The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience
Why don't Christians live what they preach?
Once upon a time there was a great religion that over the
centuries had spread all over the world. But in those lands where it had existed for the
longest time, its adherents slowly grew complacent, lukewarm, and skeptical. Indeed, many
of the leaders of its oldest groups even publicly rejected some of the religion's most
In response, a renewal movement emerged, passionately championing the
historic claims of the old religion and eagerly inviting unbelievers everywhere to embrace
the ancient faith. Rejecting the skepticism of leaders who no longer believed in a God who
works miracles, members of the renewal movement vigorously argued that their God not only
had performed miraculous deeds in the past but still miraculously transforms all who
believe. Indeed, a radical, miraculous "new birth" that began a lifetime of
sweeping moral renewal and transformation was at the center of their preaching. Over time,
the renewal movement flourished to the point of becoming one of the most influential wings
of the whole religion.
Not surprisingly, the movement's numbers translated into political
influence. And the renewal movement was so confident of its beliefs and claims that it
persuaded the nation's top political leader to have the government work more closely with
religious social service organizations to solve the nation's horrendous social problems.
Members of the renewal movement knew that miraculous moral transformation of character
frequently happened when broken persons embraced the great religion. They also lobbied
politicians to strengthen the traditional definition of marriage because their ancient
texts taught that a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman was at the center of the
Creator's design for the family.
Then the pollsters started conducting scientific polls of the general
population. In spite of the renewal movement's proud claims to miraculous transformation,
the polls showed that members of the movement divorced their spouses just as often as
their secular neighbors. They beat their wives as often as their neighbors. They were
almost as materialistic and even more racist than their pagan friends. The hard-core
skeptics smiled in cynical amusement at this blatant hypocrisy. The general population was
puzzled and disgusted. Many of the renewal movement's leaders simply stepped up the tempo
of their now enormously successful, highly sophisticated promotional programs. Others
This, alas, is roughly the situation of Western or at least American
Scandalous behavior is rapidly destroying American Christianity. By
their daily activity, most "Christians" regularly commit treason. With their
mouths they claim that Jesus is Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate allegiance
to money, sex, and self-fulfillment.
The findings in numerous national polls conducted by highly respected
pollsters like The Gallup Organization and The Barna Group are simply shocking.
"Gallup and Barna," laments evangelical theologian Michael Horton, "hand us
survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace
lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as
the world in general."1 Divorce is more
common among "born-again" Christians than in the general American population.
Only 6 percent of evangelicals tithe. White evangelicals are the most likely people
to object to neighbors of another race. Josh McDowell has pointed out that the sexual
promiscuity of evangelical youth is only a little less outrageous than that of their
Alan Wolfe, famous contemporary scholar and director of the Boisi
Center for Religion and American Public Life, has just published a penetrating study of
American religious life. Evangelicals figure prominently in his book. His evaluation?
Today's evangelicalism, Wolfe says, exhibits "so strong a desire to copy the culture
of hotel chains and popular music that it loses what religious distinctiveness it once
had."2 Wolfe argues, "The truth is
there is increasingly little difference between an essentially secular activity like the
popular entertainment industry and the bring-'em-in-at-any-cost efforts of evangelical
It is not surprising that George Barna concludes, "Every day, the
church is becoming more like the world it allegedly seeks to change."4 We have very little time, he believes, to reverse
these trends. African Christian and famous missions scholar Professor Lamin Sanneh told Christianity Today recently that "the cultural captivity of
Christianity in the West is nearly complete, and with the religion tamed, it is open
season on the West's Christian heritage. I worry about a West without a moral
center facing a politically resurgent Islam."5
Our first concern, of course, must be internal integrity, not external
danger. What a tragedy for evangelicals to declare proudly that personal conversion and
new birth in Christ are at the center of their faith and then to defy biblical moral
standards by living almost as sinfully as their pagan neighbors.
Graham Cyster, a Christian whom I know from South Africa, recently told
me a painful story about a personal experience two decades ago when he was struggling
against apartheid as a young South African evangelical. One night, he was smuggled into an
underground Communist cell of young people fighting apartheid. "Tell us about the
gospel of Jesus Christ," they asked, half hoping for an alternative to the violent
communist strategy they were embracing.
Graham gave a clear, powerful presentation of the gospel, showing how
personal faith in Christ wonderfully transforms persons and creates one new body of
believers where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, rich nor poor, black nor
white. The youth were fascinated. One seventeen-year-old exclaimed, "That is
wonderful! Show me where I can see that happening." Graham's face fell as he sadly
responded that he could not think of anywhere South African Christians were truly living
out the message of the gospel. "Then the whole thing is a piece of sh,"
the youth angrily retorted. Within a month he left the country to join the armed struggle
against apartheidand eventually giving his life for his beliefs.
