From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

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Scripture and the News

'Evangelicals Take Top Spot' - But who are they?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
A survey reveals that the Evangelical church is shrinking & in deep trouble. It also leaves a question unanswered: Who is an Evangelical?

Catholic Tradition Fading in U.S. as Evangelicals Take Top Spot

- The Washington Times

44% in U.S. Have Switched Faiths - Catholicism Hit Hardest

- Chicago Sun-Times

A widely reported March 2008 news story said that evangelical Protestants are now the largest religious group in the United States, at just over 26% of the population. The story was based on the release of the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by The Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life.1

A number of self-identified evangelical leaders said the report represents good news for their camp. However, a closer look reveals that the survey's claim is questionable, and only part of the story. This survey, along with several other recent studies, actually reveals that the evangelical church is shrinking and in deep trouble. It also leaves a vital question unanswered: Who is an evangelical?

The Survey and its Findings

The Pew Forum conducted its survey via telephone interviews with 35,000 adults between May and August of 2007, using a set of 45 questions. They first asked people to identify themselves by religious affiliation. The report uses thirteen major categories: evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, historically black Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox, Jehovah's Witnesses, other Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and unaffiliated.

The survey identified 78.4% of Americans as "Christian". But that grouping was as broad as possible, including those identified as evangelical Protestants (26.3%), Roman Catholics (23.9%), and mainline Protestants (18.1%). The survey included Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses under the "Christian" category. The survey also found that 16.1% of Americans are now in the unaffiliated (no religion) category - an increase of over 300% in the past twenty years.

Revealing Trends

Despite a basic defect that we'll examine in a moment, the Landmark Survey reveals a number of interesting facts and trends, including these:

  • America's nominally Protestant majority is in decline, from around 65% in the 1970s to just above 50% today. It will likely become a minority within the next five years.
  • Although the Roman Catholic population has seen a net loss in the past decade, the stage is now set for a dramatic increase. According to the Landmark Survey, nearly half of all new immigrants to the United States are Roman Catholic,2 and the Catholic church is winning more converts among native-born Americans than almost any other religious group. Time magazine corroborates this, recently reporting "explosive growth of traditional Roman Catholicism in the Southern Bible Belt."3 Also, the Pew report actually questioned its own finding that only 58% of Latinos are Roman Catholics, since other surveys (including two by the Pew group itself) show a much higher percentage. Putting these factors together, it is quite likely - contrary to the Landmark Survey's published findings - that the Roman Catholic church is in fact the largest religious group in the United States, and it is on track to become even larger.
  • The fastest-growing group is the unaffiliated (no religion) category. Its numbers have more than tripled since the 1980s, and now stand at 16.1% of the population. The major growth of this group has been among adults aged 18 to 39. The no-religion grouping includes self-identified atheists and agnostics, as well as those who say they simply hold to no particular religion.

Who Ended Up in the "Evangelical" Category?

There is, however, a serious flaw in the Pew Landmark Survey: It fails to offer any concrete definition, much less a Biblical one, of the term "evangelical Protestant."

The report uses three terms to broadly categorize non-Catholics: "in the evangelical Protestant tradition" - "in the historically black Protestant tradition" - and, "in the mainline Protestant tradition." Using these terms, the report places Southern Baptists, for example, in the "evangelical" category, National Baptists in the "historically black" category, and American Baptists in the "mainline" category; it places Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans under the "evangelical" heading, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the "mainline" category.

The report also makes its definition of "evangelical Protestant" partially a matter of skin color: Non-blacks who identified themselves as "born again or evangelical Christians" were automatically placed in the "evangelical Protestant" category, while black people who identified themselves in the same way (but without a specific denominational identity) were placed in the "historically black Protestant" category.

In the end, the Landmark Survey's working definition of "evangelical Protestant" seems to be primarily a definition of what evangelical is not - non-Catholic, mainly non-black, and non-mainline - rather than a clear definition of what it is.

