January-February 2021 – C.S. Lewis once said, “If you do not listen to theology, that will not mean you have no ideas about God, rather it will mean you have a lot of wrong ones.”
Unfortunately, many professing believers do not seem to be studying theology because wrong ideas about God abound. One prolific Christian ministry presents the numbers to prove it.
Ligonier Ministries, founded by the late Dr. R.C. Sproul, conducts a biennial survey to gauge culture’s understanding of theological concepts, then releases the information in hopes that it will better equip the church in its discipleship efforts.
The 2020 State of Theology Survey was completed in early March, polling just over 3,000 demographically balanced American adults including 582 evangelical Christians. The results were released in September.
The survey was comprised of 35 statements and asked respondents to mark each statement with one of five phrases: strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, not sure, somewhat agree, or strongly agree.
For simpler summaries, this article combines somewhat agree and strongly agree, and somewhat disagree and strongly disagree.
The majority of statements are not deep theological concepts one would expect only pastors or scholars to know; most simply embody the foundational beliefs of Christianity.
For example, participants were asked to respond to the statement “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” While 66% of evangelicals disagree with the statement, alarmingly, 30% agree.
The statement, “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam,” found that 49% disagree while 42% agree.
Responding to the idea that “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works, but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ,” revealed a slight decline in evangelicals’ understanding of, or embrace of, the doctrine of justification by faith. The belief that one can be saved apart from faith alone rose from 4% in 2018 to 7% in 2020. Those who agree that salvation is only through faith fell from 81% in 2018 to 75% in 2020.
The survey found that a majority (54%) of all American adults agree that truth is relative. That is not terribly surprising in secular culture as a whole. However, 29% of evangelicals agree with the statement “Religious belief is a matter of personal opinion; it is not about objective truth.” Only 64% of evangelicals disagree with the statement.
The survey clearly indicates evangelicals are missing the mark on some of the core tenets of the Christian faith, such as the Deity of Christ, salvation exclusively through Christ, salvation by faith alone, and absolute truth.
It is troubling that one-quarter or more of professing believers question or simply do not know the answer to these basic theological concepts.
Moving in the right direction
Fortunately, some positive trends emerge when 2020 results are compared with previous years.
The sexual revolution that has been so pervasive in the U.S. over the past 50 years has resulted in serious misunderstandings and false teachings in regard to God’s clear standards of human sexuality.
However, evangelicals’ response to the statement “Gender identity is a matter of choice,” has shifted in the right direction over the past four years. From 2016 to 2020, those who disagree that a person could choose one’s own gender rose from 64% to 73% while those who agree declined from 30% to 21%.
One prevailing narrative in secular culture is that people are mostly good, but unfortunate circumstances cause them to do bad things.
When confronted with the statement “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature,” evangelicals who disagree rose from 43% in 2016 to 49% in 2020. Those who agree that people are mostly good shows an overall decline from 54% in 2016 and 52% in 2018 to 46% in 2020.
Evangelicals’ belief that the Bible holds up to scientific scrutiny also seems to be improving. In 2018, 67% disagreed with the statement “Modern science disproves the Bible.” In 2020 that number rose to 74%. In 2018, 25% agreed with that statement while in 2020 that number dropped to 17%.
Some work left to do
While some results are troubling, some are encouraging. The takeaway, however, seems to be that concerning discipleship and teaching, the church has a great deal of work ahead.
Dr. Ray Rooney, AFA digital media editor and editor of The Stand (afa.net/thestand), told AFA Journal, “The 2020 survey reveals that the culture is incrementally pulling evangelicals off their foundation of the Word of God. The basic tenets of the Christian faith (such as those espoused by the Apostles Creed) are becoming negotiable to an alarming number of churchgoers today. It’s time for God’s pastors and preachers to reclaim Martin Luther’s axiom concerning Scripture: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’”
View the results
View the full survey at thestateoftheology.com. Use the Data Explorer to view responses extrapolated by various demographics such as age, ethnicity, gender, income, denomination, attendance, and more. Individuals and groups such as churches or small groups can take the survey in order to gauge their understanding of basic theological concepts.