The young man was right. If Christians do not live what they preach,
the whole thing is a farce. "American Christianity has largely failed since the
middle of the twentieth century," Barna concludes, "because Jesus' modern-day
disciples do not act like Jesus."6 This
scandalous behavior mocks Christ, undermines evangelism, and destroys Christian
If vital Christian faith is to survive, we must understand the depth of
the crisis, discover why it has happened, and develop obedient, faithful correctives. My
prayer is that just as Mark Noll's book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind did much to strengthen evangelical
thinking, so a forthright acknowledgment of this sorry state of affairs will renew
evangelical resolve to live what we preach.
The Depth of the Scandal
How bad are things? What is the depth of the scandal? Unless we face these questions with
ruthless honesty, we can never hope to correct the problem.
Whether the issue is divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism,
physical abuse in marriage, or neglect of a biblical worldview, the polling data point to
widespread, blatant disobedience of clear biblical moral demands on the part of people who
allegedly are evangelical, born-again Christians. The statistics are devastating.
In a 1999 national survey, George Barna found that the percentage of born-again Christians
who had experienced divorce was slightly higher (26 percent) than that of
non-Christians (22 percent).7 In Barna's
polls since the mid-1990s, that number has remained about the same.8 In August 2001, a new poll found that the divorce rate was about
the same for born-again Christians and the population as a whole; 33 percent of all
born-again Christians had been divorced compared with 34 percent of non-born-again
Americansa statistically insignificant difference. Barna also found in one study
that 90 percent of all divorced born-again folk divorced after they accepted
Barna makes a distinction between born-again Christians and
evangelicals. Barna classifies as born-again all who say "they have made a personal
commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today" and who also
indicate that they "believe that when they die they will go to heaven because they
have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior."10 In Barna's polls anywhere from 35 to 43 percent
of the total U.S. population meet these criteria for being born-again.
Barna limits the term "evangelical" to a much smaller groupjust
7 to 8 percent of the total U.S. population. In addition to meeting the criteria for being
born-again, evangelicals must agree with several other things such as the following: Jesus
lived a sinless life; eternal salvation is only through grace, not works; Christians have
a personal responsibility to evangelize non-Christians; Satan exists. Obviously this
definition identifies a much more theologically biblical, orthodox group of Christians.
What is the divorce rate among evangelicals? According to a 1999 poll
by Barna, exactly the same as the national average! According to that poll, 25 percent of
evangelicalsjust like 25 percent of the total populationhave gone through a
divorce.11 Does it make no difference to
evangelicals that their Lord and Savior explicitly, clearly, repeatedly condemned divorce?
"Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and
female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined
to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one
flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
Matthew 19:46 (NRSV)
Professor Brad Wilcox is a Princeton-trained, Christian sociologist who
specializes in family issues. Wilcox has studied two sets of national data: The General Social Survey and The National
Survey of Families and Households. The result? "Compared with the rest of the
population, conservative Protestants are more likely to divorce." He also
points out the divorce rates are higher in the southern U.S., where conservative
Protestants make up a higher percentage of the population than elsewhere in the country.12
A story in the New York Times in 2001
underlined Wilcox's findings about the unusually high divorce rates in the South. In many
parts of the Bible Belt, the divorce rate was discovered to be "roughly 50 percent above
the national average" (italics mine).13
Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma pointed out the irony that these unusually high divorce
rates exist in his state, where 70 percent of the people go to church once a week or more.
"These divorce rates," Gov. Keating concluded, "are a scalding indictment
of what isn't being said behind the pulpit."
Materialism and the Poor
John and Sylvia Ronsvalle have been carefully analyzing the giving patterns of American
Christians for well over a decade. Their annual The State of
Christian Giving is the most accurate report for learning how much Christians in
the richest nation in human history actually give. In their most recent edition, they
provide detailed information about per-member giving patterns of U.S. church members from
1968 to 2001. Over those thirty-plus years, of course, the average income of U.S.
Christians has increased enormously. But that did not carry over into their giving. The
report showed that the richer we become, the less we give in proportion to our incomes.
