Caught in our Shame: Comments on the Recent Barna Report

The recent Barna report on evangelical beliefs in mainline churches is almost too excruciating to read. In the report, statistics concerning the 12 largest denominations are tallied. Barna polled 6,038 adults with random telephone interviews nationwide.

Tim Ellsworth of the Baptist Press summarized the findings. I have included the pertinent data:

The study’s findings identify an alarmingly high number of church members whose beliefs fall far short of orthodox Christianity. For example, 41 percent of all adults surveyed believed in the total accuracy of the Bible. Catholics had the lowest percentage (23 percent) who believed the Bible to be accurate, while 81 percent of those attending Pentecostal churches held to the same belief. Only 40 percent of those surveyed believed Christ was sinless, while 27 percent believed Satan to be real . . . .

The numbers were better for Baptists [this included all kinds of Baptists] than for the whole sample, but not by much. Of the Baptists surveyed, 57 percent believed works play a part in salvation, and 45 percent believed Jesus was not sinless. Only 34 percent of Baptists thought Satan was a real being, while 51 percent believed Christians have the responsibility to witness to others. Sixty-six percent of Baptists considered the Bible to be totally accurate, 81 percent considered their religious faith to be important and 85 percent believed God is the all-powerful creator of the universe . . . .

The two denominations with the highest number of members who hold to orthodox Christian beliefs were Pentecostals and Assemblies of God. Catholics and Episcopalians had the lowest percentage of members reporting a belief in traditional Christian teachings. Just 20 percent of Episcopalians and 17 percent of Catholics believed Satan was real; 33 percent of Catholics and Episcopalians believed Jesus was sinless; and 26 percent of Episcopalians and 9 percent of Catholics believed works don’t earn salvation . . . .

The study determined that evangelicals are scarce. Barna defines “evangelicals” as a subset of “born again” believers — those who say their faith is very important in their lives, believe they have a responsibility to witness to non-Christians, acknowledge the existence of Satan, contend that eternal salvation is possible only through God’s grace and not good deeds, believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth and describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today . . . .

Those who fit in such a category include only 8 percent of adults . . . .

Fourteen percent of Baptists qualified as evangelicals, compared to 33 percent from Assemblies of God churches, 29 percent from nondenominational churches and 27 percent from Pentecostal churches. Only 1 percent of Catholics and 1 percent of Episcopalians could be classified as evangelicals. (Tim Ellsworth, www.Baptist Press.org, 8-13-2001, “Barna study: Baptists, others adrift in doctrinal beliefs”.)

Add to the above the dismal percentages of those attending church services on Sundays. In the Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, approximately 34% of the entire membership attends on a given Sunday morning. When statistics were taken a few years ago about how many Southern Baptists came out on a Sunday evening in those churches that had services, the figures were 12.3%. In other words, only 12.3% showed more interest than the church people down the street in churches where the gospel is not even preached. Those figures tell us something about who loves the world and who loves the brethren.

The Barna figures support the contention that not many professing evangelicals are even Christian. Many more people are told they are Christians because they made a decision or prayed a prayer through the evangelistic efforts of the churches. These figures are not including those who did not join the churches after their supposed conversion experience.

What should we do?

First, we should admit that our denominations are not dying, but are largely dead. That is, we should admit that we are in denominations that do not have the life of Christ, except in an embarrassingly small portion of the people. Whatever the percentages actually are (and this is not an exact science), we should own up to the problem. We have permitted millions of unregenerate members on our rolls and have not been willing to take them off even when we actually know they are not believers. Our retaining of these people on the rolls who believe in heretical doctrines and don’t even come, gives a false security to them. I am, of course, differentiating true life from mere religious activity. There is more activity than ever, but a smaller and smaller percentage of true believers.

Second, we should repent of our negligence in preaching and teaching doctrine, especially related to the gospel itself. We have for too long said that doctrine has only negligible importance. Now it is pay-back time. Our effeminate gospel has turned out to be no gospel at all. The reductionism of our gospel tracts and methods, the purely anecdotal nature of our preaching, the absence of repentance and Lordship in our presentation, the glitz and the entertainment that has minimized the message, and the giving of assurance because someone prays a prayer not even found in the Bible, have proven bankrupt. Our methods have produced numbers but little else. We all know that God can use the poorest methods, and often does, but He also will let us see the poverty of our man-centered approach. Anybody should be able to see this.

Third, pastors and denominational leaders should issue a call for a regenerate church and help us get where we need to be. Pride and tradition have kept us from being willing to reduce the membership of our churches to what is actually Christian.

Healthy churches have more people coming than are on the rolls of the church. For instance, in Baptist’s earlier days in America, the average attendance was three times the membership. Today, it is reversed. That is, if a hundred attended in the early 1800s, then you could assume 33 members. But if a hundred attend today, you can assume 300 members. The disparity between those numbers is alarming and demonstrates that much of our so-called progress has rested on a re-defining of what a believer really is. To return to our healthy state, church discipline must be restored, and attendance and beliefs must be included in the consideration of who is an authentic believer. To retain people on the rolls in earlier days in almost any of the denominations who did not believe in the sinless nature of Christ, and that works earned part of salvation, etc., would have been unheard of.

Finally, we should pray. God must help us. The return to biblical views of the purity of the church and of the nature of regeneration, could be used by God to bring to us the most productive days of evangelism and church life ever known.

We can be thankful for this revealing study. But what it accomplishes in the final analysis is ours to work out under the headship of Christ. Will God bring revival out of our shame, and will the denominationalism we now know stand? Or, have we slipped too far for recovery without a total dismantling of the old structure?

Jim Elliff
President, Christian Communicators Worldwide