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LifeWay study adds doubt about Pew poll’s claims regarding evangelicals’ ‘universalism’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–In a partial release of a study planned for publishing in full this fall, LifeWay Research’s findings about evangelicals’ beliefs regarding the exclusivity of Christ differed from the recently published results from a Pew poll.

The Pew findings indicated widespread agreement with universalism in the U.S., “70 percent of Americans with a religious affiliation say that many religions — not just their own — can lead to eternal life.” Pew also indicated 57 percent of those attending evangelical churches agree that many religions can lead to eternal life. Only 36 percent chose the alternative, “My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.”

The LifeWay study used more specific wording than Pew’s use of “religion” which can be confused as meaning “denominational affiliation.” Asking Protestant churchgoers whether a person can obtain eternal life through “religions other than Christianity,” LifeWay found only 31 percent agreed “strongly” or “somewhat.”

The Pew Forum study results were the second major release from their U.S. Religious Landscape Survey; detailed findings are available at http://religions.pewforum.org/reports.

The LifeWay Research finding adds quantifiable data to growing criticisms that the Pew survey was flawed in how it asked its question and that poor wording was the cause of Pew’s counterintuitive conclusions about evangelicals’ beliefs regarding the exclusivity of Christ for salvation.

LifeWay Research, the research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources, has been studying the practices and beliefs of hundreds of Protestant churchgoers in a longitudinal multiyear study.

In the study, which will be featured in The Shape of Faith to Come, a fall 2008 book by B&H Publishing Group Vice President Brad Waggoner, LifeWay Research asked 2,500 Protestant adults who attend church at least once a month, “How much do you agree/disagree: If a person is sincerely seeking God, he/she can obtain eternal life through religions other than Christianity.”

Although not directly comparable, there is a 39 percentage point difference in the universalistic beliefs identified in the LifeWay Research study and the Pew study.

“The Pew Forum accurately reported the question they asked and accurately reported the responses they received, but I do not think that led to an accurate portrayal of evangelicals,” said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research.

Terry Mattingly of the Scripps Howard News Service and the GetReligion.org blog wrote, “I am being a bit picky here, but I suspect that if you asked a lot of people that Pew Forum question today, they would think of the great world religions. But many Christians would think more narrowly than that. Not all. Not many, perhaps. But some. What is your religion? I’m a Baptist, a Nazarene, an Episcopalian, a Catholic. Can people outside of your religion be saved? Of course. This is not the same thing, for many, as saying that they believe that salvation is found outside faith in Jesus Christ.”

“I believe the Pew study is directionally right in pointing out that a surprisingly small number of self-identified American Christians believe in the exclusivity of Christ as a means of salvation, and therefore, getting into heaven,” explained Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research.

“But the way they worded their question may have had some impact; many people think of ‘denomination’ when they hear ‘religion,’ so it isn’t that surprising that a Lutheran could think a Methodist would also go to heaven or a Catholic could think that a Protestant would go to heaven,” said McConnell.

Stetzer also cautioned, “When we define evangelicals as not just those who sit in pews but who agree with certain evangelical beliefs, we find a different picture than was widely reported in the news about the recent Pew study.”

“LifeWay Research utilized a five-point scale, in which 28 percent of Protestant churchgoers neither agreed nor disagreed with the universalistic statement. Assuming that all the ‘neither agree nor disagree’ would move to the universalist side when forced to choose (a doubtful assumption), the difference is still 10 percent,” Stetzer noted, pointing out that the questions were not identically worded and a direct comparison was not possible.

Forty percent of these Protestant churchgoers disagreed (strongly or somewhat) that eternal life can be obtained through religions other than Christianity. When “evangelical” is defined by beliefs (using the combination of nine evangelical definition questions from The Barna Group) rather than which church is attended, 8 out of 10 evangelicals reject this universalistic statement.

Rejection of the universalistic statement in the LifeWay Research study by disagreeing strongly or somewhat are shown in the following percentages:

— 80 percent of those who indicate evangelical beliefs

— 61 percent of born-again Christians

— 49 percent who say they attend an evangelical church

— 27 percent of those who do not indicate evangelical beliefs

The LifeWay Research study used a five-point scale and the requirement of minimal church attendance which makes direct comparisons to Pew’s data difficult as they used an “either/or” question and only required affiliation. However, Stetzer explained, “There is enough of a difference in the results for me to conclude that their choice of wording likely led a number of folks away from the exclusive response.”

“The Pew study accurately pointed to a growing problem. The shape of faith to come is in some ways discouraging. Christians are becoming more universalistic and lack biblical views on a host of other issues,” Waggoner explained.

“The Pew research is helpful even though this question needs clarification. However, the bigger issue here is why there are so many self-identified evangelicals who sit in evangelical pews but do not evidence evangelical beliefs, particularly in regard to universalism,” Stetzer said.
Chris Turner is media relations manager for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. More information and graphics can be found at www.lifewayresearch.com.