Posts tagged ‘Pew Foundation’

The Pew View of the LCMS

Religious Landscape

Last year, the Pew Research Center released a landmark Religious Landscape Study that surveyed over 35,000 adults from across the nation about their religious beliefs.  As a part of their research, Pew studied the church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  Though I am well-aware of the risks associated with navel-gazing, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the section of Pew’s study that specifically pertains to my church body, because turning the mirror on oneself and seeing oneself for what one truly is – even when it is uncomfortable – can often be a helpful exercise.

Before we dig into the data, I should note that Pew’s survey of LCMS congregants has a 6-point margin of error, which, statistically, is significant.  This does not mean, however, that this survey is not worth our time and attention.  Even with a 6-point margin of error, the study’s findings are statistically substantial enough to be quite revealing.  So on to the study.

I was surprised to see how well my demographic is represented in my church body.  I had stereotypically assumed that my denomination was older than it actually turns out to be.  According to Pew, 30 to 49 year olds, which is my demographic, comprise the largest segment of my church body at 32%. Generation X, which is my generation, comprises the second largest segment of my church body at 28% next to Baby Boomers, who are at 35%.  Millennial representation is much lower at only 13%.  Demographically, then, I am, in many ways, a typical member of an LCMS congregation.  I am not, however, typical in every way – especially in my theological and moral beliefs.  It is in these areas that the data becomes particularly interesting.

For example, when Pew asked LCMS people what they look to for guidance on right and wrong, while 41% answered “religion,” 45% answered “common sense.”  In one way, this is not a surprise.  In the face of the information onslaught of the digital age, we have become informational pluralists.  We garner and glean our information and, by extension, our opinions, values, and beliefs, from a wide array of sources. The idea of a turning to a single, divinely-authored book as the first and final word on morality is simply untenable to most people.  Indeed, when LCMS congregants were asked about their “frequency of participation in prayer, Scripture study or religious education groups” and about their “frequency of reading Scripture,” the largest percentage of respondents in both categories fell into the “Seldom/Never” tier.  Thus, it is perfectly logical that more people would get their guidance on right and wrong from common sense than from religion and from the book on which the Christian religion is grounded, the Bible.  After all, a majority of people don’t even study the Bible enough to have a nuanced understanding of what’s in it.

The Pew study also revealed that many LCMS congregants seem more unified around a politically conservative economic policy than they are around issues that pertain to traditional Christian morality.  Politically, 52% of LCMS people identify as conservative over and against 33% who identify as moderate and 10% who identify as liberal.  72% prefer a smaller government with fewer services and 62% say that government aid programs do more harm than good.  Morally, 46% of LCMS people believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases versus 51% who believe it should be illegal, and 56% believe homosexuality should be accepted with 45% favoring same-sex marriage.  Compare this to 50% of people who identify as pro-choice nationwide and 55% who favor same-sex marriage nationwide.  There is a gap between what LCMS people believe about hot button moral issues and what the general public believes, but this gap is not as wide as one might think.  And, on both the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, the LCMS is less unified than it is around conservative economic policy.

Theologically, I find it unsettling that our opinions on moral issues, which call for our Scriptural agreement, are so diverse while in areas where it’s okay and even desirable to be diverse, we are monolithic.  Take, for instance, the racial makeup of the LCMS.  95% of LCMS congregants are white.  This hardly seems to reflect the picture of the Church Triumphant with its people from “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).  I understand that we cannot create this kind of Church by our own efforts and I also am well aware that the Church Militant, because it marches forth in a fallen world and because it does not reveal to us the universal Church, will always look different than the Church Triumphant.  But let’s not use our inability to create the Church of Revelation 7:9 as an excuse to not desire it.  After all, every member of the Church Triumphant starts out as a member of the Church Militant.  So the Church Militant should look, at least in some way, like Church Triumphant.

When it comes to the moral and ethical issues that clearly divide not only our society, but also many in my church body, I would simply say that these are issues that demand our continued attention and discussion.  And when discussing these issues, we must understand that just being a part of a church body does not guarantee, nor does it even make it likely, that a person will believe what the church body teaches.  Frankly, in our current cultural configuration, the Church’s voice is just one voice – heard by most only once a week at best – among a steady stream of other voices that speak much more frequently and regularly into people’s lives.  In order to gain a serious hearing among all these voices, it is important for the Church to speak charitably enough that people trust it and clearly enough that people know what the Bible teaches, even if they disagree.

Pew’s Religious Landscape Study has presented us with a challenge – and an opportunity.  It has revealed some areas of moral, theological, and even demographic concern.  My prayer is that we, as God’s people, rise to meet the challenge – not only for the sake of a church body, but for the sake of the world.

