Only 10 percent of Americans hold a distinctly biblical worldview even though 46 percent, or nearly 100 million adults in the United States, claim to lead a Christian life.
In surveys published Monday by the American Culture and Faith Institute, seven out of 10 Americans called themselves Christians, but relatively few were able to answer questions about the Bible and Christian beliefs.
"Our research collected information about attitudes and behaviors related to practical matters like lying, cheating, stealing, pornography, the nature of God, and the consequences of unresolved sin," said researcher George Barna, who directed the studies.
"That's what makes the discrepancy between the percentage of people who consider themselves to be Christian — more than seven out of every 10 — and those who have a biblical worldview — just one out of every 10 — so alarming."
Barna noted that every person does have a worldview, however.
"The critical question is which one people have embraced," he said. "If we want to transform our culture then we will need to change the choices people make that produce that culture. And in order to change those choices we must identify the beliefs that led to those choices."
The ACFI researchers interviewed 6,000 people from three groups: the general public, theologically conservative Protestant ministers, and what they call "Spiritually Active Governance Engaged Conservative Christians" which they have been tracking since 2013.
The questionnaire included 20 "Christianity 101" questions about basic spiritual beliefs and 20 others assessing behavior. The researchers then reviewed respondents' answers to the 40 questions "in relation to biblical content and the number of biblically consistent answers was tallied for each respondent."
Only 4 percent of young people ages 18–29 scored 80 percent or better, qualifying as "integrated disciples" by the researchers.
The term integrated disciple aims to identify where mere stated religious beliefs inform ones lifestyle, hence the survey's doctrinal and behavior questions.
"[I]n developing this instrument we discovered that someone may claim to believe something, but if their behavior does reflect those beliefs, it is doubtful that they really believe what they claimed to believe," Barna noted.
"Jesus taught His disciples that the right beliefs are good, but the real measure of where you stand is what He labeled the fruit of a person's life, referring to the product of applying one's convictions. As a result, we created this measurement process with the intention of blending both core beliefs and core behaviors to estimate the biblical consistency of peoples' worldview.
"Any time you attempt to measure people's worldview or spiritual standing, you have to tread carefully. We recognize that this research provides an estimate, not an absolute. Only God really knows who is a Christian. Only He knows who has a biblical worldview. God alone knows what's in the mind and heart of each person," Barna said in response to potential criticisms of the study.
The American Culture & Faith Institute will release additional results next month.