U.S. theological health

JILL NELSON, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 25th of October, 2018. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Jill Nelson.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Ligonier Ministries conducts a survey called “State of Theology.” Its aim is to serve the local church in America with insights to improve discipleship. The 2018 State of Theology survey is the third one completed since 2014, so trends can be gleaned from it. The survey asks people what they believe about God, the Bible, ethics, and sin, among other things.

Stephen Nichols is chief academic officer with Ligonier Ministries and also serves as president of Reformation Bible College. He’s on the line to talk about the survey results.

Dr. Nichols, welcome.

NICHOLS: Thanks for having me. 

REICHARD: First, tell us who was interviewed to find out what is the state of theology right now, and how the survey was conducted.

NICHOLS: Sure. We partnered with Lifeway Research, which is a trusted research firm. They sent this interview out to 3,002 people. That’s very significant. We hear these Gallup polls and sometimes there’s as few as 1,000, but this was 3,000 people. It’s a generous sample.

REICHARD: And what did the survey find?

NICHOLS: Well, we were interested in not just sort of generic beliefs about who God is or Christianity. We surveyed them with 34 questions, so these are in-depth questions about God, about Christ, about the doctrine of salvation, but also question related to ethical issues. And there are a number of key findings. I think the most interesting one is that two-thirds of Americans are pluralists. They believe God accepts the worship of all religions. But we’re also able to break the survey down into various demographic groups, so we also surveyed evangelicals, and this was probably one of the most surprising finds of the survey: 52 percent, just over half, of evangelicals agree with the statement that God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

REICHARD: What trends do you think this signifies?

NICHOLS: Well, you know, as we look at this, I think we see answers to certain questions. So we ask about the trinity and the classic statement, expression of the doctrine of the trinity, and we see 90 percent of evangelicals agreeing with that. We ask questions about justification by faith, faith alone, that great Reformation doctrine, that bedrock view of salvation, that justification is by faith alone. And, again, 90 percent of evangelicals agree or strongly agree with that statement. That’s great, that’s encouraging. But then you ask a question like this and it begins to cause us to wonder and it shows us that we still have work to do to disciple those within the church and also be aware of what we’re dealing with when we face outward and look at the general U.S. population.

REICHARD: The survey breaks the survey takers into categories, such as by income and education level. What did that reveal?

NICHOLS: Well, two of the categories I find really interesting. Of course, the age group category. So we can look at millennials and I think that’s very instructive. I’ll give you a quick example. We threw out a statement on gender identity as a matter of choice and only 40 percent, 4 out of 10 of the general population, agree with that. But then you go to millennials and then it spikes up an additional 10 percent. You ask a similar question about homosexuality and, again, when you turn to millennials it spikes up. And I think what that is revealing is this reflection of the world in which they live and the world in which they came of age. Another interesting demographic is church attendance and how church attendance impacts these answers. We also have age and income and education and region. So all that demographic data is there. It’s baked in, it’s very helpful.

REICHARD: What conclusions can we draw from the survey results as far as how the media portrays a so-called “progressive” agenda?

NICHOLS: Well, I think this is encouraging on two issues. I mentioned the gender identity question. I mentioned the issue of same-sex. What we find there is less than half of the American population, so we’re seeing that on the gender identity is a matter of choice, 4 out of 10, so that means the majority, 6 out of 10, do not agree with that. And then when we turn to homosexual behavior, same thing. So, I think what we’re seeing there is sometimes the extent to which these cultural views are actually adopted by the general population is overdrawn and overstated.

REICHARD: Of course, there is much more to the Scriptures than social issues we’ve discussed here. Did the survey delve into that?

NICHOLS: We did. We had a question related to abortion. We had a very interesting question about “is sex outside of traditional marriage a sin?” We didn’t ask is it wrong, we asked is it a sin. And 52 percent agree with that statement. A slight majority, but a majority nevertheless, agree that sex outside of marriage is a sin. We asked a question about “should Christians be silent on the issue of politics?” So, we did want to look at some of these issues, not just theological beliefs, but also these ethical issues that are crucial for us.

REICHARD: Stephen Nichols is with Ligonier Ministries and president of Reformation Bible College. Thank you so much!

NICHOLS: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you!

REICHARD: To delve into more details from the survey, visit TheStateofTheology.com. That’s all one word: TheStateofTheology.com.

(Photo/Ligonier Ministries)

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