I'm increasingly convinced that we, as church leaders, must do a better job educating our people about the gospel and the claims that it makes on all our lives.
The data demonstrates that Christian education must be at the core of renewing the church in America. Despite incredible gains in the level of education in this country over the last half-century, most adults know as much about the Bible today as they did when they were in the third grade. Consider a few Gallup findings: only 34% of adults know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount; less than half (49%) can name the first book of the Bible. In addition, people struggle to name more than two of the Ten Commandments (do not steal and do not murder are the usual two), yet 21% of adults say they read the Bible daily and a full 47% claim to read the Bible at least once a week. Despite good intentions, it appears that Americans are not able to recall much of what they hear or read.
This is a tremendous issue for the church, for the challenges facing people in the pews today are Herculean in scope. Take one recent example: The Supreme Court ruling this past summer in Lawrence vs. Texas. Practically all-legal observers agree this decision will have far reaching-implications for years to come. Not only did it throw out the Texas anti-sodomy statute, but as Justice Scalia noted in his dissenting opinion, "this effectively decrees the end of all morals legislation."
Regardless of one's Christian conviction regarding homosexuality, this decision is a clarion call to action. The church in the future must do a better job tackling hard issues relating to marriage, adultery and sexuality. We must help our congregation use the lens of scripture to inform their opinions on such matters. Recent Gallup data reveals that about 6 out of 10 Americans (59%) believe that homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal, which is essentially the Supreme Court's position in Lawrence v. Texas. Christians need to arrive at their understanding of marriage, family and other social issues with full understanding of what scripture has to say on such matters.
It's possible, of course, for thinking Christians to interpret the Bible's teaching on contentious issues differently, but most people attending church, it appears that the Bible and the church teaching has little influence on their decisions. According to Gallup data, Americans are six times more likely to cite the news media than their religious leaders as being the most influential factor in shaping their opinion of current social concerns (42% compared to 7%).
But Americans aren't necessarily pleased with this arrangement. Less than one-quarter of the population says church leaders exert "too much" influence on the public opinion. The figure is even less among those who say religion is very important in their lives. Indeed, the vast majority of Americans believe religion should influence one's position on social issues. The problem, it seems, is that people don't know enough about the Bible and their own church tradition to appropriate the claims of the gospel when it comes to deciding matters regarding the family, sexual mores and other social concerns. As Kenneth Kantzer writes, "No church can be effective to bring clarity and commitment to a world when it is as ignorant of it's own basic principles as is our church today. And unless we engage in the church in a mighty program of re-education, it will be unable to transmit a Christian heritage to it's own children or the society around it."
It's been said that religious interest and commitment in America may be 3,000 miles wide, but only three inches deep. Let's make a concerted effort to help our churches grow deeper in the faith.