The State of Theology 2020

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B.L.

Puritan Board Sophomore
Morning Friends,

For those who haven't seen Ligonier Ministries’ State of Theology survey for 2020 I've linked it below.

Results of the 2020 State of Theology Survey

A summary of the key findings

Here is the conclusion:

The 2020 State of Theology survey reveals widespread confusion in the United States about the Bible’s teaching. While the American population in general appears to be drifting away from accepting the truth claims of the Christian faith, the growing and imminent health and social concerns at the time of this survey in March 2020 may be partly responsible for leading some to reconsider their views. Evangelicals, while exhibiting some hopeful movement in the direction of biblical fidelity, also seem to be influenced by the culture’s uncertainty about what truth is, who Jesus is, and how sinners are saved.
These results reveal an urgent need for clear biblical teaching on the person of Christ, the gospel of grace, and the way that the truth of God informs our ethical decisions in everyday life. There is much work to be done in this age of confusion, but we hope the findings of this survey will serve the church in its calling to reach more people with the faithful proclamation of God’s Word.

Pretty disheartening stuff to say the least. Sigh.
 

retroGRAD3

Puritan Board Freshman
Morning Friends,

For those who haven't seen Ligonier Ministries’ State of Theology survey for 2020 I've linked it below.

Results of the 2020 State of Theology Survey

A summary of the key findings

Here is the conclusion:

The 2020 State of Theology survey reveals widespread confusion in the United States about the Bible’s teaching. While the American population in general appears to be drifting away from accepting the truth claims of the Christian faith, the growing and imminent health and social concerns at the time of this survey in March 2020 may be partly responsible for leading some to reconsider their views. Evangelicals, while exhibiting some hopeful movement in the direction of biblical fidelity, also seem to be influenced by the culture’s uncertainty about what truth is, who Jesus is, and how sinners are saved.
These results reveal an urgent need for clear biblical teaching on the person of Christ, the gospel of grace, and the way that the truth of God informs our ethical decisions in everyday life. There is much work to be done in this age of confusion, but we hope the findings of this survey will serve the church in its calling to reach more people with the faithful proclamation of God’s Word.

Pretty disheartening stuff to say the least. Sigh.
Yes indeed, pretty tragic.
 

Taylor Sexton

Puritan Board Junior
I've always found these surveys helpful. While I don't disagree with their findings, is 3,002 people enough to make any definitive conclusions on these matters in a country of 330,000,000 people? What are polling standards in terms of sample sizes for these types of surveys?
 

hammondjones

Puritan Board Sophomore
If properly chosen, a sample of 3000 would be sufficient to draw conclusions, and would be larger than, say, political polls, which will use a sample closer to 1000. I see also they have other cuts available in the "Data Explorer" section, as they say "Applying filters introduces an increased margin of error. "
 

Taylor Sexton

Puritan Board Junior
If properly chosen, a sample of 3000 would be sufficient to draw conclusions, and would be larger than, say, political polls, which will use a sample closer to 1000. I see also they have other cuts available in the "Data Explorer" section, as they say "Applying filters introduces an increased margin of error. "

That's helpful. I just wasn't sure how reliable a survey of this size could be.
 

Jonathco

Puritan Board Freshman
Sad indeed. I was reviewing this data a little bit ago and it would appear the trend continues in discouraging direction.
 

83r17h

Puritan Board Freshman
I've always found these surveys helpful. While I don't disagree with their findings, is 3,002 people enough to make any definitive conclusions on these matters in a country of 330,000,000 people? What are polling standards in terms of sample sizes for these types of surveys?

Under some statistical assumptions (representative samples, normal distribution, etc) you can get away with a pretty small sample size. Of course, more is always better.

Off the top of my head, the question that I would ask is not about sample size necessarily, but about response bias: how do you know that those who elected to respond to the survey are representative? Maybe all of the conservative Christians with good theology don't like answering surveys for some reason.

