Surveys can provide helpful insight into trends and issues, but they must be reviewed carefully to be beneficial, Dawes writes.
Only 17 percent of practicing Christians hold a biblical worldview.
This finding caught my attention when it was released as part of a recent Barna Group report on May 9.
EthicsDaily.com often publishes news briefs on surveys like this, so I read through it to consider whether to cover this report.
Part of my role in reviewing submissions and writing news briefs is ensuring that information is reliable and assertions are based on facts. As the saying goes, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not to their own facts."
Considerations include: Are quotes accurate, properly attributed and referenced with sufficient context? Are statistics coming from trustworthy sources? Are surveys/polls providing accurate data about people's views (or were they framed in a way that skewed the results)?
In November 2016, I wrote a column expressing my concerns about how Pew Research Center survey defined "interfaith" households, which was a case study of sorts on the importance of vetting information.
The latest Barna Group report seems like another opportunity for a case study emphasizing the need for careful assessment of the news we consume (particularly when it comes to statistics).
I determined this Barna publication didn't merit a news brief on EthicsDaily.com for three reasons:
- The means of reaching the overall percentage cited above was unclear.
- The reasons for selecting the four non-biblical worldviews and corresponding statements reflecting these perspectives were not adequately explained.
- The organization that co-sponsored the study raised questions for me about whether the survey was framed in such a way as to obtain desired results.
First, a few definitions are needed.
Barna defined "practicing Christians" as people "who consider their faith important and attend church regularly."
They defined "biblical worldview" as "believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today."
Now to my reasons for passing on covering this survey:
First, the report said only 17 percent of practicing Christians held a biblical worldview, but no explanation was provided about how this was calculated.
The following summary was provided:
- 61 percent agree with ideas rooted in New Spirituality.
- 54 percent resonate with postmodernist views.
- 36 percent accept ideas associated with Marxism.
- 29 percent believe ideas based on secularism.
How these figures (and the response data for statements correlated to the non-biblical worldviews) convert to a collective 17 percent affirming a biblical worldview is not explained.
The reader is left to guess whether this is the percentage of respondents who answered every statement in the manner deemed by the surveyors to align with a biblical worldview.
Or could you provide three or fewer divergent responses before you became part of the 83 percent holding an unbiblical worldview?
Second, the survey engaged four non-biblical worldviews - new spirituality, postmodernist, Marxism and secularism - without any explanation of why these perspectives (and not others) were selected.
Further, questions arose regarding how some of the statements associated with the non-biblical views contradicted Barna's stated "biblical worldview" definition.
The statements said to align with new spirituality, postmodernism and secularism were mostly understandable as contradicting Barna's definition.
For example, "If you do good, you will receive good. If you do bad, you will receive bad" (strongly affirmed by 32 percent of practicing Christians) doesn't line up with "a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works."
However, when it came to the Marxist worldview, there wasn't an obvious contradiction.
Here are the three statements labeled Marxist:
- Private property encourages greed and envy.
- The government, rather than individuals, should control as much of the resources as necessary to ensure that everyone gets their fair share.
- If the government leaves them alone, businesses will mostly do what's right.
Let's set aside the unsettling-to-us-all statement in Acts 2:44-45 about holding all things in common, and any consideration of whether we personally believe these are non-biblical perspectives.
Based solely on Barna's definition of a "biblical worldview," how would a positive response to any of these statements be deemed unbiblical?
I think you would be hard pressed to do so without significant interpretative liberties, but a visit to the website of the organization that commissioned the study provides an answer.
This segues to point three: Barna discloses that "this research was commissioned by Summit Ministries, a worldview-apologetic outreach in Colorado," and provides a link to the organization's website.
Summit's Statement of Faith page provides an explanation for labeling the Marxist statements as non-biblical.
Under the heading "Stewardship" you find: "Human beings were given charge over God's creation, and we take seriously our calling to care for it. We are called to bear God's image through creativity and industriousness. We support the principles of free exchange, respect for private property and honesty as being means by which we best care for our planet, serve one another and alleviate poverty and its effects."
I'm inclined to think the organization's Statement of Faith had more than a little influence on how the survey was written, which likely influenced the results.
This raises concerns about how reliable the data is - even though I don't doubt the influence of non-biblical perspectives on U.S. Christians.
Summit's home page promotes curriculum and seminars that align with their understanding of a "biblical worldview." The cynical part of me wonders: What better way to sell your resources than with a survey finding only 17 percent of practicing Christians hold a biblical worldview?
I believe Barna Group to be a trustworthy organization that provides helpful insights into trends in both church and society. This is why EthicsDaily.com has published many news briefs on their reports, and we will continue to do so.
Yet, I think they went astray in how they put together this particular survey.
It is my responsibility to our organization and its readers to ensure that information we cite and report is accurate and reliable, and I didn't feel that this particular survey passed that test.
Surveys can provide helpful insight into trends and issues, but they must be reviewed carefully to be beneficial. To paraphrase Jesus, let's be shrewd as serpents in how we vet the information we take in.
Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.