You might recall last fall a big hubbub about a research project LifeWay conducted, which was commissioned by Ligonier Ministries. If you read the study, I’m sure you were as surprised—and in some ways unsurprised—as I was.
But I will say, I was delighted when I learned The Gospel Project and Ligonier Ministries were releasing it as a new, free eBook, The State of American Theology: Knowing the Truth, Loving the Church, Reaching Our Neighbors. This book collects the research and thoughtful essays from the likes of R. C. Sproul, Ed Stetzer, John Piper, Alistair Begg, Thabiti Anyabwile, Trevin Wax, and many more.
And it couldn’t be more timely.
Confused beliefs about God and the faith
Let’s face it: Americans are confused about what Christianity actually teaches. All you have to do is get into a discussion on… well pretty much anything really, and you’ll see what I mean. This confusion is everywhere: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, books, podcasts, and sadly even the pulpit.
- Does it surprise you that more than six in ten Americans believe the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force?
- What about a slight majority (58 percent) believing that the creeds—the ancient formulations of the Christian faith such as the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds—have little value for us in our day?
- Or a large minority (37 per cent)—and yes, I’m aware of the contradiction of a large minority—being unsure if it’s possible or actually believing that God is capable of making mistakes?
Why it matters
In some ways, none of this should surprise us at all. In fact, it should encourage us. Knowing what Americans (and I’d argue by extension, westerners in general) believe about God, the Bible and key doctrines of the faith is good for us. In fact, it helps us in a couple of important ways:
1. It helps us to know where we are weak in our discipleship of believers. Remember, these statistics include Christians of various traditions—evangelicals, mainline protestants and Roman Catholics—as well as those unaffiliated with Christianity or any particular religious belief. So for us to know that there is a great deal of confusion even in our own churches is a good thing.
We need to know this stuff because we need to know how to help Christians grow in their faith—how to be the sorts of Christians who think and believe as Christians. Teaching seven steps to a better whatever isn’t going to do that. But teaching them to read, study and apply their Bibles, with the Holy Spirit’s help and through his power, just might.
2. It also helps us to remember who theology is for. One of the things that always makes me uncomfortable is hearing a Christian say we should leave theology to the theologians. Now, this is true—if we understand that everyone is a theologian. As Jared Wilson puts it in his essay, “Laypeople have no biblical warrant to leave the duty of doctrine up to pastors and professors alone.” If we take the greatest commandment seriously—to love the Lord our God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength—then we must diligently learn things about him.
3. It helps us answer the real questions of unbelievers. We often assume the questions unbelievers ask, or what we think they need to know. This is why so many gospel presentations default to “not religion, but a relationship,” or the four spiritual laws, or filling a Jesus-shaped hole in our hearts. This reminds us that we actually need to answer questions like, “Who is God?” because there is no culturally agreed upon understanding that can serve as our starting point. Once we know where to begin, we can start having really meaningful conversations.
There are more reasons, but I think these three sum it up pretty well. Do you care about discipling people? Do you care about theology have a right place in the life of believers? Do you care about reaching people for Christ? If you answered yes, you should care about this study. Be sure to head over to gospelproject.com and grab a copy.