When it comes to correct theology, how often you go to church may matter more than what religious affiliation you claim. That’s one of the takeaways from the biannual State of Theology survey, issued by Ligonier Ministries in partnership with LifeWay Research.
This year’s release shows an amalgam of statistics that will puzzle many church leaders. For example, 72 percent surveyed agree that there is one true God in three persons, but only 36 percent disagreed that Jesus is just a great teacher, not God. How is it that so many Americans affirm their belief in the Trinity and yet believe that Jesus is not divine? Along with that, 59 percent believed somewhat or strongly that the Holy Spirit is merely a force and not a person.
Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research writes, “Many Americans treat theology like a choose-your-own adventure book. It’s clear from certain beliefs that some people feel truth is something people are free to define on their own, and in doing so they possess seemingly incompatible beliefs.”
Looking over the results, you’d be excused for scratching your head here and there. It’s not surprising to see Americans with muddled and often contradictory beliefs about theology and morality, but what about those who affirm four basic evangelical beliefs? While the results are much better than what we find in the general survey, there are still a few shockers. This Facts & Trends article summarizes some of the data, including the fact that 46 percent of those surveyed with evangelical beliefs believe people sin a little, but are good deep down.
Attendance Over Affiliation
The more I walked through the different categories of data on some of these key questions, the more a picture grew clearer to me. What matters more than someone’s “affiliation” is his or her attendance. Those who claim the evangelical label and also attend church at least once a week were much more likely to have beliefs that align with Christian orthodoxy.
For example, 76 percent of those who hold an evangelical affiliation and attended church at least once a week would disagree that Jesus is just a great teacher but not God. On the other hand, of those who held an evangelical affiliation and attended church less often, only 42 percent disagreed with that statement.
Church attendance appears to be a defining factor for the mainline as well. If you are a regular attender at a church that is more liberal theologically, you are more likely to espouse similar views on morality than if you are just mainline by affiliation but never attend church. (A specialized data explorer on the survey site allows you to see the varying profile combinations and percentages.)
Better Theological Education
Church leaders looking over this survey may be discouraged to see that even a good percentage of those who attend church on a regular basis are muddled in their theology. It’s true. And we’ve got our work cut out for us to be sure to emphasize in our preaching, teaching, and Bible studies some of the key components of the Christian faith.
But don’t miss the fact that church attendance makes a real difference in getting those bad numbers down and those good numbers up. Why the distinction? My guess is that people who frequently attend church are more likely to imbibe Christian orthodoxy through theologically accurate songs, through biblically faithful sermons, and through studies and conversations with other believers in small groups.
For example, if you’re in a small group and someone refers to the Holy Spirit as it, you have a teaching moment available, where the leader or another member of the group can gently remind everyone that, while it may be popular and easy to think of the Spirit as a force, the Bible teaches us that the Spirit is a person. I’ve seen this type of correction done in settings where no one heaps shame on the person who missteps theologically or says something inaccurate. The group gently guides and corrects aberrant theology in a way that not only reaffirms the truth but also establishes why the truth is more beautiful than the error. In the safety of a small group, where people are friends and where everyone is seeking to understand the Bible rightly, this can be handled with care and love.
Sermons and Songs that Inspire and Inform
When it comes to sermons and songs, pastors should be looking for words that teach, not just inspire. It’s easy to succumb to the pull of inspiration, to see the songs we sing or the sermons we preach as something of a “pep talk” for a discouraged congregation.
But the truth is, the information that rises from strong theology inspires more and at a deeper level than whatever enthusiasm we might muster up. In the darkest days, the theological truths that ground a song like “It Is Well” stand the test of time.
Your sermon that plumbs the depths of God’s character—his unchangeableness and power, a Rock in a time of testing—will have a greater impact than simply saying, “Trust in God.” The best sermons move below surface generalities to the theological bedrock underneath, so that we are not only told to “have faith in God,” but we come to understand something of the God we are to have faith in.
Communal Theology for Grace-filled Doxology
None of this means that theology is the end game. Doxology is always the goal. We study the Scriptures in order to praise the Author. The last thing we want is a church filled with theology fans who know the ins and outs to every survey question but don’t look anything like Jesus.
As we study and grow in knowledge of God, our goal is to find our ultimate peace and purpose in him. As good as it may be to get a great score on a theological quiz, even better to bear the fruit that should flow from such knowledge. Theology that leads us to stand in awe of God, sense the wonders of his love, and then go out with the message of his grace—that’s what matters most as we come to know the loving Father who knows us better than we know ourselves.