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Checking America’s theological temperature

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WORLD Radio - Checking America’s theological temperature

Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research released results from a survey measuring what we think about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible


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PAUL BUTLER, HOST: Today is Thursday, September 22nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Paul Butler.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: what we believe.

Since 2014, Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research have conducted a biennial survey to gauge American belief—both inside and outside the church. The 35 questions measure what we think about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible.

BUTLER: This week, those organizations released the latest results of the survey. And Stephen Nichols is here to tell us about it. He’s president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and host of the weekly podcast: 5 Minutes in Church History. Good morning Stephen.

STEPHEN NICHOLS: Good morning!

BUTLER; You know, as we begin, let me just ask you this as a church historian, why is this sort of project significant? The measuring of belief?

NICHOLS: You know, we are awash in a sea of polls. Seems like every day we're hearing the results of polls, this poll gets at what ultimately matters…matters of really eternal life and eternal death. So we put this theology of state of theology survey into play back in 2014. So we could see what Americans actually believe and what American evangelicals believe. And we do this as a service for the church. You know, that first rule of speech, Paul, you've got to know your audience, right? So we want to see what do Americans actually believe on key theological issues that are truly of ultimate importance?

BUTLER: Well, it's been two years since we last talked about the state of theology in our country. So let's start with the statistically significant changes since two years ago, or since the survey began.

NICHOLS: Well, one significant area is US adults and their view of the Bible. One of our statements is, “the Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths, but is not literally true.” Back in 2014, when we started the survey, 41 percent of US adults agreed with that statement—that the Bible is not literally true. Well, fast forward to 2020, to eight years later, there has been a steady decline, and we are now at a 12 percent drop. So 53 percent of US adults do not agree that the Bible is true. And in fact, say the Bible is not true.

When we look internally inside the church, a very troubling result comes as we look at evangelicals on this statement: “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.” This, of course, is getting at the issue of pluralism. Well, back in 2016 48 percent of us evangelicals agreed with that. That's alarming enough. But here’s the trend. Now in 2022, we have 56 percent of evangelicals, that is a strong majority, that are accepting pluralism, which we know is rife in our culture. And this is just an example where our culture has infiltrated the church and has caused there to be compromise on the church. And this is a key issue. We are talking about the heart of the gospel, when we're talking about our standing before God,

BUTLER: I know that one of the other areas that you have focused over these years is how Americans view the issue of homosexuality and what the Bible says about it. What did this year's survey reveal about that?

NICHOLS: Yeah, I think this is important because we're talking about ethics. And we talk about theology and our beliefs, but we also have to talk about the impact of those beliefs and our ethics. So for evangelicals back in 2016, 19 percent of them, so almost 20 percent, agreed that the Bible's condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn't apply today. Fast forward to 2022. And that has dropped 9 percent. And again, I think what we're seeing is the cultural pressures are coming to bear on those who are sitting in the pews. And this cultural movement is indeed impacting the church.

BUTLER: And as we see that other data point about commitment to the Word of God, as that declines, we would kind of expect some of these other issues to have a corresponding change, don't we?

NICHOLS: Oh, absolutely. There's a connection between these two. And when we think just about truth.There too we see trends moving away from even the notion of objective truth. We couple that with trends that are seeing the Bible less and less as the word of God, this is going to play itself out, both in terms of beliefs, and in terms of behaviors, and so sad, but we are seeing those connections and seeing this happen.

BUTLER: All right, so you already mentioned a couple of troubling trends in the data. Are there any other trends that trouble you?

NICHOLS: Yeah, there's one in particular, and as I look at this answer, I literally am confounded by it. But one of our statements is: “Jesus was a great teacher, but He was not God.” So this is a cardinal doctrine, the deity of Christ. This is right at the center of historic Orthodox Christianity.

Well, in 2020 30 percent of US evangelicals actually agreed with that statement. That's bad enough, but two years later, our 2022 results show that 43 percent of US evangelicals agree with the statement that Jesus was not God. I find that especially as a church historian—and one who loves theology—I find that a very troubling for the state of the American church at this current moment.

BUTLER: Well, let me ask this, as we wrap here, up here. What should we do with the study results?

NICHOLS: As we review these survey results, we need to resist the temptation to celebrate decline by any stretch, whether that's in the church or in the culture, what we really need to do is say this is a call for us to put hand to the plow, you know, you begin looking at some of these.

And as we've been discussing, Paul, you're seeing cultural influences on the church here. Well, we can go back to the pages of the New Testament, that was a hostile culture. That was a culture entirely at odds with the Christian faith and the Christian ethic. And we see repeatedly in the New Testament authors, the call to the church, to stand fast, to hold firm. To literally sort of latch on to these traditions to the gospel, that is at the core of our identity.

So I think we need to be reminded of that, in this cultural moment, where we all feel the pressures, we sense the hostility, the religiously unaffiliated, the marginalization of historic Orthodox Christianity, we need to hold firm as a church, we need to commit to discipleship, not assume that people in the pews know these key doctrines.

And then we also need to renew our heart for evangelism. You know, we too, were once lost. We too were once the enemies of God, who thought really badly. And we need to recognize that in our neighbors and we need to be committed to praying for them and to evangelizing them. So I see this as a call to roll up our sleeves, a call to action for the church and for us as American Christians to get in there and recommit ourselves to discipleship and evangelism.

BUTLER: Stephen Nichols is the president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries. Thanks for joining us today.

NICHOLS: My pleasure. Thank you.

BUTLER: We’ll post a link to the State of Theology report in today’s transcript.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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