In 1968, the average church member gave 3.1 percent of their incomeless
than a third of a tithe. That figure dropped every year through 1990 and then recovered
slightly to 2.66 percentabout one quarter of a tithe.14
Even more interesting is what has happened to evangelical giving. The
Ronsvalles compare the giving in seven typical mainline denominations (affiliated with the
National Council of Churches) with the giving in eight evangelical denominations (with
membership in the National Association of Evangelicals). In 1968 the eight evangelical
denominations gave considerably more than the seven mainline denominations. While the
mainline denominational members gave 3.3 percent of their income, evangelicals gave 6.15
percent. While this is significantly more, the evangelicals on average still gave less
than two-thirds of a tithe. By 1985 mainline folk had dropped their giving to 2.85 percent
of their income and evangelicals to 4.74 percent. By 2001, mainline members had recovered
slightly to 3.17 percent, but evangelical giving kept dropping and was at a mere 4.27
As we got richer and richer, evangelicals chose to spend more and more
on themselves and give a smaller and smaller percentage to the church. Today, on average,
evangelicals in the U.S. give about two-fifths of a tithe.
In 2002, Barna discovered that only 6 percent of born-again adults
titheda 50 percent decline from 2000, when 12 percent did. And in 2002, just 9
percent of Barna's narrow class of evangelicals tithed.16
One can see a related problem in another area. Examine the public
agenda of prominent evangelical political movements and coalitions. Virtually never does
justice for the poor appear as an area of significant concern and effort.
American Christians live in the richest nation on earth and enjoy an
average household income of $42,409.17 The
World Bank reports that 1.2 billion of the world's poorest people try to survive on just
one dollar a day. At least one billion people have never heard the gospel. The Ronsvalles
point out that if American Christians just tithed, they would have another $143 billion
available to empower the poor and spread the gospel.18
Studies by the United Nations suggest that just an additional $70$80 billion a year
would be enough to provide access to essential services like basic health care and
education for all the poor of the earth.19
If they did no more than tithe, American Christians would have the private dollars to foot
this entire bill and still have $60$70 billion more to do evangelism around the
As evangelicals we claim to embrace the Bible as our final authority.
One of the most common themes in the Scriptures is that God and his faithful people have a
special concern for the poor. Why this blatant contradiction between belief and practice?
In the late 1970s, I attended a national conference of evangelical
leaders. My small group, as I recall, included prominent persons like Carl Henry, the
first editor of Christianity Today; Hudson Armerding, the
president of Wheaton College; and Loren Cunningham, the founder of Youth with a Mission.
Several times in our small group, different persons referred to the issue of a simple
lifestyle, urging its importance. Finally, Loren Cunningham said something like the
following: "Yes, I think the evangelical community is ready to live more simplyif
we evangelical leaders will model it." That ended the discussion. There were no
further recommendations to live more simply!
A story in the New York Times reported that, according to
census data, in the 1990s the number of unmarried couples living together jumped a lot
more in the Bible Belt (where a higher percentage of the total population are
evangelicals) than in the nation as a whole. Nationwide, the increase was 72 percent. But
in Oklahoma it was 97 percent, in Arkansas 125 percent, and in Tennessee 123 percent.20
Popular evangelical speaker Josh McDowell has been observing and
speaking to evangelical youth for several decades. I remember him saying years ago that
evangelical youth are only about 10 percent less likely to engage in premarital sex than
True Love Waits, a program sponsored by the Southern Baptist
Convention, is one of the most famous evangelical efforts to reduce premarital sexual
activity among our youth. Since 1993, about 2.4 million young people have signed a pledge
to wait until marriage to engage in sexual intercourse. Are these young evangelicals
keeping their pledges? In March 2004, researchers from Columbia University and Yale
University reported on their findings. For seven years they studied 12 thousand teenagers
who took the pledge. Sadly, they found that 88 percent of these pledgers reported having
sexual intercourse before marriage; just 12 percent kept their promise. The researchers
also found that the rates for having sexually transmitted diseases "were almost
identical for the teenagers who took pledges and those who did not."21
Barna found from a 2001 poll that cohabitationliving with a
member of the opposite sex without marriageis only a little better among born-again
adults than the general public. Nationally, 33 percent of all adults have lived with a
member of the opposite sex without being married. The rate is 25 percent for born-again
Professor John C. Green is an evangelical political scientist and
director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
Green is one of the best statisticians in his field and has studied how Americans feel
about morals and ethics using several national surveys. He divides those he labels
evangelicals into two categories: traditional evangelicals (who have higher church
attendance, a higher view of biblical authority, etc.) and nontraditional evangelicals.23 What are their attitudes on premarital and
extramarital sex? Fully 26 percent of traditional evangelicals do not think
premarital sex is wrong, and 46 percent of nontraditional evangelicals say it is morally
And extramarital sex? Of traditional evangelicals, 13 percent say it is
okay for married persons to have sex with someone other than one's spouse. And 19 percent
of nontraditional evangelicals say adultery is morally acceptable.25 Fortunately, Green finds that evangelicals fare better than
mainline Protestant and Catholic Christians on these issues, but the number of
evangelicals that blatantly reject biblical sexual norms is astonishing.