On that basis, the report places a debatable mixture of religious affiliations under the "evangelical Protestant" heading. Most Baptists, most independents, some Methodists, some Lutherans, some Anglicans, some Presbyterians, some Congregationalists, and all Pentecostals fell under the evangelical heading. Also in the evangelical grouping were the Seventh-Day Adventists, which many others in the grouping consider to be a cult. Some denominations that take decidedly liberal mainline-church positions on doctrinal issues, such as the Christian Reformed Church, were also placed in the "evangelical" catgeory.4 The "evangelical" category also had no moral basis: Nineteen percent of those who are living with a partner outside of marriage were identified as evangelicals.

"Evangelical" Beliefs, Practices and Worldview

In addition to failing to define the term evangelical, the Landmark Survey report contains little meaningful data on the beliefs, practices, and worldview of those it identified as evangelicals. (A spokesman for the Pew Forum said that they plan to release this part of the survey at a later date.) However, a number of other surveys conducted in recent years already provide such insight, and they tell a disturbing story:

Neglect of the Bible - Self-described evangelicals are the church unplugged. The vast majority are disconnected from the Christian's source of true authority and spiritual power, the Word of God. Surveys reveal that, among those who identify themselves as evangelicals, only 16% read the Bible regularly, and 35% never read the Bible at all.5

Erosion of beliefs - As a result of the neglect of Scripture, self-described evangelicals are also the church uncertain. Less than 10% of evangelicals cite the Bible as the basis for their worldview and behavior. This follows the pattern of the population at large. More than 66% of adults and more than 80% of teenagers do not believe there is an absolute standard of moral truth.6 Other surveys reveal the following about self-described evangelicals:

  • 37% do not believe the Bible is totally accurate
  • 45% do not believe Christ was sinless
  • 52% do not believe Satan is real
  • 57% believe good works play some part in gaining eternal life7

High dropout rate - Today, nearly 70% of young people leave the evangelical church when they reach adulthood. Their main stated reason: I doubt that the Bible is true, and the church does not answer my doubts.8 The Landmark Survey's data support this statistic, showing over 300% growth in the no-religion category, with most of that growth among adults aged 18 to 39.

Shrinking churches - Despite the growth of mega-churches, overall evangelical church attendance is down nearly 15% since the 1990s, and over 60% since World War 2. Today, fewer than 17% of evangelical churches are growing, and only 2.2% are growing through conversions.9 The Landmark Survey supports these findings. It says that churches in its evangelical category actually have not grown overall, but merely have lost fewer people than churches in the other categories, while the no-religion category has grown dramatically. The growth taking place in a minority of evangelical churches, the survey says, is mainly because people have moved from one church to another within the evangelical category. This at least partially explains how some mega-churches can be growing while the overall number of self-described evangelicals is actually shrinking.

Dr. Stephen Prothero of Boston University is a professional researcher on the American religious scene, and has written several books on the subject of what American church-goers actually believe. In a recent television interview on C-SPAN, he made several insightful but sad observations about American evangelicals, based on extensive research.

When asked to do so, he said, most evangelicals cannot articulate or defend even the most basic Christian doctrines from the Bible - essentials like the authority of Scripture and the rudiments of the Christian Gospel. And, he said, most evangelicals cannot defend Christian moral positions on abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, sex outside of marriage, etc., from Scripture. Most evangelicals know in a vague way that the Bible says these things are wrong. But they cannot tell you exactly what the Bible says on these vital issues, or where it says it. When asked why this is the case, he replied with this chilling observation:

Among evangelicals there's been this shift over time - from Bible reading to feeling - from knowing what Jesus actually had to say to having a "relationship" with a "Jesus" that they know little or nothing about - from actually reading the Bible to merely revering the Bible - and going back to certain proof-texts over and over again that don't necessarily give you a sense of what the whole Bible has to say.10

In a world bombarded with anti-Christian propaganda, those who identify themselves as the people of the evangelical church have become unplugged from the church's true source of authority. Like the church at Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22), the 21st-century American evangelical church may think it is prospering, but it is actually in deep crisis. Its people no longer know for certain what they believe or why they believe it. The church has lost its spiritual vitality. The American evangelical church is not gaining ground, it is rapidly losing ground.

