U.S. faith broad but not deep, Gallup says at DBU

The Baptist Standard, Apr. 14, 2003
By Marv Knox

DALLAS–Contrary to reason, Americans are becoming both more and less religious year by year, veteran pollster George Gallup Jr. told a luncheon audience at Dallas Baptist University March 31.

“America’s religion is broad but not deep,” Gallup observed. “Fortunately, we’re seeing pockets where religious faith is maturing and deepening.”

Gallup, chairman of the George H. Gallup International Institute and executive director of the Princeton Religion Research Center, visited DBU to inaugurate the George H. Gallup Jr. Distinguished Lecture Series, DBU President Gary Cook announced.

Michael Lindsay, consultant for theology, religion and culture at the Gallup Organization, accompanied Gallup and shared in the noontime presentation.

“Americans’ level of biblical illiteracy has not improved over the last half century. In fact, it has not kept pace with increasing literacy on the whole,” Gallup reported.

“This leaves them vulnerable to cults, many of which glorify self, not God.”

The influence of cults and various religious ideas, compounded with Americans’ poor theological foundations, has produced “a great deal of fuzziness in spirituality,” he said. That particularly has taken its toll on mainline denominations–Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian–each of which has lost about one-third of its membership in the past three decades.

“The bad news about religion in this country is there is a lot of superficiality,” he added. For example, the Gallup Organization has polled people who simultaneously claim to be born-again Christians and say they practice “channeling” with spirits.

“It’s not that Americans don’t believe anything,” Gallup said. “They believe everything.”

Fortunately, churches can take three steps to rebuild and sustain faith, he noted. Churches need to offer:

Invitation. “This is simply asking people to come and see why I like this church and what it’s doing for me,” he explained.

Gallup surveys consistently show that 60 percent to 80 percent of the people who attend church the first time were invited by someone from that congregation, he said. And 80 percent who later visit in the home of a church member stay on to join that church.

Engagement. Congregations strengthen their members by involving them in the life of the church, Gallup said.

“We know that 28 percent of church members are actively engaged,” he said. “These are the ones who do the work.

“They are the ones who say they feel at home at church. They have a best friend in their church. They feel somebody from church cares about them, that their pastor cares for them. They feel they are making a difference by being part of their church.”

Growth and transformation. Churches need to focus on nurturing their members, he advised.

Gallup noted his organization has developed a set of 30 questions that focus on the “core characteristics” of a mature Christian. Half focus on relationship with God, and the other half focus on relationship with neighbor.

“People with a deep faith are a breed apart from the population,” he insisted. “They’re more tolerant than others, because they don’t feel threatened. They’re loving, more charitable, open. That’s the transformation we need.”

Gallup polls are showing that the walls between faith and the rest of life are blurring or disintegrating, said Lindsay, a former DBU staff member.

“Most of the 20th century can be seen as a drive toward classification, specialization,” Lindsay said. “However, most people don’t draw those distinctions.”

For example, traditional medical training teaches doctors to separate faith from the practice of medicine, he said. But Gallup polls show that 70 percent of the population said they want to have a doctor who is spiritually in tune with them, and 50 percent would like for their doctor to pray with them.

In the marketplace, two out of three Americans say they work at a place where they can talk about their faith, and four out of five think that freedom should extend to places of work.

“People don’t think they should have to segregate their faith and work life,” Lindsay said.

Gallup agreed. “People are looking for moorings to a degree we haven’t seen in seven decades of polling,” he said. “People are thirsty. There is this profound hunger for God.”

“Our Christian worldview ought to shape everything we’re about,” Lindsay said. “Christ causes our lives to be ordered. The drive for spiritual emphasis and spiritual growth is pervasive.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday April 12, 2003.
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