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Shifting sand

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Various theologians and pastors have been warning us for years that if you de-emphasize biblical truth in the church, and more specifically in the pulpit, you will do so to the ultimate harm and destruction of the church.

Recently the Pew Forum provided a wake-up call for Christian leaders throughout America. Their U.S. Religious Landscape Survey provided a very disturbing picture of what many Americans and more specifically, self-professed Christians, believe or do not believe.

LifeWay Research has just concluded a significant longitudinal study of 2,500 Protestant churchgoers which tracks their growth and beliefs over time. While our findings are not as bleak as those in the Pew Forum study are, they add to the call for alarm.

When comparing the results of our study from the survey in May 2007 to the one recently completed in May of this year, we found great instability in the beliefs and practices of churchgoers.

In May of 2007, we found that 52 percent of our sample identified themselves as “born again” and 23 percent as “evangelical.” After completing the 2008 survey, we discovered 17 percent of our sample changed into or out of the “born again”, category and 13 percent changed into or out of the “evangelical” category. Keep in mind that these are the exact same people who completed the survey two consecutive years. This shows significant theological confusion and inconsistency among American Protestants.

Instability and volatility was even more apparent among young adults below the age of 30. When looking at church attendance, eight percent attend worship less often than they did a year ago, and 13 percent have dropped out of church altogether.

From a doctrinal perspective, we found much cause for concern. For example, in 2007 our inquiry into one of the most basic Christian beliefs, the sinlessness of Jesus, revealed that barely half (54 percent) of our sample “strongly” affirmed the view that Jesus never sinned. Only 76 percent of the Southern Baptists “strongly” affirmed this doctrine. In 2008, among those age 30 and below, we observed over the course of a year that 14 percent moved toward a more biblical view of this doctrine, while amazingly one-third moved away from biblical orthodoxy.

We also found that a number of churchgoers are not operating with a biblical understanding of spiritual growth, but are defining spiritual growth by personal improvement. When asked to describe or illustrate evidence of their spiritual growth, we received comments like these:

— “I’m much calmer.”

— “I’m a better friend.”

— “I’m a better person and more caring.”

— “My marriage is better.”

— “I am better at running my household to care for my family; I made some changes to facilitate hospitality in our home.”

“I am more tolerant of people.”

— “There aren’t many outward ‘signs.’ The growth I experienced is manifested more on a personal level.”

Some of these are good things, but our hope was that they would not just grow better, they would grow deeper. And, it seems that more church attendees see spiritual growth as becoming a “better you,” not growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Perhaps this demonstrates the impact of progressive secularists and liberal “Christians” who systematically seek to recast the person and work of Jesus Christ. Or, perhaps we give too much credit to our ardent opponents. Maybe many Evangelical leaders need to rethink the role of preaching and the teaching ministry of their churches. In his book “Transforming Discipleship,” author Greg Ogden prophetically states:

“Christian leaders seem to be reluctant to restate the terms of discipleship that Jesus laid out. What are the reasons for our reluctance? We are afraid that if we ask too much, people will stop coming to our churches. Our operating assumption is that people will flee to the nearby entertainment church if we ask them to give too much of themselves. So we start with a low bar and try to entice people by increments of commitment, hoping that we can raise the bar imperceptibly to the ultimate destination of discipleship.”

The results of our spiritual formation and discipleship study will be released this fall in the book “The Shape of Faith to Come.” This book shows the current state of the Protestant church, revealing 2,500 churchgoers’ doctrinal beliefs and specifically, what contributed to their spiritual growth or attrition over the period of a year. It provides an in-depth look at the current state of discipleship in the Protestant church, and the way that these trends compare to the biblical description of discipleship exemplified by Jesus. This book will also offer direction and guidance to believers and spiritual leaders regarding what can be done to establish a much-needed course correction for our churches.
Waggoner is vice president of B&H Publishing Group.

    About the Author

  • Brad Waggoner