Yesterday the results of a massive survey on religion in America were released, summarized in this article. It was conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Before I give the results, I will give my standard disclaimer on the limited value of surveys as tools to accurately reflect belief and practice. In addition to the role that the wording of questions plays in the results, we must also recognize that people’s self-perception is not always the most accurate. For those interested in the details, you can find the full reports here. Because I do not have unlimited stores of time, I did not go through them, but based on their own summary of findings I wanted to make a few observations and their implications for the church in the U.S.
1. At the macro-level, we note that of Americans as a whole “92 percent believe in God, 74 percent believe in life after death and 63 percent say their respective scriptures are the word of God.” One the one hand this is potentially good in that we likely do not need to spend significant amounts of time convincing people that God exists, or that there is an afterlife, or even of the divine nature of Scripture. But on the other hand what we will certainly have to do is explain that the God who exists is in fact the God definitively revealed in the incarnation of Christ, that the afterlife contains both a heaven and a hell that is predicated on repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ, and that the Bible itself is the final authority for truth, life, godliness, faith, practice, etc.
2. Continuing at the macro-level, “70 percent of Americans with a religious affiliation” believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life,” and “68 percent said there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their own religion.” This is no surprise; the combination of pluralism and relativism havee produced a culture in which it appears arrogant to believe in only one way to God and presumptuous to contend that there is only one true way to interpret the Bible’s central message.
3. Moving to the evangelical world, we find our most disturbing observation: “57 percent of evangelical church attenders said they believe many religions can lead to eternal life.” This number may in part reflect the increasingly broad use of the term evangelical (it is to such a degree that it may soon be wise to avoid the term as it loses its value as a meaningful distinction with other Christian traditions), but I am not ready to dismiss the statistic. The fact that so many who identify themselves as evangelicals deny such a central Biblical teaching as the exclusivity of Christ for salvation indicates a failure of the church to instruct her people through preaching, teaching, small groups and personal discipleship.
Let me close with a plea for those who read this blog. What are you specifically doing to help fellow believers understand the biblical roots of their faith and the practical implications of that faith in everyday life? We must be proactive in teaching, preaching, etc. to articulate and apply those aspects of biblical truth that confront the idolatries of our culture (in this case, relativistic pluralism) and then live them out.
In one sense everyone’s life is controlled by a story. Sadly, for many Christians instead of the biblical story operating as the controlling story by which every other story must be evaluated, the reverse is true. The prevailing story of our current culture is allowed final say, and those bits and pieces of the Bible that can be accommodated into its framework are allowed while the rest is rejected. Brothers and sisters, we must understand the metanarrative of who God is and what he is doing in the world and then fit our own stories into that grand story, rather than arrogantly thinking that we must find some way to fit God into the story of our culture or perhaps more frequently our own personal story. And the primary responsibility for helping believers do that rests with those entrusted with the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. It must shape the way we teach everything, such that our people begin to develop a sort of Spirit-refined intuition for understanding all of life within the story of God revealed from Genesis to Revelation.