What about pornography? Citing a recent survey in Leadership
magazine, Steve Gallagher says, "Tragically, the percentage of Christian men involved
[in pornography] is not much different that that of the unsaved."26
In 1989 George Gallup Jr. and James Castelli published the results of a survey to
determine which groups in the U.S. were least and most likely to object to having black
neighborssurely a good measure of racism. Catholics and nonevangelical Christians
ranked least likely to object to black neighbors; 11 percent objected. Mainline
Protestants came next at 16 percent. At 17 percent, Baptists and evangelicals were among
the most likely groups to object to black neighbors, and 20 percent of Southern Baptists
objected to black neighbors.27
It is common knowledge that during the Civil Rights movement, when
mainline Protestants and Jews joined African Americans in their historic struggle for
freedom and equality, evangelical leaders were almost entirely absent. Some opposed the
movement; others said nothing. When Frank Gaebelein, then a coeditor of Christianity Today, not only covered Martin Luther King's March on
Selma but also endorsed and joined the movement, he experienced opposition and hostility
from other evangelical leaders.28 My own
school, Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was founded in 1925 as an evangelical
alternative to theological liberalism in American Baptist circles. But racism was part of
our early history. We always accepted African Americans as students but refused to allow
African American men to sleep overnight on campus. One African American student, who much
later was elected to the seminary's board of trustees, had to sleep five miles away at
Thirtieth Street Train Station. Thank God for Cuthbert Rutenber, who helped the seminary
abandon its racist policies in about 1950.
More recently, evangelicals have taken several important steps to
confess past racism and call for change. Coach Bill McCartney, the founder of the national
evangelical men's movement called Promise Keepers, was one of the outstanding evangelical
leaders in this change. McCartney went on a national speaking tour, regularly calling
evangelicals to racial reconciliation. In his book Sold
Out, McCartney recalls what happened. When he finished speaking, he reports,
"There was no responsenothing. . . . In city after city, in church after
church, it was the same storywild enthusiasm while I was being introduced, followed
by a morgue-like chill as I stepped away from the microphone."29 McCartney thinks a major reason attendance dropped dramatically
in Promise Keepers' stadium events was their stand on racial reconciliation.
Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith have written a crucial book, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America,
exploring ongoing racial attitudes in the evangelical world. Their conclusion? "White
evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate the racialized society than to reduce
it."30 White conservative Protestants
are more than twice as likely as other whites to blame lack of equality (e.g., income)
between blacks and whites on a lack of black motivation rather than discrimination.
Conservative Protestants are six times more likely to cite lack of motivation than unequal
access to education!31
Evangelicals may have some good biblical theology about the body of
Christ, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, black nor white. But if they do not work out
this theology in practice, such that white evangelicals welcome black neighbors and work
to end racist structures, then, as was made clear by the young South African Communist,
the whole thing stinks.
To say there is a crisis of disobedience in the evangelical world today
is to dangerously understate the problem. Born-again Christians divorce at about the same
rate as everyone else. Self-centered materialism is seducing evangelicals and rapidly
destroying our earlier, slightly more generous giving. Only 6 percent of born-again
Christians tithe. Born-again Christians justify and engage in sexual promiscuity (both
premarital sex and adultery) at astonishing rates. Racism and perhaps physical abuse of
wives seems to be worse in evangelical circles than elsewhere. This is scandalous behavior
for people who claim to be born-again by the Holy Spirit and to enjoy the very presence of
the Risen Lord in their lives.
In light of the foregoing statistics, it is not surprising that
born-again Christians spend seven times more hours each week in front of their televisions
than they spend in Bible reading, prayer, and worship.32
Only 9 percent of born-again adults and 2 percent of born-again teenagers have a biblical
Perhaps it is not surprising either that non-Christians have a very
negative view of evangelicals. In a recent poll, Barna asked non-Christians about their
attitudes toward different groups of Christians. Only 44 percent have a positive view of
Christian clergy. Just 32 percent have a positive view of born-again Christians. And a
mere 22 percent have a positive view of evangelicals.34
Evangelicals rightly rejected theological liberalism because it denied
the miraculous. In response, we insisted that miracle was central to biblical faith at
numerous points including the supernatural moral transformation of broken sinners. Now our
very lifestyle as evangelicals is a ringing practical denial of the miraculous in our
lives. Satan must laugh in sneerful derision. God's people can only weep.
