We’ll start with the good news.
According to a new survey from Lifeway Research the majority of Americans believe in heaven, that trusting in Jesus is how you receive the gift of salvation, and that it would be fair for God to show his wrath against sin.
The bad news, of course, is that it’s way more complicated than that. The survey seems to indicate people have no idea what they mean when they say those things.
“Contradictory and incompatible beliefs are OK for most people,” says Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Basic Christian theology is easy to find on a church’s beliefs webpage, yet most Americans don’t understand how the pieces are related.”
And so 61% agree Jesus is both fully God and fully man, but 52% say Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God. 58% say the Bible was written by God but 51% say the Bible was written for each person to interpret as he or she chooses.
57% of people say God would be fair to show his wrath against sin, but 74% say even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.
In other words, it’s complicated. If you’re a pastor it’s also more than a bit frustrating, as people in the survey who claimed to be evangelical Christians were often as confused as everyone else.
An easy pastoral response to this is to double-down on theological education, add another Wednesday night class, fine tune our apologetics or go back to teaching the basics from the pulpit. Those things may all be good, but are they the final answer? What if the problem this survey reveals isn’t just a lack of information, but a core shift in how people perceive what is true?
There’s an interesting theory by a philosopher named Charles Taylor that says there was a time when individuals believed the truth about who they are lay outside of them. Institutions or authority structures – such as the Bible or the church – was where people went to find answers about who they were.
Taylor claims this has fundamentally changed, for better and worse, in our secular age. Taylor says people now believe they are a “buffered” self, that what is true about them exists inside and that one should only allow things inside the buffer that are true to your core identity.
If Taylor is right it explains the contradictory results in Lifeway’s poll. It’s pretty clear those surveyed aren’t attaching themselves to an established religious point of view.
Rather, they are responding to what they feel to be true about God, faith, the afterlife and what it means for them. When asked about hell, people look inside themselves and know they aren’t perfect and have a sense that some sort of judgment is deserved for all the evil in the world; however, does the smallest sin, the flaws inside themselves, deserve punishment? No, because when they look inside themselves they believe they are fundamentally a good person.
So what does the way forward look like? Part of it lies in what Andy Stanley recently said in an article here at churchleaders, that millennials aren’t going to be initially persuaded to follow Jesus solely on the basis of Biblical authority. That’s now how the “buffered self” operates.
Another answer is to help people realize that their “buffered self” isn’t so buffered at all. We all believe a series of messages taught us from a very young age about who we are and who the world is. Many of those messages are destructive, soul-crushing lies. Our opportunity as pastors is to show them the good news of who they really are, how Jesus’s path of freedom provides something so much better than what the world is offering, and how that path ultimately informs how we see and understanding everything.