in 1990. Many of these claim to be “born again” or evangelical.” What is not encouraging, however, is placing this growth along side of the stagnation of Christian thinking reported on the Barna website today.

This study, which has been ongoing by the Barna Group since 1995, claims to measure whether Americans have a Biblical worldview. This isn’t exactly true, as the questions only measure respondents on theology and ethics, and not on other significant worldview issues of history, economics, politics, or science. According to the report:

For the purposes of the survey, a “biblical worldview” was defined as believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today. In the research, anyone who held all of those beliefs was said to have a biblical worldview.

Knowing what Americans and Christian Americans believe about these things is still, of course, helpful. The results, however, are not encouraging.

Overall, the current research revealed that only 9% of all American adults have a biblical worldview. Among the sixty subgroups of respondents that the survey explored was one defined by those who said they have made a personal to commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today and that they are certain that they will go to Heaven after they die only because they confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior. Labeled “born again Christians,” the study discovered that they were twice as likely as the average adult to possess a biblical worldview. However, that meant that even among born again Christians, less than one out of every five (19%) had such an outlook on life.

The same questions were asked of respondents in national surveys by Barna in 1995, 2000 and 2005. The results indicate that the percentage of adults with a biblical worldview, as defined above, has remained unchanged for more than a decade. The numbers show that 7% had such a worldview in 1995, compared to 10% in 2000, 11% in 2005, and 9% now. Even among born again adults, the statistics have remained flat: 18% in 1995, 22% in 2000, 21% in 2005, and 19% today.

One wonders how dismal the numbers would have been if more substantial worldview question were asked! The lowest numbers, by the way, were among young adults. Less than one half of one percent of those ages 18-23 possessed a Biblical worldview on the questions that were asked in the survey.

So, the question remains: why is it that the growth of “evangelicals” and “born agains” is not translating into an improvement in Christian worldview? In fact, I am not sure it is helpful to call it growth.