Polls & God’s Elect

Mark Tooley on June 9, 2022

Polls supposedly evincing the theological confusion of American Christians often remind me of my grandmother. To my knowledge, she was a believing Christian nearly all her long life. Once, as I drove her home from church, she responded to the sermon by saying she thought Jesus the Son was lesser than God the Father. After all, He is the Son. I responded Jesus had said He and His Father are one. Oh yes, she said, accepting the point.

Was my grandmother, who recited the Apostles Creed most Sundays, a heretic until that point? No, misunderstanding is not heresy, which entails intent. She attended church most of her life since girlhood, and likely she heard few if any sermons explicitly explaining the Trinity. How many even devout Christians really deeply understand even the basics about the mysterious Trinity?

A pollster, contacting my grandmother, may have reported her as one of millions of Christians who aren’t really Christian, since she mischaracterized core Christian doctrine. Such polls are often fatuous. Is there any time in the church’s history when the average even devout lay person could routinely articulate comprehensive orthodoxy about the Godhead or other key doctrines?

Most Christians not professionally trained, or whose vocation is not ecclesial, can readily articulate deep doctrinal understanding. They believe in Christ as their Savior, worship, pray, sacrifice, serve others, and live by faith. They mostly rely on clergy and teachers to explain doctrinal details. Ideally, every Christian would read and study deeply. But the reality is most don’t. And many who don’t are saintly and will occupy loftier spots in God’s Kingdom than the more educated and doctrinally articulate. Sanctification doesn’t necessarily entail cerebral theology or intellectual focus.

Polls like George Barna’s often ignore this distinction and assume that self-identified Christians who fail a theological litmus test are maybe something less than claimed. Such polls usually say only a small percentage of professing Christians actually have a “Christian worldview.”  A recent survey from Barna’s Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University found that “Christian” in America today entails “often conflicting theological views” and “even beliefs that are thoroughly unbiblical perspectives.” No doubt! And so it likely has always been, including even among the first followers of Jesus who walked with Him and yet still did not fully understand.

This Barna survey found that 69% of American adults profess Christianity, 35% saying they are “born again,” but only 9% having a “biblical worldview.”  Even fewer, just 6%, qualify as “Integrated Disciples” with both the right “worldview” and “consistent understanding and application of biblical principles.”

Of self-identified Christians, strong majorities offer traditional understandings about God as creator with their need to avoid sin and honor Him. But majorities, contra Christian teaching, also say people are good, all religious faiths are equal, affirm works righteousness, see the Holy Spirit only as a symbol, are relativistic, and believe in karma. Minorities affirm Christian sexual teaching or have confidence in salvation strictly through Christ. Even most self-identified “born-agains” backed moral relativism and salvation through works.

The Barna poll shows the 28% of Americans who specifically say they are saved by Christ, even if they don’t identify as “born again,” predictably have more orthodox answers. But even half of them think the Holy Spirit a symbol, and 40% say there is “no moral truth.” Even half of the 9% who are “Integrated Disciples,” who almost unanimously affirm Christian sexual teaching and reject abortion, still believe people are mostly good, while 25 percent are moral relativists.

These numbers are obviously distressing and, if taken literally, imply that America has almost no Christians who are faithful and understanding. Are only 2 or 3 percent of Americans truly Christian? Only the Lord knows. His mercy is wide, and we are warned against distinguishing the sheep and the goats.

I’m dubious that Barna’s ostensible moral relativists are truly so. And would many respondents, if gently reminded, quickly self-correct, as my grandmother did when reminded about Jesus’ equality with His Father? How many sincere Christians are simply inexact in answering polls rather than deeply ignorant or disobedient? And how many Christians with the right answers are actually disobedient in practice?

Christ’s followers included simple shepherds, fishermen, maidens, the adulterous woman at the well, the thief on the cross. They likely lacked correct answers about much, and Barna would have rated them as lacking a Christian worldview. But they knew Who could and is the Answer to all questions.

Whatever the questions, no poll can accurately tell us how many faithful people God has in America or anywhere. But Barna does remind us that the church’s teaching office must always strive harder. And we all are called to know and witness to Him better.

  1. Comment by John Kenyon on June 10, 2022 at 12:06 am

    It would be refreshing if a white Evangelical Christian posting takes on the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, did so without including images of last century white protestants, who did not understand it either, and who may, or not may have. been willing to kill others and die over the meaning of a Koine Greek diphthong. But I bet you have no idea what I mean. You pose as a leader of The Global Methodist Church?

