The Doctrinal Crisis in American Evangelical Churches: What Can We Do?

Most readers have likely heard about individuals having a crisis of faith. We’ve learned terms such as “exvangelical” and “deconstruction.” We are sometimes familiar with entire churches, even denominations, who have lost their faith. But while it is not the first to do so, a poll released last week should serve as a dramatic wake up call to evangelical churches and their pastors.

One of several examples: 73 percent of evangelicals who took the poll agreed with the statement that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” That is the Arianism condemned by church councils which recognized that Scripture teaches the full deity of Christ. While Mormons believe Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God, evangelical Christians historically have believed Jesus is the infinite Creator, not a finite creature. In 325 A.D., based on multiple Scriptures, the Nicene Creed declared, as a refutation of Arianism, that Jesus Christ was “not made” but “eternally begotten” and is “one in being with the Father.”

Eleven years ago, I wrote an article titled, “Does the Word ‘Evangelical’ Mean Anything Anymore?” I said then:

…there are more and more every year who think “There’s no way to know the truth, so let’s not be dogmatic” in areas that God has actually revealed in His Word, which people have given their lives to get into our language so we could know what God has said to us. I feel like right now among evangelicals—including authors, musicians, speakers, and pastors—there’s a runaway train of unbiblical and unclear thinking.

We are improvising theology on the fly with little regard for the Scriptures or the historic orthodox Christian faith. We act as if the Christian faith began with us, and we are perfectly free to modify it in light of the latest cultural winds. To put it bluntly, there is not only more and more false doctrine in churches, there is also more and more of it coming from evangelical pastors and authors and publishers and colleges. (Of course, more and more people aren’t even part of churches these days, but that’s a different story, though related.)

In conclusion, I asked:

Is it reasonable to suggest that there is a point where if you no longer believe that the whole Bible is true, and you deny core truths evangelical Christians historically believed, it is misleading and even nonsensical to continue to call yourself an “evangelical Christian”?

It’s been over a decade, but sadly, the trends I saw in 2011, including the decline of biblical knowledge and the erosion of sound doctrine in churches, have only become more obvious. Every two years, Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research partner together to “take the theological temperature” of U.S. evangelicals. The 2022 survey reflected very disturbing trends in the American church. (Christianity Today explains: “Respondents were considered evangelical by belief if they strongly agreed in the Bible as the highest authority; the importance of encouraging non-Christians to trust Jesus as their savior; that his death removed the penalty of sin; and that trust in him alone brings salvation.” You must keep this in mind as you contemplate the poll results—these are not merely self-proclaimed evangelicals, but to have their opinions count, they had to clearly affirm those clear evangelical beliefs. Therefore, while results would vary from church to church, the respondents are generally a fair cross-section of evangelicals.)

Alarming Trends

Other remarkable findings of the survey: when presented with the statement “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God,” 43% of evangelicals surveyed agreed (compared to 30% in 2020). This means that more than four out of ten people who claim to be evangelicals don’t believe in the deity of Jesus Christ! (Of course, it would be seven out of ten based on the responses to that question about Jesus being created.) And 56% of evangelicals agree with the statement “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”

26% of evangelicals (up from 15% in 2020)—affirmed the statement, “The Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true.” And 38% agree with “Religious belief is a matter of personal opinion; it is not about objective truth.” The percentages demonstrate that these are no mere fringe ideas; they are already prevalent in U.S. churches and are gaining traction at an alarming rate.

37% think that “Gender identity is a matter of choice,” and given the strong trajectory of our culture, and schools in particular, we should expect this number to increase.  One encouraging finding was that 94% of evangelicals agree that “Sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin.” I’m also glad to see 91% of respondents agreed with the statement “Abortion is a sin.” (In my opinion, however, many evangelicals do not live consistently with these beliefs, since premarital sex and abortion are more widespread than those figures would suggest. The last study I was aware of found that 25% of women getting abortions indicated they were evangelical Christians.)

The surveyors conclude:

The 2022 State of Theology survey reveals that Americans increasingly reject the divine origin and complete accuracy of the Bible. With no enduring plumb line of absolute truth to conform to, U.S. adults are also increasingly holding to unbiblical worldviews related to human sexuality. In the evangelical sphere, doctrines including the deity and exclusivity of Jesus Christ, as well as the inspiration and authority of the Bible, are increasingly being rejected. While positive trends are present, including evangelicals’ views on abortion and sex outside of marriage, an inconsistent biblical ethic is also evident, with more evangelicals embracing a secular worldview in the areas of homosexuality and gender identity.