Rays of Hope
No biblical passage speaks as powerfully to our situation as the message to the church at
Laodicea. Like the American church today, the Laodicean church was rich, self-confidentand
The city of Laodicea (in Asia Minor, now Turkey) was famous in the
first century. It was a major banking center and proud of its wealth. The city was
especially famous for its wool exports and a highly regarded eye salve.35 Apparently the Laodicean church shared their
fellow citizens' sense of wealthy self-confidence. But knowing they were half-hearted,
lukewarm Christians, the Lord said to them,
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the
other! So, because you are lukewarmneither hot nor coldI am about to spit you
out of my mouth. You say, "I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a
thing." But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white
clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes,
so you can see.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand
at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat
with him, and he with me. Revelation 3:1420
This passage could just as well have been written to contemporary
American evangelicals. Enormously wealthy, and proud of it, we think that most things are
going well in spite of our blatant disobedience. But our Lord's word to us is simple:
Evangelicals have used the image of Christ knocking at the heart's door
as a symbol of our vigorous evangelistic programs. But in truth, it is we, by our
behavior, who have excluded him from our hearts and lives. He stands at the doors of our
hearts, begging us to welcome his total Lordship.
Weeping and repentance are the only faithful responses to the sweeping,
scandalous disobedience in the evangelical world today. We have defied the Lord we claim
to worship. We have disgraced his holy name by our unholy lives. Yes, we believe he is the
Savior. We are Christians, not pagans. But our beliefs are not strong enough to produce
righteous lifestyles. We want Jesus and mammon. Unless we repent, our Lord intends
to spit us out.
Biblical repentance is more than a brief liturgical phrase or a hasty
superficial tear. It is a deep, heartfelt sorrow for offending the Holy Sovereign of the
universe and a strong inner resolve to embrace the conversionthe complete reversal
of directionthat our forgiving Savior longs to bestow. We cannot manufacture this
radical change using our own strength. But we can beg our Holy God not only to forgive but
also to change us. Daily, we can pray to the Lord to transform us more and more into the
very likeness of Jesus.
Anguished, persistent prayer for revival must become more central in
evangelical life. It is true that for a couple of decades, there have been major prayer
movements in the evangelical world. But our behavior has not become more holy. The revival
tarries. Richard Lovelace has said that we cannot close "the sanctification gap"
until "the same fear and trembling, the same prayer to be endued with power from on
high that characterized the first apostles" becomes a part of our lives.36 Please God, may that happen.
Facing the depth of the scandal could easily provoke despair. Thank
God, belief in the gospel warrants a more hopeful response. At the heart of evangelical
belief is the glorious biblical truth that new birth, radical transformation, is possible
at any moment. We have regularly promised even the most wretched, most broken sinners that
the Lord stands ready to forgive and change them if they will only open their hearts to
him. Again and again, we know from our own history, the Savior has done just that.
Criminals, adulterers, and murderers have been radically transformed into new persons in
Christ Jesus. That is the perennial promise of the gospel.
That is precisely the promise which we must claim for ourselves. The
Savior longs to forgive even scandalously unfaithful contemporary evangelicals if we will
And pray. We need to pray mightily for a sweeping movement of revival.
The history of evangelical awakenings in the last three centuries shows that again and
again God has responded with powerful movements of revival in the church when God's people
united in intense, sustained periods of prayer.37
The incredible promises Jesus attached to his words about prayer
strengthen our hope. If we pray for revival and sanctification, the Lord of the universe
pledges to hear us. Listen to his reassuring promise:
Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be
yours. Mark 11:24
I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this
mountain, "Move from here to there" and it will move. Nothing will be impossible
for you. Matthew 17:2021
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be
given you. John 15:7
Does anyone doubt that our Lord longs to answer our pleas for revival?
And sanctifying power?
As we pray, we need to remember an important condition that Christ
attached to these promises. We must obey. John 15:7 says that Jesus will hear our
prayers if we abide in him and his words abide in us. We must make every effort to embrace
the righteous way of life that the New Testament commands and promises is possible.
Obedience means unconditional submission to Jesus as Lord as well as
Savior. It means abandoning our one-sided, unbiblical conceptions of sin, the gospel,
salvation, and conversion, and returning to the full-blown biblical understanding of these
glorious truths. It means recovering the biblical reality of the church as community. It
means living the truth that orthodoxy and orthopraxisright theology and right
behaviorare equally important.
