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Rethinking your relationship with the Church

Bible
Unsplash/John-Mark Smith

Millions of Americans believe you cannot automatically trust the federal government to do what is in your best interests. But there may be no better sign of just how crazy these times are than to realize that you cannot trust the pastors of Christian churches to consistently provide biblical guidance on basic life matters.

Yet, that’s exactly what was revealed by the most recent wave of the American Worldview Inventory, the national worldview assessment survey annually conducted by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University. That wave of the research asked a nationally representative sample of 1,000 Christian pastors about their beliefs and related behavior — and the results are astonishing, heartbreaking, scary, and cautionary.

According to the research, slightly more than one out of every three pastors of Christian churches (37%) possesses a biblical worldview — i.e., adoption of the basic scriptural principles and teachings that form the filter through which we experience, interpret, and respond to the world. While that is far better than what the Inventory has discovered in the adult population among those who consider themselves to be Christian (just 9% have a biblical worldview) or those who are theologically defined born-again Christians (19%), it is a far cry from what most people expect — and what today’s confused culture so desperately needs — from Christian church leaders.

The Inventory also found that biblical influence varies according to pastoral position. Senior pastors are the most likely to have a biblical worldview (41%). Far fewer of their colleagues have such a philosophy of life. Among assistant and associate pastors, 28% have a biblical worldview; only 13% of teaching pastors do; and a mere 4% of executive pastors satisfy the threshold.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, however, is that a mere 12% of children’s and youth pastors have a biblical worldview. That is a horrifying discovery because they are the spiritual leaders who work directly with the group of people who are forming the worldview that they will carry with them for life. Keep in mind that people typically develop a life-long worldview before the age of 13. In many respects, those who work with children are the most important church leaders of all, given the dramatic and lasting influence they exert on those who are most spiritually vulnerable — and the dramatic impact those worldviews will have on our society as those children gain influence in the world.

There were substantial differences in pastoral worldview based upon denominational “families.” For instance, while evangelical churches are widely thought to be the churches most likely to be true to the Bible, the American Worldview Inventory reports that only half of the pastors (51%) serving churches in evangelical denominations have a biblical worldview. As shocking as that may be, that far surpassed the levels of biblical consistency among pastors in mainline churches (32% of whom have a biblical worldview); holiness churches (28%); traditionally-black denominations (9%); and Catholic churches (6%).

The research also noted that pastors leading churches that attract 250 or fewer people are nearly three times more likely than the pastors of larger congregations to consistently believe and act upon God’s Word. While 42% of the pastors of smaller congregations have a biblical worldview, only 15% of those serving larger churches do.

Another shocking revelation is that when the beliefs and behaviors of pastors were examined within the eight categories of thought and deed measured by the worldview survey, pastors score lowest in the category regarding their views and actions concerning the Bible, truth, and morality. You would expect that category to rank at the top of the list, not the bottom, since the Christian faith is irrevocably hinged on our notions of the relevance and reliability of Scripture; the existence, source, and substance of moral truth; and the nature of the moral choices we make on a daily basis.

One of the implications of the research is that we no longer live in a nation where we can choose a church home based largely on its denominational affiliation. Large proportions of pastors across all Christian denominations do not consistently think and act biblically. Neither can we assume that the popularity of a church, based on the number of people it attracts, is a sign of biblical fidelity. The research outcomes suggest the opposite.

It is time for American Christians to institute a major shift in our church selection process. We cannot attend a church hoping and willing to be spoon-fed theological truth. A healthier way of seeing our church experience would be to do our homework and choose a church we believe is faithful to the Word of God — and then to test and verify everything that we receive in the teaching from the church. When objective data shows that the teaching of most pastors cannot be trusted, we dare not ignore that warning. 

Although millions of believers will be uncomfortable with that responsibility, this shift is actually in our best interests. Rather than going to church so that an experienced and educated person will teach us what to think, this research should motivate us to view a pastor as a guide rather than an authoritative source of God’s truth. Ultimately, we are responsible for our personal spiritual condition and growth. Verifying whatever we are being taught — no matter how godly and righteous the teacher may seem — enhances our facility with God’s Word, our capacity to grow in it, and our confidence that our chosen church is a spiritually-safe place to be. (This is especially true regarding the teaching and experiences provided to our children in our chosen church.)

In the end, God will hold you responsible for what you choose to believe and how you live. On Judgment Day, you will not escape responsibility for bad choices by pointing the finger at a pastor who proposed those beliefs or behaviors. The full responsibility for what you believe and how you apply those beliefs, regardless of what influenced your choices, lies on your shoulders.


Originally published at The Washington Stand. 

Author of over 50 books addressing cultural trends, leadership, spiritual development and church dynamics, including multiple New York Times bestsellers and several award-winning titles, Dr. George Barna has sold more books based on survey research related to matters of faith than any author in American history.  Dr. Barna is a professor at Arizona Christian University and the Director of Research at the Cultural Research Center at ACU, as well as a Senior Research Fellow at the Family Research Council.  He has taught at the undergraduate and graduate level and has pastored two churches. 

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