Evidence of a False Worldview

This is a revealing survey pointing to a reality that has been heavy on my mind and heart (and that of countless believers) for decades. The number of people in evangelical churches who do not believe basic Christian doctrines is disturbing. In my experience, this comes out frequently in conversations and social media posts, and is far more evident in pastors and church leaders than it was even ten or five years ago. 

So what can we do? I believe this doctrinal crisis in evangelical churches needs to be countered not just with biblically based messages, but with a deliberate commitment to the teaching of sound systematic theology. General “Bible teaching” for 30-40 minutes a week, while important, is woefully insufficient to solely address these issues. Why? When people are immersed in the culture’s wrong worldview, church attenders can hear the Bible taught and still see and hear the particular passage through the eyes and ears of that wrong worldview. It’s all too easy to twist or take out of context verses, rather than having their worldview corrected by sound biblical doctrine. (For instance, unless they are explicitly taught otherwise and often reminded, every time those 73% who think Jesus is a created being hear their pastor say “Jesus” they are not thinking of the true Jesus but a false Jesus who is not God.) If we don't somehow reverse the doctrinal decay in our evangelical churches, this dominant trend will continue until the church is indistinguishable from the culture.

Russell Moore explains,

New Testament scholar David Nienhuis makes the point that we have a generation of “Bible quoters, not Bible readers.” Sometimes even the most theologically inclined people know how to use the Bible in debate both inside and outside the church over controversies on gender, predestination, and so forth. But they don’t know the difference between Melchizedek and Mordecai, between Josiah and Jehoshaphat. They see the actual storyline of Scripture as a “minor” detail.

The Bible does far more than answer questions posed to it by current controversies, and far more than just undergird doctrine. The Bible shapes and forms its hearers. …we might have our “values” right-side up and our theology upside down.

Among many things, people need to be taught what the whole of Scripture says about the deity of Jesus, the nature of the trinity, the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, and the exclusive nature of salvation in Christ. Those doctrines will be contradicted constantly by the world and mainline denominations. (For more of a commentary on the Lifeway/Ligonier survey results about the beliefs of evangelicals, see this excellent article by Joe Carter.)

A Call for Teaching Systematic Theology

Bible Doctrine

Several years ago, I was asked what I would do differently if I were a pastor today, as I was for fourteen years at two different churches. The answer was easy: if I had it to do over again, I would focus heavily on teaching systematic theology. Our calling is to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1).

I would use some of the great resources we have today (including Wayne Grudem’s Bible Doctrine, the condensation of his large systematic theology, which I first led a group of men in studying twenty years ago.). I would start an ongoing weekly class teaching through it chapter by chapter, and encourage every person in the church to join and complete the study. This could also be done in small groups. Once people finish the study, whether it takes one, two, or three years, I would encourage them to go through it again, because the second and third time, great truths would sink in and be reinforced.

Over nearly four decades in my church (a church that has always taught and emphasized God’s Word), I’ve seen a noticeable—even startling—reduction in the average person’s grasp of biblical truth. It’s possible for someone to hear Bible-based sermons, as we regularly do at my church, while at the same time adopting a worldview that is less and less biblical. This happens because most church people spend little time studying God’s truth during the week. Compare the time spent reading Scripture and great books that teach biblical truth with the amount of time spent watching television and reading social media, both of which often exemplify an anti-Christian worldview. What chance does one 40-minute sermon a week have, no matter how biblical, when it must try to correct 40 to 70 hours of input that’s contrary to Scripture? It’s impossible, unless that 40 minutes of Bible teaching is a vehicle to get people into studying and discussing God’s Word and reading quality books in their own discretionary time.

In addition to giving people a truly Christian worldview, my biggest hope with the teaching of systematic theology is that it will inspire and motivate them to read books which further cultivate that biblical perspective. If people in our churches gave up ten hours of television, talk radio, sports radio, political programming, shopping, or you-name-it per week and spent that time reading or listening to God’s Word and great Christ-exalting books and  videos, it would make a phenomenal difference.

