Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Christian Nation?

It is often claimed that America is a Christian nation. Appeals for overseas missions are often made on the grounds that America is "reached". This is fueled by the majority of Americans who claim that they are Christians, but when we look to scripture for what a Christian is supposed to look like, we see little to no resemblance in our nation.

While researching this, I stumbled across the statistical reports of The Barna Group and a very disturbing reality became clear. America is far from Christian. In fact, by a conservative estimate, less than 4% of Americans are, in fact, Christians.

Some may scoff at my number as if I am pulling it out of thin air, but I will explain how I arrived at that number. First, we must start with what Barna uses to define an "evangelical Christian". This is a person who believes in the following:

  • Absolute moral truths exist and they are defined in the Bible.
  • Jesus Christ lived a sinless life.
  • God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He still rules it today.
  • Salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned.
  • Satan is real.
  • The Bible is accurate is all of its teachings.
  • Now as we look at this list of doctrines, we see that this is not actually a very high bar. It does not touch on the classic Armenian/Calvinist debate. It does not include an inerrant view of scripture or even exclude those who may not believe in a six day creation. The six tenets defined by Barna really are the fundamental basics. If you cannot believe these tenets, can you really be called a Christian, someone who believes in Jesus Christ and what He taught?

    Now before I go any further, let me say quickly that we cannot know with any certainty if one particular person is actually a Christ-follower, destined for heaven. I will even acknowledge that it is possible for someone to not believe in all of these tenets and still be a Christian, but I do not believe God will allow them to remain in that level of ignorance for long.

    But the Bible does give us guidelines by which we can evaluate ourselves to see if we are Christ. Our lives should be transformed from those around us. We should be practicing righteousness instead of sin (1 John 3:4-10). It is important to note that the Barna Group studies show a marked difference in the behavior of the "evangelical" Christian against the rest of the country, including those who claim Jesus as their savior (who they call "born again Christians"). What does this mean? Doctrine does matter, especially when it concerns the true bedrock of the faith.

    So with that foundation, let us see what the studies reveal. We start with a study done in 2009 on the Christian worldview.

    The same questions were asked of respondents in national surveys by Barna in 1995, 2000 and 2005. The results indicate that the percentage of adults with a biblical worldview, as defined above, has remained unchanged for more than a decade. The numbers show that 7% had such a worldview in 1995, compared to 10% in 2000, 11% in 2005, and 9% now. Even among born again adults, the statistics have remained flat: 18% in 1995, 22% in 2000, 21% in 2005, and 19% today.
    Only 9% of all Americans match the doctrinal criteria spelled out above, and the picture doesn't really improve all that much when you look at just those who they call "born again Christians". The picture gets even more bleak when you read their latest study on the impact of the recent economy. The study examined the top priority of Americans in the categories of faith, family, health, and money. Not surprisingly, faith rated quite low. In fact, contrary to common wisdom, the economic downturn has not turned people to God but has in fact made them more concerned about health and money than ever. But the most disturbing statement to me was this one:

    The only exception seems to be evangelicals, among whom two out of every five mention that faith is their highest priority (39%).
    Less than 40% of evangelical Christians, those who agree with the 7 tenets above, actually rate faith as their number one priority in life.

    What does Jesus say?

    "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple."
    (Luk 14:26-27 ESV)
    So, let us do the math. If 9% of Americans are evangelicals and only 40% of them consider Jesus to be the number one priority in their lives, that means that only 3.5% of Americans even have the chance of being a Christian. Why do I add that qualifier? Because if I am honest with myself, there was a time in which I would have answered in the affirmative to all of the questions above. I might have even said that God was my highest priority, but when it came down right down to it, my life was not in submission to the will of God -- not even close. I was practicing sin and going for weeks without paying much mind to God beyond an hour or two on Sunday. I was going through the motions, doing my "Christian" duty but not really committing my heart.

    So with all of this talk about percentages, what does this actually look like? Let us assume that all church attendees are "born again Christians" which, given our math above, lends us a percentage of possible Christians at 7.4% (19% * 39%). That means that in the average church of 300, only 22 people are actually Christians. And how many of those are actually practicing the righteousness of Christ lived out by the power of the Holy Spirit?

