Barna Study – Theological Illiteracy

The Barna Group has done a new study and published what it says are the six biggest trends in American churches today:

  1. The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.
  2. Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented.
  3. Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.
  4. Among Christians, interest in participating in community action is escalating.
  5. The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian Church.
  6. The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.

At first glance these results might seem pessimistic. Barna’s polls are often thought of casting a long shadow over the contemporary church culture. To dismiss it as negative or simply to cry in our soup are wrong responses. This information, like so many seemingly dire Old Testament prophecies, is only bad if we choose to ignore it. Like any medicine, it may be the best thing for us if we can just get past the taste of it. Due to the importance of this subject I’ll be addressing each item in its own post. Today we address Item 1:

Item 1: The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate. Like so many other things our culture, there’s an effort underway to dumb down the gospel along with most biblical teaching to reach the masses with the simplest and most appealing messages possible. Dumb people are easier to control. The problem is that people are not really dumb. The church should be a resource for truth, wisdom, and discipleship. Sunday morning services so often come down to some moral lecture, some entertainment, some emotional stir, and some exchange of money for guilt. People naturally want to alleviate their guilt and get a nice emotional boost for their weekly contribution, assuming they even make that much of a commitment. To garner more involvement many churches act like marketing agencies instead of houses of worship and truth. Is it any wonder the church as a whole is less theologically literate? What can we do? Become the disciples we are called to be and encourage genuine spiritual growth. Quit pandering and start providing meat at the spiritual table.

Hat tip to Marc Cortez for turning me on to this info and inspiring this series of posts…

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About Lance Ponder

Christian author of "Ask James one"; public speaker; husband and father. Available to speak on Creation and the Gospel.
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9 Responses to Barna Study – Theological Illiteracy

  1. Pingback: Barna Study – More Ingrown and Less Outreaching | divinelogos

  2. Todd Beal says:

    I grew up in the traditional “Holiness” church. A relationship with Jesus Christ was at the forefront of doctrinal teaching but in practice, it received a back seat to rules and regulations.

    The human approach to God manifests in one of two ways: love God and, of natural consequence, obey his laws and statutes; adopt a set of idealized scripture-based human rules and regulations in the attempt to become pure in God’s sight. The evangelical church increasingly adopted the latter message as our collective love for God waned and conscience took over. The less we love God, the more our conscience recognizes our need to reconcile with God, leading to one of two actions: open our heart to God and fully accept his will; create a set of scripture-based ideological rules in hopes of earning our way back to God. When our love for God grows weak, we naturally look to rules and regulations for salvation. It is our inborn trait to abandon love for the rule of Old Testament Law.

    Paul explained the futility of relying on the crutch of Old Testament law in Romans 8:1-8 (ESV)

    [Life in the Spirit]

    [8 :1] There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. [2] For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. [3] For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, [4] in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. [5] For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. [6] For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. [7] For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. [8] Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

    The very moment we allow our love for God to wane, our flesh immediately takes over. Our spiritual need for God immediately tells us that Old Testament law needs to tame our physical desires; hence, “Christian” rules and regulations. However, Christ fulfilled the law with his death on the cross; meaning, with Christ in my heart, his love empowers me to naturally live out the law because he is the fulfillment of the law. But if I become, or remain, antagonistic toward Christ within my heart, I immediately sense my rebellion against Old Testament law and therefore seek to reign myself in. We humans need law, but not unnaturally.

    Simply put, we humans (redeemed or unredeemed) are naturally aware of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. We also are naturally aware that his sacrifice eliminated the human requirement to live up to the law apart from his residence within our heart. We naturally recognize that rules and regulations, apart from him, lead nowhere but toward unfulfilling restriction, thus rebellion. Hence, in today’s church, the pendulum has swung the other way. We recognize the futility of substituting Old Testament law in favor of Christ’s fulfillment of the law. So, instead of fixing the problem according to the gospel, we opt out altogether and instead adopt a more “tolerant” resolution more in line with escapism.

    Lance, we did this to ourselves. We the church have lost our love for God, and in so doing we attempt to fix that gap by reverting back to Old Testament law (cold theology). People are tired of rules and regulations absent the indwelling of Christ. Until we, as a church, once again, spiritually catch on fire, people will increasingly view our theology as unnaturally stifling.

    God gave Old Testament law to convict us of sin. He gave the fulfillment of that law, Jesus Christ, to eliminate that sin. Until we the church, fully accept the fulfillment Christ offers us, theological illiteracy necessarily reigns supreme.

  3. Pingback: Barna Study – Less Spiritual and More Pragmatic | divinelogos

  4. Bernie says:

    Hi Lance … sorry I am a few days behind on responding here. My personal experience would suggest to me there is a lot of truth in this Barna survey. Since this post is about item #1 I will attempt to limit my comments to that item. Your assessment seems to be spot on to me. I have come to understand that I can blame the church for a lot of things (and as you know I do) but on this point the problem isn’t simply about the failure of the church (and for the sake of its use here I mean denominations, local religious institutions and their leaders) but also with the people who are the church. Much like Israel we tend to want the pastors to meet with God and then allow them to offer us their interpretation when in reality God wants every believer to step into that relationship with Him through Christ Jesus and His word with the interpretation of the Holy Spirit (one of the victims of that theological illiteracy). While we have more availability of the Bible than ever in the U.S., we are more biblically illiterate than ever. We are however quite religiously literate. For some unknown reason, we believe we need to make God relevant to today’s culture and thus we tend to teach self-improvement rather than surrender/submission and Christ transformation and sanctification. God always has been, always is and always will be relevant. The world, the culture and the enemy just tends to do a better job convincing people otherwise. We need to boldly teach and preach the truth. Scripture doesn’t need our application interpretation … Scripture needs to be set loose in the world and let the Holy Spirit do His interpretation. Love this new series brother – it challenges me and makes me stop and consider!!! Bernie

    • Lance Ponder says:

      //For some unknown reason, we believe we need to make God relevant to today’s culture and thus we tend to teach self-improvement rather than surrender/submission and Christ transformation and sanctification.//

      BINGO!!!! I happen to agree with everything you said, but this phrase captures the essence of something I’ve been wrestling with for a long time, in and out of my local church.

  5. Pingback: Barna Study – Community Action | divinelogos

  6. Pingback: Barna Study – Tolerance | divinelogos

  7. Pingback: Barna Study – Invisible Influence | divinelogos

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