Many of the religious trends in America over the past decade or so are disheartening to Christians. Church attendance is down. Professions of faith are at low levels compared to the past, resulting in a declining percentage of born again Christians. The number of people who label themselves as Christian is falling. Participation in small groups has dropped by half in less than a decade. The same pattern has characterized adult Sunday school involvement. Bible reading is less common. Even the number of adults who pray to God has decreased significantly in recent years.
The question is: why?
While there is neither an easy explanation nor a single answer to that question, new research from the American Culture and Faith Institute (ACFI) supplies one likely reason: Christians are not excited enough about their faith in and relationship with Jesus Christ to share the basics of that faith with non-believers. And that includes many Bible-believing pastors as well.
No Sense of Responsibility
In a nationwide survey of adults, the ACFI study discovered that only two out of every ten adults (20%) believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith in Christ with others who believe differently. While the numbers were higher for Christian-related subgroups of the population, those figures were not strikingly different. For instance, just 25% of those who call themselves Christian believe they are called to promote the gospel, a perspective shared by 31% of Protestants and 17% of Catholics. Even a minority of born again Christians feel a sense of responsibility to share with others what they have personally experienced.
There were surprisingly few differences across demographic segments of the population related to a sense of responsibility to evangelize. Unexpectedly, age made little difference in people’s perspectives on their personal obligation to evangelize. In fact, there was no generation for which even one out of four people claimed to have such a responsibility. Hispanics and blacks were slightly more likely than whites to claim a responsibility to share their faith (25% versus 18%, respectively). There was no difference in the views of men and women on this matter.
ACFI also completed a parallel survey among a national sample of theologically conservative Protestant pastors. That study revealed that more than one out of every four of them (27%) do not believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith in Christ with others who believe differently. Although there were no significant differences by age or race, the survey found that female pastors who are theologically conservative were substantially less likely than their male counterparts to claim a personal responsibility to evangelize (54% compared to 74%). Also, conservative pastors who had graduated from seminary were less likely to express an obligation to personally proclaim the gospel than were those who did not graduate from seminary.
Denominationally, the survey found that conservative pastors associated with Baptist churches were the most likely to say they have a personal responsibility to evangelize (90%). That was considerably higher than among the theologically conservative pastors associated with Pentecostal (69%) or Holiness (76%) churches.
Not Sharing the Gospel
Unfortunately, the research found a high degree of consistency between people’s lack of a sense of responsibility and their engagement in evangelism.
Among adults, only 23% shared their personal faith on a monthly basis during the past year – and many of those who did share their faith either were not Christians or were sharing a version of Christianity that is not biblically grounded. In total, ACFI estimates that less than one out of every ten adults who shared a message about their faith with other people at least once a month during the previous year communicated a biblically-accurate version of the gospel.
As might be expected, theologically conservative Protestant pastors were more prone to actually sharing the gospel: 71% of them did so at least once a month during the past year.
What Message Gets Shared?
The survey results among adults suggested that all kinds of divergent ideas about the Christian narrative are conveyed by people to non-believers.
Among the concepts most likely to be shared by conservative believers are that people are basically good; that having some faith is more important than the substance of that faith; that God exists and is omnipotent and omniscient but that humankind has evolved from other life forms; He remains aware of what happens in the universe and is involved in our lives; there is absolute moral truth but it is located in various places; eternal security can be assured either through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ or by doing enough good deeds to earn God’s favor; a person’s life can be considered “successful” based upon the personal goals accomplished; the Bible is the reliable Word of God; Jesus understands our struggle because He sinned while on earth; and that sin is real but Satan and the Holy Spirit are not.
The survey revealed that the more theologically liberal people are, the more likely they are to combine multiple unbiblical concepts into their presentation of the Christian faith.
Serious Problems for the Future
These findings raise an immediate and urgent challenge for the Christian Church in the US.
“A large majority of non-Christians in the US do not hear the gospel during a typical year. Worse, when they do have the Christian faith verbally presented to them shockingly few hear a biblical form of the gospel,” commented George Barna, who directed the research for ACFI. “Because of this, it is inevitable that the most common metrics of church life and personal spiritual maturity reflect rapid declines. When the fundamental message of Christianity is rarely communicated, and then it is distorted in those infrequent situations when it is communicated, the outcome is not likely to be positive. This is one of the many unfortunate results of a nation in which only 10% of the public has a biblical worldview. You cannot give away what you do not possess, and clearly most Americans do not possess even a basic understanding of the Christian narrative as well as the purpose and implications of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.”
“Perhaps there are some hopeful signs found in the data from the clergy. Although it is troubling that more than one-quarter of them reject any personal responsibility to evangelize, and three out of ten of them don’t bother to share the gospel in a typical month, that leaves a majority of theologically conservative pastors ready and able to proclaim the gospel,” Barna continued. “We know that close to nine out of ten of those pastors has a biblical worldview, so they are prepared to give a reason for the hope that is within them because of Jesus Christ. Although they are outnumbered by theologically moderate and liberal pastors, their numbers are substantial. We estimate there are perhaps 70,000 churches in the US with biblically solid, evangelistic pastors. A concentrated effort by those pastors at boldly, clearly, and consistently proclaiming the gospel could certainly be the basis of a spiritual rebound in America.”
The surveys described are part of the Worldview Measurement Project conducted by ACFI to assess the state of America’s worldview. The current studies are the first to be completed in that project and will serve as a benchmark for comparison in future years.
About the Research
The research described in this report is from two surveys conducted in February 2017.
One of those surveys is FullView™, a monthly national public opinion study conducted by the American Culture and Faith Institute (ACFI) among a nationwide random sample of adults. This FullView™ online survey was conducted February 1-5, 2017, with 1,000 respondents age 18 or older whose demographic profile reflects that of the United States.
The second survey is the Conservative Clergy Canvass™, known as ACFI’s C-3 survey, a national public opinion study conducted by ACFI among a sample of 500 clergy who are part of ACFI’s longitudinal panel of theologically conservative pastors. The C-3 survey was conducted online during February 2017.
The American Culture & Faith Institute is a division of United in Purpose, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. The mission of United in Purpose is to educate, motivate and activate conservative Christians to engage in cultural transformation in ways that are consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The organization does not support or promote individual political candidates or parties.
Additional information about this study and related research is accessible on the American Culture & Faith Institute website, located at www.culturefaith.com. To receive a free copy of the weekly research reports produced by ACFI, visit the website and register for the American Culture Review newsletter.