Our young people must be taught systematic theology (age-appropriate of course, which can be done from childhood) to establish a Christian worldview, before going off to college. That’s the only way they will be equipped to answer the challenges to their faith they’ll encounter. They would at least have a chance. As it is now, many go off to college with little more than a few isolated stories they heard in Sunday school, youth group, and in their homes. This meagre knowledge can’t begin to stand up against the onslaught of anti-God, anti-Bible, and anti-church doctrine that will overwhelm them (tragically, even at many so-called Christian colleges).

Encouraging a Culture of Reading Good Books

The other thing I would attempt, were I in a position to do so today, is to regularly promote and make available onsite a wide variety of great Christian books. Forty year ago I worked alongside one of our book-loving elders to start a church bookstore that provided great resources to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

When we spoke on a passage at church, we provided recommended books so people could go deeper. When I taught a year-long Bible panorama course on Sunday nights, I sought and got a great deal from a publisher on a five-volume Bible encyclopedia that was purchased by hundreds of our church families, so that they and their children could get substantial help in their personal Bible study. Not only our elders and small group leaders but many more of our church family were committed to regularly reading quality Christian literature. Some would spend their evenings doing that and discover it is SO much better than watching TV.

I’ll come back in a future blog to books I would recommend, but while writing this article, I found a great list of 25 books recommended by a pastor. I loved the list and by the time I was halfway through, I was certain I wanted to share it, barring the remote possibility that a Joel Osteen book was yet to pop up! I’m happy to say it didn’t. (I was surprised to see the last book listed was my book Heaven. I can honestly say it had nothing to do with me wanting to share the link, but clearly it didn’t hurt.) I loved that the list also includes “25 Other Books That Could’ve Made This List,” many of which I’ve read and also recommend. He ends with a list of other resources, including systematic theologies, most of which I agree are high quality. Besides this there are many great biographies such as one I’m  reading right now, thanks to the recommendation of two brothers in my small group: Arnold Dallimore’s biography of George Whitefield.

You might imagine that the internet provides people resources that make books unnecessary. That’s not true. Often the internet undermines thoughtful study because it offers “quick answers” that frequently don’t reflect careful biblical study. However, if you know where to look, you can get very helpful biblical information. One of the best sources is Got Questions. At our ministry we often answer questions people ask, and along with a wide variety of sources, we frequently link to their website.

Logos Bible Software offers an amazing array of biblical and theological video courses. I’ve taken at least a half dozen of these, and they are terrific. You can go through these in a small group or as a class at church. I highly recommend checking these out.  The Gospel Coalition also offers a variety of free courses. Right Now Media, which is subscribed to by many churches, provides biblical courses for individuals and groups.

I’ve told pastors that if their staff, church elders, and other lay leaders did no more than regularly read the articles posted on Desiring God and The Gospel Coalition, and listen to the Ask Pastor John podcast and watch the Look at the Book videos, many of them would have a deeper biblical knowledge and be more proficient in their Bible study and teaching than ever before. This investment of perhaps five hours a week would pay off a hundred times in their ability to shepherd their churches.

Let’s Reverse the Trend, with God’s Help

As the surveys demonstrate, we are currently not winning the battle of renewing our minds by God’s revealed truth. Most evangelical Christians are not gaining ground when it comes to having a biblical worldview; they are losing ground. Reversing this trend simply will never happen without radical and decisive changes in people’s personal habits, involving supplementing the personal study of God’s Word with reading truly good books of spiritual depth and substance, and getting solid training in their churches and Bible studies.

We simply must make great strides to enhance biblical and theological knowledge in our churches, so that instead of conforming to the world, we can become transformed by the renewing of our minds, just as Romans 12:1-2 instructs us. This requires our partnership with the work of God’s Spirit. Let’s follow the example of the Apostle Paul, who prayed fervently that the love of the Philippians would “abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (1:9-10).

Let’s be warned by these statistics but not demoralized by them. Let’s be energized to action, remembering that Christ promised “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). At the same time, let’s not presume that any church, or the families in that church, are somehow invulnerable to doctrinal and moral erosion and their devastating consequences. Jesus said to the church at Ephesus, “I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:4-5).

May pastors, leaders, teachers, and laypeople alike sit at the feet of the indwelling Holy Spirit of whom Jesus said, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” And may we all one day stand before Jesus Christ and say with the Apostle Paul, “for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). (Note that one can only declare the whole counsel of God by investing the long hours necessary to learn the whole counsel of God!)

Photo by Elijah Pilchard on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries