Pew Research Group found that while America is the most religious nation, sadly Americans don’t know much about what people believe, including within their own faith. When it comes to knowledge about religion, atheists and agnostics scored better than Christians. When it comes to knowledge about Christianity, Mormons scored higher than evangelical Protestants, and Catholics knew the least.
The survey included questions about things such as religious historical figures (e.g., Martin Luther, Dalai Lama), the Bible, and doctrinal teachings (e.g., Communion). When it came to Christian teachings and history, “Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge.” Put simply, Mormons got a grade of D (65.8%) while evangelical Protestants earned a D- (60.8%).
What does this mean? There are quite a few ways to interpret the results. The one thing that is quite conspicuous is that Christians are religious, but don’t know what they believe. Churches all around the United States talk about reading the Bible, prayer, and living out one’s faith in Jesus. But do the people know what that means? If they don’t, why not?
The Church’s Role
Many Christians are familiar with the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20). Pastors and clergy, especially evangelical clergy, stress the evangelistic command to “make disciples.” However, lost within the evangelistic focus, it seems, is the command to teach (v. 20).
Are churches teaching their people about basic Christian doctrines? Are church leaders focused on training others in the faith? Over the past five years I’ve seen churches and individuals purchase hundreds of Bible studies by popular authors such as Beth Moore, Henry Blackaby, and Rick Warren. Millions of dollars are spent each year on Sunday School materials, Vacation Bible School (VBS), and small group studies each year. But the results of Pew’s research points to the fact that despite all the money spent and Bible studies used, Christians don’t know what they believe.
Impact on the Church
Something interesting about the study is that those with higher levels of education often know more about religion than those with lower levels of education. This does not mean that everyone needs a college degree or seminary education to know what they believe. What it does indicate is that when people are taught about their faith—not just taken through a book or program—they actually do learn.
Last week a fellow doctoral student and I talked about the role of preaching and evangelism as they relate to a church’s growth. I commented that it seems that those concentrating their degrees in preaching believe expository preaching is the remedy for dying churches; those with an evangelism concentration believe evangelistic outreach is the cure. My friend and I (he’s seeking a PhD in Preaching, I’m seeking one in Evangelism) agreed that neither one is the cure, but that both are part of the cure.
But what will a pastor preach if he is one of those who only earn a D- or D when it comes to knowledge about Christianity? What will a parishioner tell his neighbor about Jesus if that parishioner is not taught about his faith? How can a church be more than a social group if those who attend are not taught about Christ, God, the Bible, or Christian doctrines?
Impact on Evangelism
Something else interesting about the study is what Christians know about their own faith and world religions compared to the knowledge of atheists/agnostics and Jews regarding the same topics. According to Pew’s study, atheists/agnostics and Jews show greater knowledge both about Christianity and the Bible as well as of world religions:
Knowledge About Christianity and the Bible:
Christians: 6.2/12 ( = 51.7% or F)
Atheists/Agnostics: 6.7/12 ( = 55.7% or F)
Jews: 6.3/12 ( = 52.5% or F)
Knowledge About World Religions:
Christians: 5.0/11 ( = 42.7% or F)
Atheists/Agnostics: 7.5/11 ( = 68.2% or D+)
Jews: 7.9/11 ( = 71.8% or C-)
Americans are becoming more and more pluralistic and relativistic—they are adopting more and more the belief that all religions are equal and thus it doesn’t matter what one believes. When a Christian encounters someone, it is more likely than ever before that the person will not understand (1) what Christianity really teaches, (2) what Jesus did on the cross, (3) why all religions are not the same, and (4) why Christianity is unique compared to other beliefs. Based on this study, though, Christians seem to know even less.
When a non-Christian asks what makes Jesus so special, what will you say? Do you know the answer? If asked to give evidence that God exists, can you? When sharing your faith with someone else, can you explain why you believe? Can you explain what you believe?
If Christians know less about their own faith, history, and Bible than atheists, how will believers fulfill the Great Commission? According to LifeWay Research, churches are being planted “at unprecedented levels.” However, 70-80% of churches in America are plateaued or declining. According to LifeWay Research and Barna Group, less than half of Christians (about 25% of adults and 45% of teenagers) actively share their faith with others. All the while, Americans today are open to church outreach.
But the question remains: what will Christians share? Unless they know (1) what they believe and (2) why they believe it, Christians will remain ineffective when it comes to evangelistic outreach.
Churches spend millions of dollars on Bible study resources, training kits, and “discipleship” programs. Yet, when it comes to knowledge about Christian history, beliefs, and the Bible, the Church earns a failing grade. The problem isn’t a lack of available resources nor a lack of Bible study/discipleship program participation. Instead, the problem is the churches are not focusing on teaching members about Christianity.
Much of the preaching one hears can be categorized as Christianized pop psychology: ten steps to a happy life, seven keys to a peaceful marriage, and so forth. While the Bible talks about joyous living and marital relationships, such “preaching” is little more than a motivational speech with a few Bible verses sprinkled in for flavor. People are not learning the Word of God because preachers are not preaching the Word of God. People are not learning about Christian doctrines because pastors are not teaching them.
When it comes to Bible studies and discipleship programs, I believe that most turn into social affairs more than times of prayer, fellowship with God, and learning. Also, many treat the study as just another program or book to go through—read it, watch the DVD, fill in the blanks, have snacks, and forget it all. I am not saying that socializing is wrong, but it has become the primary purpose.
Nevertheless, I cannot blame the average Christian for this failure, for the responsibility lies with the church leaders. Jesus never condemned the people for their ignorance; he reserved that for the priests. Multiple times he chastised them for leading the people astray and not teaching them Scripture. But as for the people, he wept for they were like sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36; Mark 6:34).
Why do Christians know so little about their own faith? The reason is because the churches are not teaching them. Rather, the leaders are focused more on other things, whether it be increasing numbers, denominational politics, erecting a new building, or something else other than “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20a, ESV).
As a result, Christians are less able to reach the lost, churches are less effective at making disciples, and the world continues to plummet further into pluralistic religious beliefs. Only by returning to the whole Great Commission—reaching the lost, teaching the saved—can this trend be reversed.