If we do that, I believe we dare hope and expect that a longing for
holiness will sweep through our churches. Our sexual practices will reflect biblical
standards much more faithfully. Joyful, lifelong fidelity will make our homes and
marriages powerful signs of an attractive alternative to today's brokenness and agony.
Biblical Christians will lead the way in more vigorous efforts to reduce dramatically
domestic abuse, racism, materialism, and poverty.
Could that really happen? The promise of the gospel is that it can and
doeswhenever people truly surrender to the biblical Christ. Fortunately, there are
even some rays of hope in some of the polling data. When pollsters make careful
distinctions between nominal Christians and devout believers, there is evidence that
deeply committed Christians do live differently.
In 1992, George Gallup Jr. and Timothy Jones published a book called The Saints Among Us. They used a 12-question survey to identify what
they called "heroic and faithful individual" Christians. Some of the questions
identified people who believed in the full authority of the Bible and practiced
evangelism. But others identified costly behavior: "I do things I don't want to do
because I believe it is the will of God" and "I put my religious beliefs into
practice in my relations with all people regardless of their backgrounds." They
labeled "saints" those who agreed with every question. And they called
"super-saints" those who agreed strongly with every question.38
The good news is that the "saints" lived differently. Only 42
percent of the strongly uncommitted spent "a good deal of time" helping
people in need, but 73 percent of the "saints" and 85 percent of the
"super-saints" did.39 Only 63
percent of the spiritually uncommitted reported that they would not object
to having a neighbor of a different race. But 84 percent of the "saints" and 93
percent of the "super-saints" said they would not object.40 Interestingly, a disproportionate share of the saints were
women, African Americans, and persons earning less than $25,000 per year.
Sociologist Christian Smith's study comparing the attitudes and
behavior of evangelical, fundamentalist, mainline, liberal, and Catholic Christians as
well as those of the "non-religious" found that over the previous two years,
evangelicals were more than three times more likely to have given "a lot" of
money to help the poor and the needy than the non-religious.41 In fact, evangelicals scored higher than any other Christian
group. Of all evangelicals, 29 percent gave a lot. But only 23 percent of fundamentalists,
22 percent of mainline churches, 25 percent of liberals, 22 percent of Catholics, and 9
percent of the non-religious gave a lot. Even so, only 29 percent of the evangelicals gave
a lot. That means 71 percent of evangelicals did not!
A Pew Center poll in 2001 supported Smith's findings. In this survey,
those with a high religious commitment were a little more than three times as likely as
those with a low religious commitmentto have volunteered to help poor, sick, and elderly
people in the last month (35 percent vs. 11 percent).42
But again only one third (35 percent) of the highly religiously committed had volunteered.
Sixty-five percent had not. Another question in the same poll found that those who were
"heavily involved in activities at their church or house of worship" were almost
four times more likely to volunteer to help the poor, sick, and homeless in settings
outside church than were those of low religious commitment (44 percent vs. 12 percent).43
George Barna has developed a set of criteria to identify people with a
"biblical worldview." These people believe that "the Bible is the moral
standard" and also think that "absolute moral truths exist and are conveyed
through the Bible." In addition, they agree with all six of the following additional
beliefs: God is the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator who still rules the universe; Jesus
Christ lived a sinless life; Satan is a real, living entity; salvation is a free gift, not
something we can earn; every Christian has a personal responsibility to evangelize; and
the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches.
Barna's criteria for identifying people with a biblical worldview are
not identical to his criteria for identifying evangelicals. Barna's "born-again"
category is much broader; about 40 percent of the total population are born-again, but
only 78 percent are evangelicals. Using his definition of those with a biblical
worldview, Barna has discovered that only 9 percent of all born-again adults have a
biblical worldview and only 2 percent of born-again teenagers.44 That is the bad news.