A good book to read that will make you question every statistic you see for the rest of your life is "how to lie with statistics," I believe you can find a free pdf online in several places. My grad program's experimental design class used it as a supplemental text. It's a bit dated, but still informative and amusing.
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
I've always found these surveys helpful. While I don't disagree with their findings, is 3,002 people enough to make any definitive conclusions on these matters in a country of 330,000,000 people? What are polling standards in terms of sample sizes for these types of surveys?
3,000 is plenty statistically to give you the level of certainty pollsters typically aim for, and then some: 95% or greater certainty that you are accurate within a few percentage points. This is a robust sample size for nationwide surveys of this nature. I've not scoured Ligonier's site for the mathematical details, but those are typically included somewhere if it's a legitimate survey.

That number is also enough to make some fairly certain conclusions about differences between two groups, like differences between men and women, baby boomers and those younger, or those who identify as evangelicals and those who do not. Once you get into multiple groupings that have smaller numbers in each group (like if you divided the country into eight regions, or compared results across multiple denominations), it would be better to have a larger sample size.

The real question is not the sufficiency of the sample size but whether or not there was selection or response bias. Are religious people more likely to agree to participate in a survey about theology? Or are older people more likely? Or people in the south? If the survey was conducted by phone, maybe older people are more likely to answer the phone in the first place so that the methodology favors them and their views. Surveyors have techniques to try to account for these biases, but they still can skew results. For this reason, these surveys—assuming they are conducted the same way each year—are often most useful for identifying trends (do fewer Americans believe Jesus is God this year compared to five years ago) than for precisely measuring the number who affirm a particular belief.

And of course, when it comes to reporting the beliefs of "evangelicals" there's the issue of defining who is an evangelical. Is it self-identified evangelicals, or is it based on a set of criteria created by the researcher (say, regular church attendance + affirming certain beliefs, like Barna uses). Results can vary widely depending on how the group is defined. These days, self-identified evangelicals are not necessarily the same bunch of people we would have labelled evangelicals twenty years ago. For example, based on changing use of the word, people who have not set foot in church in a year but believe there is a God and voted for Trump might label themselves as evangelicals.
 
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Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
Looking more closely, my main takeaway is that it seems alarming, at first glance, to see a significant drop in just two years in the number of "evangelicals" affirming truths such as "Jesus is God." But it is such a big drop that I suspect a change in who counts as an evangelical is at least partly behind it.

It used to be that we defined evangelicals by belief: belief that the Bible is true, Jesus is God, the lost need to be evangelized, etc. But nowadays, we tend to let people self-identify as evangelicals and then ask them: Is the Bible true? Is Jesus God? Do the lost need to be evangelized? That will get a very different result, and it will be a changing result if acceptance of the label is rapidly changing — which it is.

I suspect that today more people call themselves "evangelical" based on conservative/nationalist political beliefs regardless of any strong religious convictions. At the same time, those who do have strong Bible-based convictions are becoming more likely to shun the term "evangelical" because they reject a label that's becoming too political and theologically shallow. I have not been able to find an explanation of how Ligonier determined which of their responders was an "evangelical." But based on the rapid change in how evangelicals responded over just two years' time, I have to suspect it was self-reported. I further suspect that the changes say more about political nationalists embracing the label while true believers start to shun it than they say about an actual shift in beliefs. Just my initial suspicion. More info about the survey methodology would be helpful.
 

hammondjones

Puritan Board Sophomore
I'll also add, that, while not suggesting untowardness on their part, as a provider of a good (theological education), they have an incentive to portray the public as being in need of their good.
 

W.C. Dean

Puritan Board Sophomore
Looking more closely, my main takeaway is that it seems alarming, at first glance, to see a significant drop in just two years in the number of "evangelicals" affirming truths such as "Jesus is God." But it is such a big drop that I suspect a change in who counts as an evangelical is at least partly behind it.

It used to be that we defined evangelicals by belief: belief that the Bible is true, Jesus is God, the lost need to be evangelized, etc. But nowadays, we tend to let people self-identify as evangelicals and then ask them: Is the Bible true? Is Jesus God? Do the lost need to be evangelized? That will get a very different result, and it will be a changing result if acceptance of the label is rapidly changing — which it is.