January 11, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

The Shifting Moral Tide

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 10.25.13 AMA couple of weeks ago, it was the Pew Foundation’s report on the decline of those who self-identify as “Christian” that left the faithful rattled. Last week, Gallup published survey on Americans’ moral attitudes that, once again, shook Christians. Gallup reports:

Americans are more likely now than in the early 2000s to find a variety of behaviors morally acceptable, including gay and lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage and sex between an unmarried man and woman. Moral acceptability of many of these issues is now at a record-high level.[1]

In the scope of fifteen years, the percentage of people who believe gay and lesbian relations are morally acceptable has gone up 23 percent. 61 percent of people now believe having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable compared to 45 percent fifteen years ago. Support for polygamy has more than doubled: only 7 percent believed it was morally acceptable 15 years ago compared to 16 percent today. And the case for doctor-assisted suicide is gaining traction. 56 percent of people now find it morally credible. According to this report, only two issues have seen their moral favorability decline over the past fifteen years. Fewer people now believe the death penalty and medical testing on animals are morally acceptable.

In some ways, this survey is merely a lagging indicator of a moral revolution that has already taken place. Frank Newport, who wrote the article on Gallup’s findings, explains:

Americans are becoming more liberal on social issues, as evidenced not only by the uptick in the percentage describing themselves as socially liberal, but also by their increasing willingness to say that a number of previously frowned-upon behaviors are morally acceptable.

Notice that Newport explicitly locates the change in Gallup’s poll in what people are willing to say. This poll does not measure what people may have already believed. If our own president is any indication, people may believe something is morally acceptable long before they are willing to publicly admit it, especially when what they believe is controversial.

So what are we to make of this tide of evolving moral sentiment? If this poll is indeed a lagging indicator of what people already believe and how people are already living, I would suggest this survey represents as much of a human desire for catharsis as it does a shifting of the moral tide. After all, when people do not live up to a given moral standard – which has been happening for a long time – they have two options. First, they can bring their lives into alignment with the moral standard in question. Second, they can bring the moral standard in question into alignment with the way they are already living. Option one is challenging because it demands change and effort. Option two is cathartic because it makes people feel better about what they’re already doing. This, I suspect, plays a large part in why so many are so willing to shift their standards. They don’t want to feel bad because their lives don’t measure up to a given moral standard, so they just change the standard so it no longer makes them feel guilty. Our shifting moral standards have become therapeutic comforts.

There is, of course, a third option for morality and life. This option admits our lives will never measure up to any moral standard – at least not any moral standard worth having – and so the way to address our shortfalls and shortcomings is not by shifting moral standards, but by repentance. This is the way of the cross. And this is the way our world needs.

We can try to live up to transcendent moral standards, but we will always fail. We can try to change transcendent moral standards, but history will only mark us as deluded. So we must repent. And we must be forgiven. Because forgiveness is what we need – even when it’s forgiveness for when we immorally shift our moral standards.

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[1] Frank Newport, “Americans Continue to Shift Left on Key Moral Issues,” Gallup.com (5.26.2015)

June 1, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Pew Survey On Christianity: It’s Not As Bad Or As Good As You Might Think

Church and CrossThe Washington Post led with a headline that sounded nearly apocalyptic: “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion.”[1] The faithful quickly jumped in to temper the premature reports of Christianity’s cardiac arrest with op-ed pieces like this one by Ed Stetzer that ran in USA Today: “Survey fail – Christianity isn’t dying: Ed Stetzer.”[2]

The topic of discussion and debate is a new Pew Research Center poll that finds:

… the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%.[3]

Taken by themselves, these statistics sound dire and dour. But, as Ed Stetzer helpfully points out in his article, there is more to these statistics than what first meets the eye:

Rather than predict the impending doom of the church in America, this latest study affirms what many researchers have said before. Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified. Churches aren’t emptying; rather, those who were Christian in name only are now categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction and engagement …

Nominals – people whose religious affiliation is in name only – are becoming nones – people who check “none of the above” box on a survey.

Those who value their faith enough to wake up on Sunday morning and head to their local church are mostly still going. What I have described as “convictional Christianity” will continue. Those who say their faith is very important to their lives are not suddenly jettisoning those beliefs to become atheists.

According to Pew, unaffiliated Americans grew from 16 to nearly 23% in the last seven years. That increase largely came from the ranks of Catholics and Mainline Protestants, religious traditions with high numbers of nominals.

Stetzer’s point is well taken. By no stretch of the imagination should we read the Pew survey as a funeral dirge for Christianity – especially for Evangelical Christianity, contrary to this misreading of the Pew survey.[4] Still, even if Pew’s numbers do not portend the sure demise of Christianity, they do indicate a real shift in Christianity. Here’s how.