    This is where the rubber meets the road: not whether or not those people who sit next to you are Christians but are you a Christian?

    "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.(Mat 7:13-14 ESV)
    I urge you to take the time and really evaluate your life in light of scripture. I encourage you to do the following exercise: read through the book of 1 John. One of the primary purposes of that book is to help us know if we are of Christ. Note all of the qualifications he gives of those who are of Christ and those who are of Satan. Prayerfully ask yourself if you pass the test of the child of God.
    Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?--unless indeed you fail to meet the test!
    (2Co 13:5 ESV)
    Edit: I realized after this had been posted for some time that I had originally included seven tenets that were a part of the original Barna study. The last one was "A Christian has the responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people". This actually skews the statistics even worse -- cutting the number of people who agreed to all of these principles by 50%. However, the rest of the studies used to in my article are based on the newer definition of an evangelical which removed this final tenet. So for the sake of accuracy, I have removed that tenet.


    greenup said...

    Sorry to do this, but I was only breaking for lunch & gotta get back to it. I'm going to pick on a tiny bit of horrible statistics use in your text above.

    "in the average church of 300, only 22 people are actually Christians. "
    This would assume a normal distribution with evenly spread results in all congregations. Life isn't that nice, it's bumpy. Some churches are going to have 250, and some are going to have 2, and possibly few are going to have 22.

    The end of your article is better: "not whether... [others] are Christians but are you a Christian?" Don't mess up the message with bad mathematical assumptions/inferences. Keep with the Gold.

    Anonymous said...

    tenets, not "tenants."

    spell check doesn't catch.

    just FYI.

    j.s.kern said...

    The principle tenet that defines a Christian is the belief in the Gospel: That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures (see 1 Cor 15:1-4). The single most important difference between Christianity and all other would-be truths is the empty tomb....I think Barna's list is woeful.

    Besides, there is no such thing as an earthly "Christian Nation"--the very idea is absurd, anathema. We Christians are supposed to be a hated & persecuted fraction of humanity, foreigners from the Kingdom of God. America is a sewer populated by mostly rats—just like every other country on this fallen rock. If the Barna findings were accurate, I’d be overjoyed to discover that the number of Christians was so high!

    Love of country is like everything else that isn’t love to God; idolatry.

    Σοι Χαρις

    Matt Aznoe said...


    I am in complete agreement with you on most of your post except for the Barna's list being woeful. In re-reading my post, I see that I have fallen into the trap of over-emphasizing certain things while failing to mention the essential Gospel. In this, you do well to point me back to that.

    My purpose was to debunk the entire notion of the United States being a Christian nation and to shine a light on just how badly we need the Gospel.

    As for the Barna list, consider it more of the evidence of belief rather than the qualifications. These are the basic teachings of the Bible. If we say we believe in Jesus Christ, then we will believe His written word as well. If people's beliefs do not match up with the Bible, can they really say that they believe Jesus is who He said He is.

    The point of 1 John is to help you either have assurance of your salvation or to recognize that you need Christ. That was the point of my article -- to evaluate the fruit of our lives to see if it exemplifies a life of faith or a life of disobedience.

    We are essentially coming to the same point from opposite starting positions. I believe my estimates (calculated from Barna) probably are high. The need is great, and God needs laborers (us) to enter the fields.


    j.s.kern said...

    Fair enough, Matt; thanks.

    Actually, I was at work when I posted that comment and was in a bit of a hurry. I hadn't really digested your whole post; just wanted to mention what I saw was a glaring ommission in Barna's "Christian criterion".

    Oh, and I was bouncing between your comments and Dan's over on Pyromaniacs, then hopped here to see what you were all about on your home turf, which just sucked up all my time for considered analysis--seeing as I was on company time an' all. (Btw, I think he got a bit stabby a bit too quickly, you did well resisting a quick retort about his little problem with intellectual pride--props, sir, props.)

    In Christ,

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