A recent survey from Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life concluded that “most Americans say they are absolutely sure about standards of right and wrong – and are just as sure that no one religion holds an exclusive franchise on the truth,” according to an article by the Dallas Morning News. It goes one to say,
Overwhelming majorities of Americans say they believe in God (or a “universal spirit”). But substantial majorities from all major religious categories also say they believe their religion is not the only path to eternal life, and that there’s not just one correct version of their faith… The poll’s unusually large sample size – more than 36,000 people, compared with most national surveys of about 1,000 – allowed researchers to more accurately assess the entire population and offer a snapshot of faith groups too small to show up in most polls.
Admittedly, there are several suspect aspects to this, and any survey, no matter what the size: for instance, are the kind of people who will take the time to answer these surveys truly representative of the body of Americans, particularly evangelical Christians? Also, even as the article admits, there are some results of this survey that are so garbled one hardly knows what kind of questions were really be asked and whether the responders even understood them. For instance,
About seven in 10 of those surveyed said they believed that many religions can lead to eternal life and that there is more than one true interpretation of the teachings of their own religion. Researchers admit, however, they don’t know whether, say, some Baptists consider Methodists another “religion,” or how different the interpretations might be and still be considered true… About six in 10 Buddhists say they believe in Nirvana, and about the same percentage of Hindus say they believe in reincarnation. Those concepts are central to most descriptions of the two faiths, so what does that say about the other 40 percent of those groups? Some results are baffling: How to explain that one fifth of those who said they were atheists also said they believe in God, and that one in 10 said they pray at least once a week? Did some people think they were asked if they were “a theist?”
The survey did not clearly differentiate between different “denominations” and different “religions”? Buddhists don’t believe in Nirvana and Hindus don’t believe in reincarnation? “Atheists” that believe there is a god? Someone — surveyor or respondent or both — was obviously confused about what these questions even meant.
Nonetheless, the survey cannot be completely thrown out or disregarded. Are there suspiciously political overtones and biases, even in the Dallas news article? Of course. Was the survey’s interpretation of their results as garbled and confused as their questions apparently were? Undoubtedly. But it still should be a concern for every pastor in today’s American culture to see repeated indications that our congregations are not always as on-page and as knowledgeable of biblical fundamentals as we would like to believe.
It should be a wake-up call to evangelical pastors that there is a persistent disconnect between the Sunday sermon and the Monday-to-Saturday lifestyle and belief systems.
We may be speaking truth from the pulpit, but it certainly does not automatically follow that it is being embraced or understood by those in the pews. While 8 out of 10 of the persons surveyed said they believed in “absolute standards of right and wrong,” only one third apparently turn to their religion and its teachings to set their standards.
We didn’t necessarily need a survey to show us this, since it has become increasingly evident in America that many so-called evangelical Christians are consistently living according to an entirely different compass than their religious profession suggests. However, it should be a wake-up call to evangelical pastors that there is a persistent disconnect between the Sunday sermon and the Monday-to-Saturday lifestyle and belief systems.
When we turn away from the Bible as our only rule of faith and practice, we are handing our hearts and lives over to the postmodern misery that is always seeking, but never finding, true truth.
We still seem to have knee-jerk responses to what Francis Schaeffer called “connotation words” — the Pew study indicates that overwhelming majorities continue to say they believe in God (92 percent), heaven (74 percent), hell (59 percent), and angels and demons active in the world (68 percent) — but what do Americans mean by those terms now? You can go into any Barnes & Nobles and find those topics dealt with both in the Christian and in the witchcraft sections.
The fact is American Christians are in great danger of losing their biblical compasses, in which case they will be floundering in the muck and mire of the current religious soup in America as much any other religionist is. When we turn away from the Bible as our only rule of faith and practice — as God’s sufficient and relevant and authoritative and inerrant equipper — we are handing our hearts and lives over to the postmodern misery that is always seeking, but never finding, true truth.
Jesus’ unmistakable claim must be clearly presented to our congregations, and to the world, in a way that is both winsome and uncompromising: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).