Christians’ public witness took another hit the week of Thanksgiving, when a newly released survey exposed rampant idolatry among the people of God who live in America. The Pew Research Center found only 29% of Christians in America claim religion as “the most important source of meaning in their lives.” This dismal result calls into question why unbelievers would find the Gospel attractive when even most Christians don’t seem to care about it very much. Aren’t we all a bunch of hypocrites?
The study asked respondents about where they find “a great deal” of meaning, as well as what the most important source of meaning is for them. 52% of all Christians said that religion provided “a great deal” of meaning in their lives, including 65% of evangelicals and 62% of historically black Protestants. However, only 41% of Catholics and 39% of mainline Protestants said religion provided “a great deal” of meaning for them. The rest indicated that religion provided, “some” meaning, “not much,” or “none at all.”
However, relatively few Christians (29%) considered religion to be the most important source of meaning in their life. This included only 45% of evangelicals, 38% of black Protestants, 17% of Catholics, and 15% of mainline Protestants.
Of course, we Christians have a particular term to describe a situation where someone has elevated something else in their life to be more important than God:
That’s called idolatry.
Idolatry is prohibited in different ways by the first two of the Ten Commandments. It is serious enough to send people to the second death, the lake of fire, right alongside murderers, sorcerers, and the sexually immoral (Revelation 21:8). Idolatry is basically cheating on God, so he treats it like a big deal.
The lack of focus on religion leaves us facing the question: if religion isn’t the most important source of meaning to Christians, what is?
The same survey by Pew also uncovered that the “number one” idol of American Christians is the family. Of American Christians, 42% said that family was the most important source of meaning in their life, including 54% of mainline Protestants, 50% of Catholics, 37% of black Protestants, and 31% of evangelicals. When answering what was most important to them, respondents had to choose among options they had already said were important to them. This means that those who said family was the most important source of meaning had to deliberately choose it over religion, unless religion was not important at all.
And compared to 52% of American Christians who said religion provided “a great deal” of meaning in their lives, 76% of Christians said that family provided “a great deal” of meaning. This includes 81% of mainline Protestants, 75% each of evangelicals and black Protestants, and 73% of Catholics. To many Christians in America, family is more important than religion.
I have to admit, I am skeptical whenever I hear someone say the church has a problem with idolizing the family. I usually suspect the speaker is trying to de-emphasize rampant sins wreaking havoc on the church right now. After all, abuse, divorce, infidelity, pre-marital sex, one-parent families, and plummeting birth rates are plaguing the Church almost as much as the society at large. In our present age, we need more focus on the family, not less!
But while we need more focus on the family, the results of this study also seem to indicate that we need a lot more focus on God. In the short and often neglected book of Haggai, the Israelites who returned from captivity ignored God’s command to rebuild the temple and preoccupied themselves with pursuing material prosperity. So, God supernaturally intervened to prevent the people from ever obtaining that material prosperity while they ignored God (see especially Haggai 1:9). He disciplined the people out of love, because he wanted what was best for them—to serve him. When they repented and became obedient, God blessed them with many good things—including material prosperity.
God often withholds good things when his children become obsessed, until they learn to seek him first—but he does want to bless us! Perhaps the reason why the American family has collapsed so much in recent decades is because Christians are making the family more important than God. For me personally, it took my parents’ divorce for God to show me that I had made an idol out of my family, and that I was living to please my family instead of him.
Besides the family, another 29% of Christians identified various other idols as the most important source of meaning in their lives. This included 33% of Catholics, 31% of mainline Protestants, 25% of black Protestants, and 24% of evangelicals. And it’s likely that many people who claimed religion as the most important source of meaning also have idols; they just didn’t admit it to the interviewer. All that goes to say: American Christians have a lot of idolatry for which to repent in order to restore our witness before nonbelievers. We ought to humble our own hearts, and pray with the Psalmist:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!