The good news is that the small circle of people with a biblical
worldview demonstrate genuinely different behavior. They are nine times more likely than
all the others to avoid "adult-only" material on the Internet. They are four
times more likely than other Christians to boycott objectionable companies and products
and twice as likely to choose intentionally not to watch a movie specifically because of
its bad content. They are three times more likely than other adults not to use tobacco
products and twice as likely to volunteer time to help needy people.45 Forty-nine percent of all born-again Christians
with a biblical worldview have volunteered more than an hour in the previous week to an
organization serving the poor, whereas only 29 percent of born-again Christians without
a biblical worldview and only 22 percent of non-born-again Christians had done so.46
In a 2000 poll Barna discovered that evangelicals are five times less
likely than adults generally to report that their "career comes first."47 And there is accumulating evidence that
theologically conservative Protestant men who attend church regularly have lower rates of
domestic abuse than others.48
Not surprisingly, this better behavior is closely correlated with
higher religious activity. Those with a biblical worldview are almost twice as likely as
other Christians to read the Bible each week.49
Nationwide, only 19 percent of adults attend Sunday school each week, but 33 percent of
all born-again adults do. And the figure jumps to 60 percent for evangelicals.50 While only 17 percent of all adults attend a
small group for prayer and Bible study each week, 30 percent of born-again Christians do.
And 55 percent of all evangelicals do.51
Other pollsters have discovered a similar correlation between
evangelical faith and religious activity. Christian Smith found that evangelicals were
much more likely to attend church each week or share the gospel than other Christians.52 The same pattern emerged in a study in 2001 by
the Pew Research Center.53
These statistics offer some substantial hope. People with a biblical
worldview, and this category largely overlaps with that of evangelical, do exhibit better
moral behavior at several points. We cannot be satisfied with studies that show that only
29 percent of all evangelicals gave a lot to help the poor and needy. But that is at least
a lot better than the statistics for the non-religious, where only 9 percent do a lot to
help the poor. When we can distinguish nominal Christians from deeply committed,
theologically orthodox Christians, it is clear that genuine Christianity does lead to
better behavior, at least in some areas.
Barna's findings on the different behavior of Christians with a
biblical worldview underline the importance of theology. Biblical orthodoxy does matter.
One important way to end the scandal of contemporary Christian behavior is to work and
pray fervently for the growth of orthodox theological belief in our churches.
Barna reports one final finding that offers additional hope. He
discovered that even though 91 percent of all born-again Christians lacked a biblical
worldview, they were nonetheless open, even desirous, of spiritual growth. Eighty percent
of all born-again Christians said that having a "deep, personal commitment to the
Christian faith is a top priority for their future."54 And nine out of ten Christians of every stripe said that if
their churches specified things they should personally do to grow spiritually, they would
at least listen to the advice and follow most of the recommendations.55 That suggests a lot of openness to more solid
Things are not quite as hopeless as they first appeared. Biblical faith
makes a substantial (though not enough) difference in the lives of deeply committed
Christians. Most nominal Christians seem open to spiritual growth.
More importantly, the gospel is true! The carpenter from Nazareth burst
from the tomb and now reigns as the Lord of the universe. His promise to transform into
his very own likeness all who truly believe in him still stands. The Holy Spirit is still
alive and powerful today, radically remaking broken people who unconditionally open their
hearts and lives to his mighty presence.
At any time in history, no matter how bad the current mess, no matter
how unfaithful the contemporary church, God stands ready to keep his promises. God is
eager to do the same mighty deeds today that he has done in the past. All we must do is
trust and obey.
The Lord we claim to love and worship stands at the door and knocks. He
longs to be truly invited in. We cannot invite only half of him. But if today we dare to
embrace and surrender to the full biblical Christ, he will perform mighty deeds that
transcend what we dare ask or imagine. He will turn our weeping into joy. He will end the
scandal of blatant disobedience in the people who call on his name.
Ronald J. Sider is professor of theology, holistic ministry, and
public policy and director of the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy at Eastern
Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also president of Evangelicals for Social Action. This
article is excerpted from his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (Baker). Copyright 2004 by
Ronald J. Sider. Used by permission of Baker Books.
1. Michael Horton, "Beyond Culture Wars," Modern Reformation (May-June 1993), p. 3.
2. Alan Wolfe, The
Transformation of American Religion (Free Press, 2003), p. 257.
3. Ibid., p. 212.
4. Tim Stafford, "The Third Coming of George
Barna," Christianity Today, August 8, 2002, p. 34.
5. Christianity Today,
October 2003, p. 112.
6. George Barna, Think Like
Jesus (Integrity, 2003), p. 40.
7. George Barna, "Family," 2000. Available
from Barna Research Online, http://216.87.179/cgi-bin/pagecategory.asp?categoryid=20. See
also George Barna and Mark Hatch, Boiling Point: It Only Takes One
Degree (Regal, 2001), p. 42.
8. "The statistic has been quite consistent
since the mid-90's." Barna and Hatch, Boiling Point, p.
