As increasing numbers of Americans are leaving the church, a recent Barna study on the American worldview does not seem all that surprising. For years now, Americans have expressed a loss of confidence in the church as the institution is no longer viewed as important. Many Americans believe that church has actually had a negative impact on society and millennials frequently express that the church is irrelevant, hypocritical, and morally failed. Of all the reasons for the increasing gap between church and society, the top two for no longer attending church expressed by Americans are their ability to find God in other places and the church’s irrelevance to them personally.
So, it comes as no shock to learn that only six percent (down from 17% in 2015) of Americans hold what Barna describes as a “biblical worldview.” Here are some of the data related to those 176 million adults—69 percent of the US adult population—who continue to identify as Christians:
Widely held beliefs among American Christians
- 72% argue that people are basically good
- 71% consider feelings, experience, or the input of friends and family as their most trusted sources of moral guidance
- 66% say that having faith matters more than which faith you pursue
- 64% say that all religious faiths are of equal value
- 58% believe that if a person is good enough, or does enough good things, they can earn their way into Heaven
- 58% contend that the Holy Spirit is not a real, living being but is merely a symbol of God’s power, presence, or purity
- 57% believe in karma
- 52% claim that determining moral truth is up to each individual; there are no moral absolutes that apply to everyone, all the time
Significant numbers of American Christians reject biblical teachings:
- 46% believe marriage is between one man and one woman
- 40% believe that when they die they will go to heaven
- 34% believe that people born sinful and can be saved by Jesus Christ
- 32% believe that pre-marital sex is morally unacceptable
- 28% believe that obedience to God is the best indicator for a successful life
“The narrative driving the faith of the self-identified Christian population, then, is not consistently in tune with biblical perspectives. It might best be described as acknowledging that God is real, powerful, and caring, and is worthy of worship and consideration. He is open-minded and tolerant. Our moral choices are important but primarily because of their effect on other people. Those choices are best influenced by human experience and personal expectations. If we invest in being happy, God will bless those efforts. Toward that end, the best advice we can live by is the wisdom developed and shared by other people.” (Release #6: What does it mean when people say they are “Christians?”)
The Transformational Nature of the Church
As far back as 1998, Oxford scholar, Don Cupitt, commented on the church in post-Christian Western society, “Until very recently it was a matter of great grief to me that the Church seemed unwilling and even unable to reform itself: but now it seems that people in general have decided that there is not enough left to salvage. Reform isn’t worth trying for: let the dead bury their dead. It wasn’t I who decided that it is now too late, but the general public” (“Post-Christianity,” in Religion, Modernity and Postmodernity, ed. Paul Heelas. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998: 219-220). Indeed, the church ever reforming seems to never reform as it continues in its captivity to its 16th century self.
In the New Testament, cultural transformation clearly resulted from the proclamation of the gospel, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, and the corresponding impact of their Christ-like lives in their communities. That transformation resulted from the faithful witness of disciples—in word and work—and the formation of a newly created body of Christ followers. Here are at least seven areas where transformation occurred:
- Personal transformation – individual lives were transformed by the indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom 12:1-2)
- Family transformation – entire households came to Christ as a result of the spread of the gospel among social networks (Acts 16; Eph 5 & 6)
- Economic (oikos) transformation – the impact of the gospel on the livelihood of believers resulted in slaves being set free (Onesimus), better treatment of employees (Household codes in Ephesians, Colossians), and the upsetting of businesses focused on idols (Acts 19). A Christian work ethic emerged (2 Thess 3:6-7, 11) as well as a spirit of generosity (1 Tim 6:17-19).
- Religious transformation – the practices of Jews and the many practitioners various gods and goddess worship were both transformed as their allegiances to their former ways were replaced by allegiance to the one true God (Acts 19; 1 Cor 8)
- Political transformation – city and regional governments were transformed as Christians engaged leaders in every community with the gospel (Corinth and Ephesus, Paul standing before rulers and emperor). The church expected the government to hold them accountable to do good (Rom 13).
- Educational transformation – the gospel impact on philosophy transformed the intellectual in their pursuit of what they had known implicitly, yet was now being declared explicitly (Aratus in Acts 17, Heraclitus in Acts 19). The New Testament discipleship paradigm focused on imitation of the lives of the apostles and following their traditions (2 Thess 2:15; 1 Cor 11:1; Heb 13:7).
- Social transformation – gospel declaration resulted in Christian advocacy for the marginalized (women in Ephesus [1 Tim 2; Rev 2], care for the poor [Gal 2:10], care for the widows and orphans [1 Tim 5]).
Cultural transformation occurs when the Holy Spirit-empowered followers of Christ gathered in community and expressed genuine love for one another. The church in society transforms society. Where transformation in society is not occurring, there you have a church that has lost what it means to imitate the apostles and follow their traditions. There is a church that society captured and transformed. The Barna study seems to indicate little difference between church and society today; especially as so many self-identified Christians no longer hold to the traditions of the orthodox faith, but rather to society’s views.
Unlike the 21st century, the remarkable testimony of a second century Roman official describes the impact of early Christianity beautifully:
“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language, or customs. Yet, there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as if they were only passing through. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They are obedient to the law, but they live on a level that transcends the law.”
The extraordinary lives of those early Christians were characterized by imitating the apostles as they imitated Christ (1 Col 11:1). Today, Christians have little excuse as we hold the historical record of Jesus’ and the apostles’ lives in the 26 books of the New Testament. Perhaps what we lack most today are Christian examples of extraordinary lives who others might want to imitate. Something for each of us to consider. After all, it is not an institution which is solely to blame. And, it does not appear like Americans are listening to that institution anymore.
Interested in the intersection of faith and culture?
Join us beginning October 28th for Faith and Culture. The course introduces you to historical Christian doctrines as a framework within which to evaluate the working intellectual and social assumptions of contemporary culture. In addition to investigating several models for Christian engagement with culture, the course encourages the positive formation of a biblically informed worldview as a foundation for creative interaction with contemporary thought and cultures.
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Equipping leaders to effectively engage their culture with ministry skills, Christlike character, and a biblically informed worldview in order to make disciples around the world.
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