I suspect that today more people call themselves "evangelical" based on conservative/nationalist political beliefs regardless of any strong religious convictions. At the same time, those who do have strong Bible-based convictions are becoming more likely to shun the term "evangelical" because they reject a label that's becoming too political and theologically shallow. I have not been able to find an explanation of how Ligonier determined which of their responders was an "evangelical." But based on the rapid change in how evangelicals responded over just two years' time, I have to suspect it was self-reported. I further suspect that the changes say more about political nationalists embracing the label while true believers start to shun it than they say about an actual shift in beliefs. Just my initial suspicion. More info about the survey methodology would be helpful.

I believe if you go the survey's website it has some information about their methodology
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
I believe if you go the survey's website it has some information about their methodology
I would expect it to be somewhere, but I can't find a page that actually has the detail I'm looking for—especially how they chose/contacted respondents, how they collected demographic information, and the number of respondents in each demographic group. I think I do recall seeing some of this in past years, so I have every reason to believe it was a credible effort. How they identify "evangelical" is a key bit of info, though, that can explain a lot.
 

W.C. Dean

Puritan Board Sophomore
Their results allow you to choose evangelical, Roman Catholic, Black Protestant, or other and they all have different responses.
 

83r17h

Puritan Board Freshman
Here's
I would expect it to be somewhere, but I can't find a page that actually has the detail I'm looking for—especially how they chose/contacted respondents, how they collected demographic information, and the number of respondents in each demographic group. I think I do recall seeing some of this in past years, so I have every reason to believe it was a credible effort. How they identify "evangelical" is a key bit of info, though, that can explain a lot.

I found a definition of evangelical at the bottom of the main page. It was the portion of respondents that identified "very strongly agree" with the four statements below:
  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
In the data explorer, there is a very brief methodology popup, but like you say, it doesn't really have much detail that would be helpful for understanding their decisions. I think part of that may be simply that it's a survey, and very little further analysis beyond just presenting the survey data.
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
Here's


I found a definition of evangelical at the bottom of the main page. It was the portion of respondents that identified "very strongly agree" with the four statements below:
  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
In the data explorer, there is a very brief methodology popup, but like you say, it doesn't really have much detail that would be helpful for understanding their decisions. I think part of that may be simply that it's a survey, and very little further analysis beyond just presenting the survey data.
Ah, so it is not a label chosen by respondents, but one based on beliefs. That's good. It makes the data more useful to pastors by pointing out how people who want to follow the Bible are missing or misunderstanding key doctrines.
 

The Original Secession

Puritan Board Freshman
The "State of Theology" is in one sense no surprise, but it leaves me wanting to know more. Has any Reformed Pastor, Presbytery, or denomination ever conducted a survey to determine the "State of Theology" in its membership?
 

PezLad

Puritan Board Freshman
These results are difficult to interpret. 69% of evangelical respondents strongly disagree that "science disproves the bible" and only 62% strongly disagree that "Jesus is not God, merely a good teacher." It appears the creation scientists have done a very good job in the macro evolutionary debate.
 

TomVols

Puritan Board Freshman
Here's


I found a definition of evangelical at the bottom of the main page. It was the portion of respondents that identified "very strongly agree" with the four statements below:
  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
In the data explorer, there is a very brief methodology popup, but like you say, it doesn't really have much detail that would be helpful for understanding their decisions. I think part of that may be simply that it's a survey, and very little further analysis beyond just presenting the survey data.
I'm concerned by this as far as validity is concerned. Statistics, surveying, and sampling are incredibly difficult processes and when done incorrectly leads to all sorts of faulty conclusions. I'm not saying this is the case here as I very much appreciate this ministry.

There's no question that evangelicalism is languishing. Just how much is a topic that needs studying, and using more than just 3,000. A good representative sample needs to occur.

The eyeball test shows a lot. A dearth of theologically-based churches and the corresponding rise in independent churches is troubling. It's also getting harder and harder to nail down what an evangelical is. An evangelical in the UMC is going to look different than an evangelical in the PCA or OPC, for instance.
 
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