9. The Barna Group, The Barna
Update, "Born Again Adults Less Likely to Co-Habit, Just As Likely to
Divorce," August 6, 2001,
10. The Barna Group, The Barna
Update, "Annual Study Reveals America is Spiritually Stagnant," March 5,
11. The Barna Group, Evangelical
12. W. Bradford Wilcox, "Conservative
Protestants and the Family," in A Public Faith: Evangelicals
and Civic Engagment, ed. Michael Cromartie (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), p. 63.
13. New York Times, May
21, 2001, A14.
14. John L. and Sylvia Ronsvalle, The State of Church Giving Through 2001 (Empty Tomb, 2003), p. 12.
15. Ibid., p. 25.
16. The Barna Group, "Stewardship,"
17. Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Robert Cleveland, and Bruce
H. Webster Jr., U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-221, Income in the United States: 2002, U.S. Government Printing Office,
Washington, DC, 2003, available as PDF at http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/p60-221.pdf.
18. Ronsvalle, State of Church
Giving, p. 52.
19. Carol Bellamy, The State
of the World's Children 2001 (UNICEF, 2003), p. 81.
20. New York Times, May
21, 2001, A14.
21. Lawrence K. Altman, "Study Finds That
Teenage Virginity Pledges Are Rarely Kept," New York Times,
March 10, 2004, A20.
22. The Barna Group, The Barna
Update, "Born Again Adults Less Likely to Co-Habit, Just As Likely to
Divorce," August 6, 2001,
23. John C. Green, "Religion and Politics in
the 1990s: Confrontations and Coalitions," in Religion and
American Politics: The 2000 Election in Context, ed. Mark Silk (Center for the
Study of Religion in Public Life, Trinity College, Hartford, 2000), p. 21, available as
PDF at http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/csrpl/religame.pdf.
24. Ibid., p. 26.
26. Steve Gallagher, "Devastated by Internet
Porn," Pure Life Ministries, December 15, 2000,
27. George Gallup Jr. and James Castelli, The People's Religion (Macmillan, 1989), p. 188.
28. Personal conversation with Frank Gaebelein's
29. Bill McCartney with David Halbrook, Sold Out: Becoming Man Enough to Make a Difference (Word, 1997).
30. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America
(Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), p. 170.
31. Michael Emerson, "Faith That Separates:
Evangelicals and Black-White Race Relations," in A Public Faith
(see note 6), p. 196.
32. Barna and Hatch, Boiling
Point, p. 140.
33. Barna, Think Like Jesus,
34. See Sally Morgenthaler's foreword to Jonny
Baker, Doug Gay, and Jenny Brown, Alternative Worship: Resources
from and for the Emerging Church (Baker, 2004).
35. See Craig S. Keener, The
IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (InterVarsity, 1993), p. 775.
36. Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics
of Spiritual Renewal (InterVarsity, 1979), p. 237.
37. See, for example, J. Edwin Orr, The Eager Feet: Evangelical Awakenings, 17901830 (Moody,
1975), especially pp. 191200.
38. George H. Gallup Jr. and Timothy Jones, The Saints Among Us (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1992).
39. Ibid., pp. 6364.
40. Ibid., p. 41.
41. Christian Smith, American
Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 4142.
42. Pew Research Center, American
Views on Religion, Politics and Public Policy (2001), pp. 23; see also
somewhat parallel results in Robert Wuthnow, Acts of Compassion:
Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves (Princeton Univ. Press, 1991), p. 51.
43. Pew Research Center, American
Views on Religion, Politics and Public Policy (2001), part IV, p. 5.
44. Barna, Think Like Jesus,
45. Ibid., p. 24.
46. Ibid., p. 28.
47. The research archive on "Evangelical
Christians" at Here Barna reports that evangelicals are just as likely as the general
population to be divorced. But in his 2002 report (State of the
Church 2002, p. 94), Barna reported that evangelicals are "less likely to have
experienced a divorce than any other of the faith segments." It is not clear how
these different data fit together.
48. See W. Bradford Wilcox, Soft
Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (Univ. of Chicago
49. Barna, State of the Church
2002, p. 25.
50. George Barna, "Ministry Involvement,"
Online, 2001 (accessed March 11, 2001).
51. George Barna, Faith Commitment Online, Barna
Research Group, 2001 (accessed March 11, 2001).
52. Smith, American
Evangelicalism, pp. 34, 40.
53. The Pew Research Center for the People and the
Press, American Views on Religion, Politics and Public Policy
(Pew Research Center, 2001), part IV.
54. George Barna, Growing True
Disciples (Issachar Resources, 2000), p. 32.
55. Ibid., p. 41.
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