For better or for worse, the nominal Christians who once warmed the pews in Mainline Protestant churches and are now hemorrhaging to the “nones” had as their counterparts the academic Protestant Christians among the elites. Names such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Paul Tillich, and Karl Barth once held court as America’s public intellectuals – their books being widely read and disseminated not only into Protestant Christendom, but into society in general. These men enjoyed unrivaled cultural gravitas – so much so, that each of them took their turn gracing the cover of Time Magazine. And though none of these men can be considered orthodox in their doctrine in an Evangelical Christian sense, they nevertheless passed down to American society some generally and even genuinely Christian concerns and insights. Reinhold Niebuhr defended a robust doctrine of original sin, thundering against the pride of society and those who thought they were generally good people. Harry Emerson Fosdick, though he firmly espoused a liberal Protestant ethos, was not afraid to critique it by warning the Church against a blind cultural accommodation to the spirit of the age. Paul Tillich served as an apologist of sorts, explaining how life’s deepest existential questions can be answered by divine revelation. And Karl Barth bequeathed to us an 8,000 page series on church dogmatics that still informs – and occasionally irritates – Christian thinkers to this day. The work these and other men did kept Christian concerns in the forefront of people’s minds and Christian ethical commitments in the center of people’s worldviews.

The latest Pew survey reminds us that these Christian concerns and ethics are disappearing in broad society. The Protestant lions of old are being replaced by the secularist elites of today. The Pew survey, then, does not just tell the story of a non-committed Christian-esque demographic that, in a twist of delicious justice, is deservedly disappearing; it tells the story of a broader Christian influence that – even if it was of the liberal variety – is waning.

This, of course, is not all bad. The heterodoxy and, in some instances, the outright heresy of these Protestant theologians posed a serious challenge to orthodox Christianity. But, then again, the disappearance of influential Protestantism is also not all good. After all, these Protestant theologians did serve broadly, even if unintentionally, as a tenuous bridge between orthodox Christians on the one hand and powerful elites on the other, enabling the two sides to talk to each other.[5] But this bridge has now collapsed, leaving a yawning canyon between a group of orthodox Christians who are increasingly frightened by and hostile to secularism and a group of powerful elites who are increasingly uninformed about and uninhibited by a generally Christian view of life. Our challenge, then, is to bridge this canyon. And that is no easy task.

I agree with Ed Stetzer that Christians should not respond to the Pew survey apoplectically. But the survey does make me miss some of the Protestant leaders of yesteryear, no matter how much I may have been at odds with them theologically. They may have not always been right, but sometimes, they were helpful.

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[1] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion,” The Washington Post (5.12.2015).

[2] Ed Stetzer, “Survey fail – Christianity isn’t dying: Ed Stetzer,” USA Today (5.13.2015).

[3]America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center (5.12.2015).

[4] Although I share many of Matt Walsh’s concerns with what he saw of Evangelical Christianity and would agree that many Evangelical churches need more robust and Christocentric teaching and preaching, his stated cause of Christianity’s losses is not specifically born out by the Pew data.

[5] For example, Billy Graham and Karl Barth were friends and were comfortable enough with each other to spar with each other on occasion.   See Mark Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 47.

May 18, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Marriage Recession

Marriage 1I’m not surprised, but I am saddened.  A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center confirms what we already know:  the estate of marriage has been in decline now for decades and it continues to decline.  Richard Fry summarizes the study’s findings:

In 2011, 4.2 million adults were newly married, about the same number as in 2010 and sharply lower than the 4.5 million newlyweds estimated in 2008…The decline in nuptials from 2008 to 2011 is in keeping with a general trend away from marriage in the U.S. Barely half of adults (51%) were married in 2011, according to ACS data, compared with 72% in 1960.  Marriage increasingly is being replaced by cohabitation, single-person households and other adult living arrangements.[1]

Two things are striking about Fry’s summary.  First, the rapid decline of married households from 1960 to 2011 is astonishing.  It represents nothing less than a seismic shift in premium our culture places on marriage.  Clearly, the value that people place on marriage has taken a precipitous fall.  Second, Fry’s observation that “marriage is increasingly being replaced by cohabitation” is also tremendously significant, for it marks a radical departure from God’s ideal of a covenanted relationship between one man and one woman who share and confront life together (cf. Genesis 2:24).

Of course, there are some who applaud this shift away from marriage toward cohabitation as the inevitable unleashing of a long-suppressed epicurean desire that has finally managed to shake itself free from the asphyxiating antiquated constraints of Victorian mores.  What these jubilant celebrants who eagerly preside over marriage’s funeral fail to notice, however, is the disturbing darkness that the decline of marriage reveals in the hearts of humans, not only as it pertains to sexual passions, but as it pertains to a basic lack of concern for others.

