Recently, Christianity Today (CT) published a web-only article drawing attention to a theological survey that LifeWay Research did for Ligonier Ministries. (I encourage you to read the whole article here.)
While the survey is encouraging in the high percentages of understanding some orthodox beliefs, other key orthodox beliefs - about salvation and the Holy Spirit, for example - weren't nearly so well understood. For example, only 42% affirmed that the Holy Spirit is a person and not an impersonal force. 29% believe God's grace precedes any human initiative in salvation - 71% either believe people first seek God or don't know.
Ligonier's Chief Academic Officer, Stephen Nichols, seems to summarize the survey as revealing "a significant level of theological confusion" among those categorized as evangelicals.
How should we be thinking about this? Two things to come to my mind:
Let's Not Neglect Our Theological Responsibility
First off, these results remind me of the RESPONSIBILITY church leaders and mature disciples have to "contend for the faith" (Jude 3) and pass along what is "of first importance" (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). We can't assume that people will drift into orthodox theological thinking. We must be intentional about seeing people transformed by the renewing of their minds (cf. Romans 12:1-2).
This starts by approaching theology rightly. Theology is not an enemy to be beaten or a bore to be avoided. Orthodox theology is essential for mature discipleship, a vibrant church, and meaningful impact. We need to value catechesis (foundational instruction) and the benefits it offers.
The CT article itself reinforces this point. In the article, Stephen Nichols says, "The church in every age has faced theological confusion and heresy. In this survey we see a wake-up call to the church. We cannot assume the next generation - or even this present one - will catch an orthodox theology merely by being in the church..." John Stackhouse then suggests a reason for this theological decline: "We continue to hold adult Christian education in low regard," he says.
My recommendation based on these comments? Equipping environments within the church for adults - equipping environments that are intentional in focus, aligned with the rest of the church, and excellent in approach. (By the way, that's pretty much what we're trying to do with the Brookside Institute. Had to get that commercial in!)
Let's Not Miss This Theological Opportunity
Another thought that came to mind as I read the article (and some of the social media chatter about it), is that I hope evangelical leaders see the glass as half-full in this survey. Instead of only decrying the theological illiteracy of our day and age, let's approach this as an opportunity to draw people back to the fountain of a robust Christian theology and lay a strong foundation on which mature, life-long discipleship can grow. Let's remember that many true evangelicals are probably simply ignorant (understood in the most neutral sense) about these things, not rebellious.
This article reminds us of the OPPORTUNITY we have to teach church history and Christian theology within our various contexts. This article presents us with the OPPORTUNITY to re-paint how people picture theology as we teach the rich theological heritage of which we're a part AND connect these great truths to Christian discipleship in the 21st century.
For any of you that have read the CT article, what additional thoughts did you have? Why are "theological responsibility" and "theological opportunity" important categories to build into how we think about this article?
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