Who Is An Evangelical?

The big unanswered question in the Landmark Survey, and among self-described evangelicals themselves, is this: Who exactly is an evangelical? What is a sound basis for defining the term? Is it important to define the term?

Yes, it is vitally important to define the term, because it defines what true evangelicals believe and why they believe it. To define the term is in fact to define what it means to truly be a Christian, and to think and live as a Christian.

And yes, clear definition is possible. But subjective self-identification is confusing and meaningless. and identifying a grouping called "evangelical" mainly by defining what it is not, as the Landmark Survey did, only adds to the confusion.

The problem of evangelical identity is not a new one. We find it throughout the history of the church. The 16th century Protestant Reformation was, at its core, a conflict over the definition of an evangelical. And in the 20th century, the definition of an evangelical became an especially contentious issue immediately after World War Two, first in Great Britain, and soon afterward in the United States.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, was a major participant in that controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. He addressed the question of evangelical identity in many sermons and speeches from the 1940s through the early 1980s. His consistent message was this: There is an an objective standard that tells us who is, and is not, an evangelical. We find that objective standard only in the church's sole source of authority, the Word of God.

Three of Dr. Lloyd-Jones' major speeches on the subject are reproduced in the book, Knowing the Times (available in our online store) in a chapter titled, "What Is An Evangelical?"11 Although he gave them more than thirty years ago, these addresses convey timeless truths that are highly relevant to the church in its 21st-century crisis.

The True Evangelical - "Of the Gospel"

As Martyn Lloyd-Jones often observed, the definition of an evangelical begins with the etymology of the word itself. Although the English word "evangelical" does not appear in English Bible translations, the Greek word euangelion from which it comes appears 103 times in the Greek New Testament. It is the word translated "gospel." To be an evangelical means, literally, to be "of the Gospel."

This, of course, leads us immediately to the question, "What is the Gospel?" This is the real question - the vital question. Being a genuine evangelical mean being "of the genuine Gospel" and not a counterfeit. The Apostle Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit warned the Galatian and Corinthian churches in the strongest possible terms, because they were departing from the one true Gospel (Galatians 1:6-12, 2 Corinthians 11:3-4). Paul tells the Galatian church that anything but the one true euangelion is no gospel at all. Anyone who preaches "another gospel, which is not another" is anathema - literally, cursed of God - not a true Christian but an unbeliever. Paul says to the Corinthian church that he fears for them, because they are neglecting the Word of God, that if someone would come and preach another gospel to them, "you may well put up with it" and be "corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ."

What is the one true Gospel? TeachingtheWord's doctrinal statement includes this summary (and we have listed Bible references12 below):

The authentic Christian Gospel is God's declaration that sinners who are under the curse of God through Adam's fall are justified by the grace of God alone, through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Justification is the once-for-all judicial act of God at the conversion of the sinner. In this act God graciously declares the sinner to be righteous - that is, not guilty before His judgment bar, where the standard is perfect holiness. Having been justified by faith, believers are saved from the wrath of God through Christ, who has made peace with God on their behalf.

In salvation, a great legal exchange takes place. The sins of the sinner are imputed to Jesus Christ, who has made full and final atonement for them. They are washed away by the blood of Christ, to be remembered against the sinner no more. At the same time, the perfect all-sufficient righteousness of Christ is imputed to the undeserving sinner. The believing sinner now possesses Christ's righteousness, and need not - indeed cannot - add any saving or keeping righteousness of his own. To attempt to do so would be to deny the sufficiency of Christ.

Scripture declares that faith alone, in Christ alone, is and always has been the instrument of the believer's justification. Old Testament believers placed their faith in the Redeemer who was to come, just as New Testament believers place their faith in the Redeemer who has come.

Saving faith is absolutely naked faith; it is empty-handed belief in the person and work of Christ to save sinners. This faith is itself the gift of God, and is not of works, so that no one can boast that he added one iota to the righteousness of Christ. This faith is given to the sinner by the gracious act of God the Holy Spirit. The believer's salvation is absolutely secure.

God through Christ offers salvation freely and legitimately to all men. He says, "Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth" - "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die..?" - "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" - "He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him" - "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" - "Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely."

A true evangelical is someone who believes the Gospel message, and therefore has eternal life in Christ. A truly evangelical church is a church that preaches the one true Gospel, to the exclusion of all counterfeit gospels. That is the beginning, said Dr. Lloyd-Jones. That is the foundation. But there is more.

Other Characteristics of the True Evangelical

In his three addresses on the question of "What Is An Evangelical?" Martyn Lloyd-Jones named other Biblical marks of the true evangelical, and of the truly evangelical church.

  • The true evangelical is anchored in Scripture as the only and final authority.
  • The true evangelical is concerned with the preservation of the Gospel.
  • The true evangelical desires to see sinners truly born again.
  • The true evangelical holds negatives as well as positives.
  • The true evangelical permits no subtractions or additions.
  • The true evangelical believes that the Genesis creation account is literal, factual, and historical, and that this is not a side issue but a central one.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones also warned against counterfeit evangelicalism. He gave examples that have striking parallels in the 21st century church.

In part two of this essay, we'll examine what the Bible has to say about these six additional marks of the true evangelical and the truly evangelical church, as well as the Bible's identification of and warnings about counterfeits.


References:

1. The U. S. Religious Landscape Survey 2008, including the full 140-page report of findings, is available online at http://religions.pewforum.org/ It was prepared by The Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, a research arm of The Pew Charitable Trusts. It should be noted that The Pew Forum is a secular organization with a generally liberal outlook.

2. The percentage is probably much larger if illegal immigration is counted. The Landmark Survey report did not include this factor in its calculations.

3. "Bible Belt Catholics," Time magazine, February 7, 2007.

4. The Christian Reformed Church's official statement tolerating homosexuality appears on their website at www.crcna.org/pages/positions_homosexuality.cfm. The CRC has also recently taken a liberalized position on the acceptability of the Roman Catholic mass. See http://www.crcna.org/site_uploads/uploads/Lord'sSupper&RCMass.pdf.

5. Source: Bible Literacy Center, www.centerforbibleengagement.com

6. Source: Barna Research, http://www.barna.org/

7. Barna Research report, Religious Beliefs Vary Widely By Denomination, 2001, available at their website.

8. Barna Research survey commissioned by Answers In Genesis, 2005.

9. Robin D. Perrin, Paul Kennedy, Donald E. Miller, "Examining the Sources of Conservative Church Growth: Where Are the New Evangelical Movements Getting Their Numbers?" (Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 36, No. 1, March 1997, pp. 71-80)

10. Dr. Stephen Prothero, Chairman, Department of Religion, Boston University; author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't (HarperCollins, 2007); C-SPAN interview broadcast on May 13, 2007.

11. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, "What Is An Evangelical?" in Knowing the Times (Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), pp. 299-355.

12. Isaiah 45:21-22; Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Isaiah 55:1-6; Isaiah 61:10; Jeremiah 23:6; Ezekiel 33:11; Daniel 9:24-26; Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 11:28; Mark 10:45; John 1:12; John 3:1-36; John 6:37; John 6:44-45 & 65; John 10:28-29; Romans 10:13; John 3:18; Acts 10:43; Acts 13:38-39; Romans 3:22-28; Romans 4:1-8; Romans 5:1-20; Romans 6:23; Romans 8:28-39; 1 Corinthians 1:30-31; 1 Corinthians 15:21-23; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Galatians 3:1-13; Ephesians 1:1-2:10; Ephesians 5:2; Philippians 1:29; Philippians 2:6-9; Philippians 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; 2 Timothy 2:19; Titus 3:5-11; Hebrews 10:10-39; Revelation 19:5-8; Revelation 22:17.

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