One of the blessings of marriage is the commitment it demands.  Rather than arbitrarily living with someone to whom there is no formal, long-term, and, indeed, life-long commitment, marriage demands the kind of fidelity that does not shift with better times or with worse times, with riches or with poverty, with sickness or with health.  The promises a person makes in his or her marriage vows are to remain firm even when everything else in life is in continual flux.  Thus, marriage vows are not primarily for the benefit of the one who makes them, though there are certainly blessings to be found in God-pleasing vows, but for the one who receives what they promise, for the vows focus especially on the interests of the partner to whom they are made.  A refusal to make these vows and instead cohabitate can allow some couples to unscrupulously hop from one relationship to the next, discarding any lover who a person feels no longer “meets their needs.”  In its worst form, then, cohabitation can amount to little more than rank selfishness on display.

Ultimately, at the same time marriage forges our character, it also reveals our character.  Marriage forges our character because it calls us to remain committed to another person even when our natural inclination would tend toward severing a relationship.  Marriage reveals our character because whether or not we are willing to enter into such a relationship in the first place says a lot about how willing we are to trade our own self-interest for service to another.  Marriage matters – not just because it safeguards the romantic relationships we have, but because it exposes the kind of people we are.  My prayer is that more and more people commit to be individuals of fidelity and service rather than sensuality and selfishness.


[1] Richard Fry, “No Reversal in Decline of Marriage,” Pew Research Center (11.20.12).

December 3, 2012 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Weekend Extra – It’s Crystal Clear!

In 2008, the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life conducted one of the largest surveys ever of Americans’ religious beliefs.  Though it found that 92 percent of people believe in God, when asked to specify who God is or make hard and fast distinctions between their faith systems and the faith systems of other religions, respondents struggled.  Instead, most Americans have an increasingly nonexclusive attitude when it comes to faith.  70 percent of people surveyed believe that many paths lead to God.  Gregory Smith, a research fellow at the Pew Forum, explains:  “Even though Americans tend to take religion quite seriously and are a highly religious people, there is a certain degree of openness and a lack of dogmatism in their approach to faith and the teachings of their faith” (“Most Americans Believe in Higher Power, Poll Finds,” Washington Post, 9.24.08).

In all honesty, the Pew Foundation’s survey offers no real surprises.  Though it is one of the largest surveys ever conducted, the results are a dime a dozen.  Survey after survey has demonstrated that, though most Americans are “spiritual” and believe in “God,” they have no real cohesive doctrinal system nor do they subscribe wholeheartedly to an external source of authority such as the Bible.  People claim to be spiritual, but their spirituality is fuzzy.

Long before researchers were around to conduct in-depth surveys on people’s religious attitudes, the apostle Paul foresaw that such misguided faith would be the order of the day for many:  “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4:1).  In a world which subscribes to fuzzy spirituality, Paul seeks to inject some clarity from the Holy Spirit:  “The Spirit clearly says…”  True faith in God is never ill-defined.  It is as clear as the Gospel itself.  Indeed, according to Paul, a faith that does not find its clarity vis-à-vis the Gospel is not a faith in God, but a faith from demons.  And for the nebulous faiths of demons, Paul warns, “some will abandon the faith.”  Two things are notable in this phrase.  First, the Greek word for “abandon” is apostesontai, from which we get our English word “apostasy,” a word which, etymologically, means “to stand apart.”  Paul’s argument, then, is that standing apart from faith in Christ means standing with demons. Second, the arthrous phrase “the faith” reminds us that, quite distinct from the popular conception that many faiths lead to God, there is only one true faith – faith in Jesus Christ.

What is the way out of the fuzzy spirituality which plagues our culture?  Paul cites two remedies.  First, fuzzy spirituality must be remedied by the Gospel:  “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:9-10).  Hope in the living God and His Savior, Jesus Christ, leads to salvation.  Period.  Of this we can be clear and sure.  No nebulous spirituality can promise salvation like the Gospel can.  It can only conjure up shady specters of possible hereafters.  Second, fuzzy spirituality must be remedied by the authority of Scripture:  “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13).  The Gospel is revealed in, by, and through the pages of Scripture. Thus, if we desire clarity on the Gospel specifically and theology generally, we turn to Scripture and submit to its authority and believe its promises.  With the Gospel and Scripture in our hearts and hands, clarity is given to things spiritual, with even more clarity being promised in eternity:  “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  Praise be to God for the clarity which comes from our Creator!

Want to learn more on this passage? Go to
www.ConcordiaLutheranChurch.com
and check out audio and video from Pastor Tucker’s
message or Doctor Player’s ABC!

January 31, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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