A few years ago, I was asked to be part of a brainstorming tour a few of our denominational leaders hosted. The problem that precipitated the tour was the discovery of how few Christians in our pews were biblically literate. Most people who went to church, the study showed, lacked even the basics of biblical understanding.
So, from city to city the leaders went, asking pastors about why this was the case and what could be done about it. When it came time for me to add my two cents, my thoughts were pretty straightforward – our congregants are biblically illiterate because our pulpits are biblically illiterate. Too many pastors do not make good use of Scripture from Sunday to Sunday, some don’t use it in any meaningful fashion, and some torture it so badly, it would be better if they never used it at all.
The people in our church pews, by in large, learn how to use Scripture as their pastor uses it over time. Whether we like it or not, many parishioners do not open their Bibles unless their pastor preaches from it. The crisis of biblical illiteracy among the average Christian is, as I argued, largely because pastors are functionally biblically illiterate behind their pulpits.
That was at least four years ago. Last week the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, led by George Barna, released a report about American pastors and their biblical worldview. The bottom line is the shock that has grabbed a lot of attention: only 37% of the 1,000 pastors interviewed have a biblical worldview[i].
The study notes that most pastors have not fully embraced an anti-Christian worldview such as Marxism or Secularism but have replaced the biblical worldview with Syncretism. This is the belief, often not well defined in the minds of those who hold it, that Christ is not the only way to salvation, or that Christianity is not the only true or “right” religion. It is an out of focus amalgamation of many worldviews. The report states:
Instead, their prevailing worldview is best described as Syncretism, the blending of ideas and applications from a variety of holistic worldviews into a unique but inconsistent combination that represents their personal preferences. More than six out of 10 pastors (62%) have a predominantly syncretistic worldview.
One of my initial reactions was, apparently, the same reaction someone close to the study had: “If that study includes a lot of mainline Protestant and Unitarian Universalist (type) pastors, that number is bound to be very low.” So, they published a brief follow-up that broke the results down in a few more ways, including by theological tradition. The results are no more encouraging.
There are questions that need to be wrestled with. If this is broadly accurate, how did we get to this point? Why are so many pastors more closely aligned with Syncretism than with biblical soteriology? How have the worldview structures of Critical Theory and Wokeism so quickly infected pastors, when most American pastors only heard about these ideologies in the last 2 years? And maybe most importantly, why is biblical orthodoxy so low in the priorities of so many Christian pastors in America?
Unbiblical pastors and theologically unsound churches are a problem in every era, but these numbers are frighteningly bad. If this many pastors have become shills for our culture’s views on God and spirituality, they will soon become more than useless. It is common knowledge that churches that become more like mainstream culture than like Christ will diminish and disappear over time. Afterall, why would I attend a church that tells me all the same things the culture does, then asks for my money?
The pastors and churches that God looks for are those who are able to remain steadfast and faithful to the truth of the Gospel when the world goes in every other direction. Syncretism is not good news. Antiracist wokeism is not good news. Socialism is not good news. The salvation and transformation that comes with repentance and God’s mercy is the only good news able to make a difference.
It is impossible for a pastor to speak publicly with any kind of wisdom, to reclaim the role of public intellectual, or even to be trusted in the long term if they are simply mirrors of the age.
Pastors need to understand the times better.
Someone entrusted with God’s truth and the spiritual well-being of God’s flock bears the responsibility of discerning truth from falsehood. God created a covenant with his spiritual leaders in the Old Testament, the Levites. They were responsible to teach God’s word to the people, and when they failed, God called them on it. In Micah 2:5-9 God says:
“My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him. It was a covenant of fear, and he feared me. He stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction.”
God rejects those spiritual leaders, his under-shepherds, who fail at these tasks.
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord.” Jeremiah 23:1-2
False teaching leads people away from God, it reveals a lack of spiritual and intellectual integrity in the teacher, and it comes under the judgement of God. A contemporary American pastor who claims to speak for God and teaches falsehood is under the same judgement. Not a good place to be.
A pastor needs to be able to not only spot the differences between true and false teaching, they also need to be able to explain the differences. It is one thing to tell people there is a difference between truth and falsehood, and it is another to be able to explain Scripture in such a way as to reveal why an ideology is false. Why is Critical Theory at odds with Christianity? Why should Wokeism be wholly rejected? What are the differences between the theology behind those worldviews and Christianity? They are legion. Does a pastor know why?
A pastor needs to love the truth.
I suspect that the survey above reveals both a lack of intellectual acumen and a lack of courage. If all of culture (or so it seems) is moving in one direction, does a pastor have the moral and theological fortitude to stick with the truth? Can a pastor say with the first generation of Christians in Jerusalem, “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness?” (Acts 4:29)
Why would a pastor curry favor with a culture bent on getting rid of the faith he promises to preach? Why would a Christian allow a culture that despises what Scripture teaches to tell us what Scripture “really” teaches? And why would a Christian attend a church like that?
The hope for our neighbor, and the hope for the world, lies in the powerful truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are all sinners, but God so loved the world that he sent his Son to live a sinless life, die on the cross, and rise again from the dead. Then, whoever believes in him and call on the name of the Lord will be saved. This is good news all the time.
[i] I was unable to find the parameters of what the organization determined is a “biblical worldview.” Barna, however, has been running these kinds of studies for several years and his organizations have represented it well in the past. Here is an interview on the study.