  2. Comment by Brian Evers on June 10, 2022 at 9:43 am

    Great article full of wonderful points. I think you nailed this one. I would probably add that most of the churches avoid some of the hard topics so not rile the crowd. I have also noticed that across the clergy spectrum, telling personal stories is overused. A great redemption story is great but what you were thinking while folding laundry may need to be replaced by discussing something more theologically deep.

  3. Comment by John Kay on June 10, 2022 at 1:50 pm


    Make any unwarranted assumptions recently? Your academic snobbery does not help your case at all, so let me ask: How many lay and clergy leaders of the United Methodist Church (including bishops) have any idea what you mean in your post?

    Question 2: What images in the article that he posted came from the last century (i.e. the 20th Century)? If you didn’t notice you’re probably 200-300 years off, not that it would both you any.

  4. Comment by Dan W on June 10, 2022 at 2:38 pm

    Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.” Matthew 18:2-4 NLT

  5. Comment by Roger on June 10, 2022 at 2:39 pm

    Your Polls and God’s Elect is very good to a point. One of the biggest things that Pastors and Teachers ignore is Paul’s writings. If the Bible is True, most of your Bible is directed to Israel and Jews. Paul is directed to Gentiles at the request of God. Paul’s Gospel of Grace is 1 Corinthians 15; 1 – 4. One of the key elements in this Gospel is the Resurrection. I have not heard a Pastor in my Church, say to a possible professing candidate for Church Membership, that one has to believe in the Resurrection as part of your Salvation belief. Pollsters do not understand this either. If Paul is the Apostle to the Gentiles, as the Bible says, Why would people ignore him and try to appropriate words directed to Jews, knowing they have their own personal Apostle directed to them? Romans 10: 9 – 10 makes it so clear that the Resurrection is to believed in the heart, not historically believing, to be saved. We have not been an obedient Church to the Scriptures.

  6. Comment by Loren J Golden on June 12, 2022 at 12:22 pm

    I have actually heard the reverse.  In 2009, the year before the church of which I was then a member, Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, MO, broke from the PC(USA) in favor of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, we had a gentleman on staff who had graduated from the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL, who was seeking ordination in Heartland Presbytery.  After reading his statement of faith, one of the members of presbytery said that if he believed in the Bodily Resurrection, he could not vote for him.
    The Resurrection that Paul preached was a Bodily Resurrection, not some philosophical resurrection of Christ in one’s heart.  The text in question is, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Rom. 10.9-10, emphasis added)  And again,
    “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.  We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.  For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep (i.e., those who have died and been buried) in Christ have perished. 
    If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
    “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a man (i.e., Adam) came death, by a man (i.e., Christ) has come also the resurrection of the dead.” (I Cor. 15.12-21, emphasis added)
    By “raised from the dead,” Paul and his hearers would have understood a bodily resurrection, whether of Christ on the first Easter, or of those who have believed and hoped in Him, upon His Parousia.  Further, the emphasis Paul puts on the eyewitnesses to appearances of the resurrected Christ (I Cor. 15.5-8) can serve only to point to a bodily resurrection, not a philosophical resurrection in one’s heart.  Indeed, Scripture is replete with examples of resurrections besides that of the Lord Jesus (I Kg. 17.17-24, II Kg. 4.18-37, 13.20-21, Mt. 9.18-26, Mk. 5.21-43, Lk. 7.11-17, 8.40-56, Jn. 11.1-44, 12.9-11, Acts 9.36-43, 20.7-16).  In fact, the Lord performed the resurrection of Eutychus in Acts 20.7-16 through the hands (and likely also the prayers, although that is not recorded) of the Apostle Paul.
    Frankly, it is not reasonable to believe that Paul had in mind some kind of philosophical “Resurrection…to (be) believed in the heart“ that was not historical.

  7. Comment by Roger on June 12, 2022 at 4:20 pm

    Loren J
    You are spot on the subject. I don’t know how you got that I was not talking about a Bodily resurrection . It appears to me because the word heart is used, you thought something else than me. I take scripture literally. In this case, i pointed out not historical belief, but a genuine belief.

    Thanks for your reply, You and I are on the same page as far as I am concerned.

    Peace and Grace

  8. Comment by Search4Truth on June 15, 2022 at 7:15 pm

    Going back to Mark’s essay, how many times have you seen or been asked to fill out a survey only to discover that the choices available are designed to make the point of the surveyor. I have become a great doubter concerning the proclamations surveys prove.

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