Study: Americans Redefining, Customizing Christianity

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The latest results from Dr. George Barna, Arizona Christian University, reveal a radical change in beliefs on abortion, marriage.

Americans who identify as Christian are redefining Christianity, ignoring the churches’ historical distinctives to which they belong, according to the latest results from the American Worldview Inventory 2020—the seminal national research project undertaken by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University.

“The irony of the reshaping of the spiritual landscape in America is that it represents a post-Christian reformation driven by people seeking to retain a Christian identity,” noted Dr. George Barna, Director of Research at the Cultural Research Center. “Unfortunately, the theology of this reformation is being driven by American culture rather than biblical truth.”

Perhaps the most alarming of the shifts, Barna says, is that a majority of adults aligned with an evangelical church (52%) contend that there is no absolute moral truth. In their view, truth is uniquely determined by each individual according to their preferences and circumstances. That perspective equates to most evangelicals believing that the Bible is either not inerrant or trustworthy in its content—or that the Bible is neither wholly accurate nor reliable. That stand is a radical and critical departure from the traditional teachings and biblical reliance of evangelicals.

That arm’s-length relationship with the Scriptures is further evidenced in the dramatic decline in Bible reading among adults who associate with evangelical churches. According to the AWVI, the majority (61%) of those surveyed do not read the Bible daily, despite their churches describing the Bible as the ultimate moral guide and source of truth and enlightenment.

Additionally, three-quarters of adults attending evangelical churches (75%) believe that people are good — a contradiction to the traditional evangelical teaching that because people are sinners, they are not nearly good, and therefore need a savior, identified as Jesus Christ. Many of these same adults have non-biblical views about the Christian Trinity, as well. While elevating man’s essence to goodness, they have also radically humanized Jesus Christ, with 43% believing He sinned while on earth and demoting the Holy Spirit to symbolic status (58%).

These changes have contributed to the development of a new moral code among those associated with evangelical churches. Among them:

  • 44% claim the Bible is ambiguous in its teaching about abortion
  • 34% argue that abortion is morally acceptable if it spares the mother from financial or emotional discomfort or hardship
  • 34% reject the idea of legitimate marriage as one man and one woman
  • 40% accept lying as morally acceptable if it advances personal interests or protect one’s reputation
  • 39% identify the people they respect as being only those who have the same beliefs as their own

Those in charismatic congregations, it seems, are following suit. In some cases, their departure from traditional biblical teachings is even more pronounced than that witnessed among evangelicals. For instance, while a slight (but growing) majority of those at evangelical churches embrace relativism, more than two-thirds of those in Pentecostal congregations (69%) reject absolute moral truth. They are also less likely to value human life, with a majority (54%) unwilling to define human life as sacred and half claiming that the Bible is ambiguous in its teaching about abortion.

Perhaps the most unexpected perspective among Pentecostals, though, is their widespread acceptance of the government’s intervention in and control of their lives. Adults associated with a Pentecostal or charismatic church were among the most likely self-identified Christians (along with Catholics) to say they prefer socialism to capitalism, with more than two-thirds of the group (69%) expressing such a view.

Mainline protestants (those associated with the American Baptist Church U.S.A., Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., United Churches of Christ and United Methodist Church denominations) are on their own path, altogether. 

There were 31 different variables identified in the Inventory for which a majority of participants in one of the six mainline Protestant denominations held a view or engaged in behavior at odds with biblical teaching—more than three times the number of biblical conflicts as were identified among either evangelicals or Pentecostals. That represents about 60% of the worldview attributes evaluated in the American Worldview Inventory 2020 for which there is a significant conflict with biblical principles.

The worldview possessed by most mainline church attenders, the AWVI revealed, revolves around three concepts:

  • Truth and morality are determined by the individual, not by God or the Bible
  • Life has no inherent value or purpose, but we can make the most of it by doing things that produce personal happiness or satisfaction
  • Traditional religious practices are neither considered to be central or essential to their Christian faith 

“While the survey cannot determine if churches are failing to teach biblical truth or whether congregants are exposed to such teaching but rejecting it, the bottom line is that we are a society that has strayed far from the path of biblical truth,” Barna says. “It certainly seems as if the culture is influencing the Church more than the church is influencing the culture.”

“It’s one thing for Americans to be confused on the finer points or even hotly debated elements of theology,” Barna continued. “But for Americans to misunderstand or to flat out reject the Bible as a foundational source of truth and moral guidance, to reject salvation by grace alone, and to reject core doctrines of the Christian faith points to a major crisis in our society. Hopefully, bringing these issues to light can generate greater attention being paid to what matters and how to fix what’s clearly broken.”

The American Worldview Inventory 2020 (AWVI) is based on 51 worldview-related questions drawn from eight categories of worldview application, measuring both beliefs and behavior and was conducted in January among a nationally representative sample of 2,000 adults.

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