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How Much Has Changed?

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How Much Has Changed?

October 28, 2015

TODAY'S BIBLE READING:

The following article was written for Evangelicals Now and published in their news publication for November 2015. Yet another survey of American religious beliefs has come out recently. This was a telephone survey of 1,000 adults that purports to show that most Americans (no surprise here), including those who do not affiliate with a denomination of one kind or another, believe in a “Creator” (Christianheadlines.com October 8, 2015). This brings up a host of questions, as well as possible encouragements or otherwise. For instance, how much should we take as ‘gospel truth’ a survey of 1,000 people over the phone? If we want to get serious about what is going on in terms of trends we would do well to read the very brief but authoritative book by Mark Chaves entitled American Religion: Contemporary Trends (Princeton 2011). The trouble with books about trends is that they are quite rapidly out of date, but the advantage is that they – if written by a serious scholar – have the opportunity to scratch beneath the surface. In this case, I was surprised to discover the number of ongoing, high quality, fairly objective, surveys of American belief is far more limited than you might believe. Chaves relies on just two for his work, because they are the two best, and are not driven by trying to fundraise for their businesses in a fast turnaround kind of way. One is the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. “No other high-quality source contains as much information about American religion over as many years, so describing the best documented trends means relying primarily on the GSS” (Chaves, page 5). The other primary source he relies on is the National Congregations Study (NCS). The story over the longer scale, then, puts many things into perspective. Brooks Holifield, a scholar in this field of the history of American religion, says: “For most of the past 300 years, from 35% to 40% of the population has participated in congregations with some degree of regularity” (Chaves, page 2). Let that sentence sink in… 300 years, continually about 35% to 40% participating somewhat in congregations. Chaves does not claim there is no change at all; in fact his book outlines some of the changes. But the message of continuity is the big surprise. Again, “Does the three-point difference between, say, the 65% of people who said in 1994 that they know God exists and the 62% who said so in 2008 represent stability or a small decline? Does the four-point difference between the 74% of people who said in 1991 that they believe in miracles and the 78% who said so in 2008 represent stability or a small increase?” (Chaves, page 8). In short, beyond the headlines, the religious situation in America is… more complicated. And whatever the precise truth is, we have a sure word to guide us in all contexts. 2 Timothy rings through my mind regularly these days. And Paul’s advice is to stand firm in the face of opposition, whether it mean imprisonment, or freedom, to not back down from our key moral and spiritual principles and beliefs, and to remain committed to keeping the main thing the main thing. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:1-2).]]>

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.

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