Stray pastors

Culture | Only half of America's ministers hold to a biblical worldview, but even many who do aren't imparting it to their congregations

WORLD HAS DISCUSSED THE COLLAPSE OF theological literacy and the rise of out-and-out unbelief among Americans who consider themselves to be "born again Christians" ("Unbelieving 'born-agains,'" Dec. 6, 2003). Now we know at least part of the reason. According to a new study by the Barna Research Group, 49 percent of Protestant pastors reject core biblical beliefs.

The Christian pollster George Barna put together a list of biblical teachings that presumably Christians of every denomination or theological tradition could affirm: There is absolute moral truth based on the Bible; biblical teaching is accurate; Jesus was without sin; Satan literally exists; God is omnipotent and omniscient; salvation is by grace alone; Christians have a personal responsibility to evangelize.

This is a bare-bones list. It says nothing about the Trinity or the Deity of Christ or other important teachings that are essential for salvation. The list has to do not so much with theology as with the assumptions that are behind one's theology; that is, with worldview. Any minister of whatever denomination, especially a Protestant one, should be able to agree on these basics. But only 51 percent do.

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Mr. Barna's breakdown of this data is telling. In the two largest Protestant denominations, Southern Baptists had the most pastors, percentage-wise, who hold to this biblical worldview (71 percent), while Methodists had the fewest (27 percent). The glass is either three-quarters empty or one-quarter full. That one in four Methodist pastors takes what the Bible teaches seriously might be surprising and encouraging in a liberal-leaning denomination. But it is equally surprising, though discouraging, to find that one in four Southern Baptist preachers does not.

The statistics of pastors holding a biblical worldview for other denominations studied were 57 percent of (non-Southern) Baptists; 51 percent of nondenominational Protestants; and 44 percent of charismatic or Pentecostal churches. In the so-called mainline Protestant churches (essentially those belonging to the National Council of Churches), those pastors who could be described as having a biblical worldview numbered only 28 percent.

Mr. Barna also broke the statistics down demographically. Only 35 percent of pastors of black churches hold to a biblical worldview, as he defines it. In denominations that ordain women, only 15 percent of female pastors hold to a biblical worldview.

Mr. Barna also found that pastors who attended a seminary are less likely to have a biblical worldview (45 percent) than those who did not (59 percent). This is doubtless due to the anti-Christian scholarship that dominates much of today's academic religious studies, such as the higher-critical approach to Scripture, which begins by assuming that the Bible is nothing more than fiction.

There is some good news, though, in Mr. Barna's numbers. Younger pastors (those under 40) are more likely to have a biblical worldview (56 percent) than older pastors (50 percent). Those who have been in the ministry for five years or less score even higher (58 percent). Perhaps the unbelieving ministers-mostly aging baby boomers, shaped no doubt by the theological, moral, and cultural upheaval of the '60s, and still assuming they are relevant today-will die out, to be replaced by younger and more faithful shepherds.

But, in the meantime, the sheep are hungry and are not fed. Many have already starved to death. Mr. Barna, who discusses these findings in his new book Think Like Jesus, says that if the numbers are bad among pastors, they are even worse for church members. Just 7 percent of American Protestants overall agree with the biblical tenets on that list. And among those who consider themselves "born again," only 9 percent do. About one out of 10.

There is a huge gap even when pastors do hold to biblical beliefs. "The research also points out that even in churches where the pastor has a biblical worldview," said Mr. Barna, "most of the congregants do not. More than six out of every seven congregants in the typical church do not share the biblical worldview of their pastor even when he or she has one."

This suggests, he says, that "merely preaching good sermons and offering helpful programs does not enable most believers to develop a practical and scriptural theological base to shape their life." Based on his research of those who have a biblical worldview, he says that acquiring one "is a long-term process that requires a lot of purposeful activity: teaching, prayer, conversation, accountability, and so forth.

"Based on our correlations of worldview and moral behavior," he said, "we can confidently argue that if the 51 percent of pastors who have a biblical worldview were to strategically and relentlessly assist their congregants in adopting such a way of interpreting and responding to life, the impact on our churches, families, and society at large would be enormous."

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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