NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)—Americans have experienced seismic changes over the past two years, including, for many, the way they attend church. The change in behavior coincides with a change in theology.
The biennial study on the state of theology conducted by Lifeway Research revealed relative stability in some of the religious and cultural beliefs of American adults. After months of quarantine and social distancing, however, Americans increasingly believe that worshiping outside of a church is as good as attending religious services.
In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning in the United States, 58% of Americans said that worshiping alone or with family was a valid replacement for regular church attendance, with 26% saying Totally agree. In 2022, 66% believe that worshiping outside of a local congregation is as valid as worshiping with one, with 35% strongly agreeing.
Additionally, most Americans (56%) do not believe that every Christian has an obligation to join a local church. Less than 2 in 5 (36%) say this is something all Christians should do.
Lifeway Research tracking surveys throughout the pandemic found US Protestant churches were open at pre-pandemic levels in the summer of 2021 and into 2022, but as of the start of this year, few churches had reached pre-pandemic attendance levels.
“Religious identity, beliefs and behavior are interrelated,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “When in-person church attendance behaviors were disrupted and habits were broken, it affected some Americans’ beliefs about the need to come together with other believers to worship.”
While many theological beliefs remain stable, those that have changed point to areas where a changing American culture may impact Americans’ religious outlook.
The 2022 State of Theology study, sponsored by Ligonier Ministries, polled more than 3,000 Americans and tracks previous versions in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020.
Most Americans believe in God, but they don’t know who the divine is.
While 66% of American adults say God is a perfect being and cannot make mistakes, half (51%) say God learns and adapts to different circumstances.
Nearly 7 in 10 Americans (67%) say God accepts worship from all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. A similar percentage (71%) say there is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Although a majority of Americans affirm a triune God with three divine persons, most still do not know how this applies to Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Just over half (55%) believe that Jesus is the first and greatest created being. Another 53% say he was a great teacher but not God. Nearly 3 in 5 (59%) believe the Holy Spirit is a force but not a personal being.
Thinking about these theological beliefs, most Americans classify them as opinions, not facts. For 60% of American adults, religious belief is a matter of personal opinion; it is not the objective truth.
“A lot of Americans think of God as if he’s only revealed himself in some vague, indefinable way. They seem to fill in the gaps with whatever they want to believe,” McConnell said. striking between what Americans believe about God and how He is revealed in great detail in the Bible.”
Social issues and sin
Burning cultural issues often intersect with theological beliefs, and Americans often don’t know how to balance the two. A growing number say Christians should stay out of the discussion.
While 3 in 4 Americans (78%) say God created men and women, they are more divided on whether gender identity depends on their personal preferences. More than 2 in 5 (42%) say gender identity is a matter of choice, the highest in theology state’s history. Half (51%) disagree. The American public is more divided than American pastors. A 2020 Study of American Protestant Pastors 72% believe it is morally wrong for an individual to identify with a gender different from the one to which they were born.
Half of American adults (53%) say sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin, while 42% disagree. The number of people who consider non-marital sex a sin has increased slightly but steadily as 49% said the same in 2016.
Americans are also divided on whether the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior still applies. Just under half (46%) say this does not apply today, and 42% disagree.
Moreover, Americans are very divided on the question of abortion. While 53% say abortion is a sin, 39% disagree. Always a previous Lifeway Research study specifically on abortion found 12 percent of American adults say abortion should not be legal in any situation. When asked specifically how long they think abortion should be a legal option assuming there are no health problems for the woman or the fetus, half of Americans say no later than 12 weeks .
Three in 10 Americans (30%) say Christians should remain silent on political issues, an increase from 24% in 2020 and the highest percentage recorded in any previous study on the state of theology. About 3 in 5 Americans (61%) disagree.
“Discussions of sin are inherently theological, as they explore whether God has set standards and what behaviors miss that mark,” McConnell said. “Thus, those who recognize certain behaviors as sins recognize the standards of a deity. This is a different discussion than whether society agrees on a standard of ethical conduct that we determine.
Americans believe that God cares about what we do every day, most people are generally good, but hell is a real place where some people will spend eternity in punishment.
While 58% of American adults disagree, a growing number believe that God doesn’t care about their day-to-day decisions. About a third of Americans (32%) say God doesn’t care about what they do every day, up from 25% in 2020 and the highest since the State of Theology first asked the question. in 2014.
While people consider their actions and nature, most believe they are naturally good and start out innocent before God. Two in three Americans (66%) say that everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature. Seven in 10 (71%) say everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God.
Yet 3 in 5 Americans (59%) say hell is a real place where some people will be punished forever, up from 56% in 2020 and 54% in 2018. A quarter (25%) also think even the most little sin deserves eternal damnation, consistent with 26% in 2020 after climbing in every State of Theology survey from 18% in 2014.
“An interesting paradox exists regarding Americans’ views on sin and punishment,” McConnell said. “More than two-thirds of Americans believe everyone is inherently good, but almost as many believe divine judgment will come in the future.”
Americans tend to trust the Bible, especially what it teaches about Jesus, but may have doubts in other areas.
Two in three American adults (66%) say the biblical accounts of Jesus’ physical or bodily resurrection are completely accurate. They believe the event actually happened.
And Americans don’t believe that the Holy Spirit will contradict the Scriptures. More than 3 in 5 people (62%) do not believe the Holy Spirit can tell them to do something that is forbidden in the Bible.
In many ways, Americans are divided over the reliability of the Bible. About half say the Bible is 100% accurate in everything it teaches (51%) and that the Bible has the power to tell us what to do (52%); however, 53% of Americans say the Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful retellings of ancient myths but is not literally true. And 40% say modern science refutes the Bible.
“As a society, opinions about the Bible probably best sum up how divided Americans are when it comes to theology,” McConnell said. “Half see scripture as reliable and authoritative while the other half see it as fiction. A higher number acknowledge the story it tells, but more than half also give weight to their personal opinions.
For more information:
A demographically balanced online panel was used to interview American adults as part of the State of Theology 2022 study sponsored by Ligonier Ministries. A total of 3,011 surveys were conducted from January 5 to January 23, 2022. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error of the web panel does not exceed plus or minus 1.9%. Margins of error are higher in subgroups. Slight weightings were used to balance gender, age, ethnicity, income, region and religion.
Evangelical beliefs are defined using NAE Lifeway Research’s definition of evangelical beliefs based on respondents’ beliefs. Respondents are asked their level of agreement with four separate statements using a four-point forced-choice scale (strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree). Those who strongly agree with all four statements are classified as having evangelical beliefs
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important to me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- The death of Jesus Christ on the cross is the only sacrifice that could take away the pain of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
Since its founding in 1971 by Dr. RC Sproul, Ligonier, based in Orlando, Florida, has been a community of teachers dedicated to making the profound truths of the Christian faith accessible to growing believers. For more information, visit Ligonier.org.
About Lifeway Research
Lifeway Research is a Nashville-based evangelical research firm that specializes in investigations of faith in culture and issues that affect churches. For more information, visit LifewayResearch.com.