(WNS)–Ed Stetzer is the president of LifeWay Research, an organization that does polling and statistical analysis. Though associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, LifeWay and Stetzer’s influence has spread well beyond Southern Baptist circles. Stetzer has two master’s degrees and two doctorates, and he is the author of nearly 20 books. He’s also a social media phenomenon with 135,000 Twitter followers. He’s become the go-to guy to learn about trends in the Christian world. This conversation took place at his office in Nashville, Tenn.
Ed, what is LifeWay Research? We do research for evangelical clients to help inform churches, organizations, and ministries to be more effective and engaging their culture for the gospel.
As its leader, you have become an evangelical guru. Since I lead an organization that’s seeking to accumulate knowledge, I get to read a lot. Some of those pastors will say, “How do I keep up on this or that?” I’m not sure that’s their job; they should keep up on the lives of the people in the congregation. I get to read and do research and do data, so we have a lot of great partnerships through a lot of good research. I think it’s helpful for people to understand where we are, what the cultural moment is, and how we are to function as biblically faithful Christians in that cultural moment.
How did you become such a phenomenon on social media? Being a big deal in social media is an odd thing. My wife once said to me that being a big deal on Twitter is like being the dungeon master in a Dungeons and Dragons game. You are just a big deal in a fake world of geeks. … It works well for what I do. I try to encourage pastors. … I can do so with short phrases, so I blog and I’m on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, but not Pinterest. The end result is, is I use it to communicate, so it makes sense.
Is it fair to say that, back a number of years ago, you were one of the guys who created some meaning and currency around the word “missional?” I think somebody put that on Wikipedia, so I think there is some truth to that.
Define for me what the word “missional” means. A lot of churches are now calling themselves missional churches. “Missional” [has] become an ecclesiological junk drawer. If somebody wants more social justice in his or her church, that’s missional. If someone wants to be contextually relevant, that’s missional. A lot of times missional is the desired change if someone wants to be something else. Missional is, at its simplest, us joining Jesus on his mission. Joining in the mission of God. … When the church has become a distributor of religious goods and services, when the show is what drives people and people are passive spectators rather than active participants in the mission of God, there needs to be a change. … A few of us got together, and we created a Missional Manifesto that lays out how we are using the term.
You recently released some research in conjunction with Ligonier Ministries. What is that research telling us about the state of the country and the state of the church today? We asked 43 questions about issues of faith. We looked at sin, salvation, the Bible, afterlife, all kinds of things. At the end of the day, I think most Americans really like a do-it-yourself approach to things of religion, to things of faith. They are not necessarily looking to the church to be a part of that. Let me give you a couple of examples. “The Bible is helpful but not literally true.” Forty one percent of Americans say that—not surprising. But when you look at other categories, 18 percent of people who call themselves evangelicals say the Bible is not literally true. Here is one: “Everyone sins, but most people are, by nature, good.” That view would be outside of orthodoxy, and not just the evangelical tradition, but what we call the grand tradition. Fifty one percent of evangelicals, 79 percent of Catholics, 76 percent of mainline Protestants, and about two-thirds of Americans think that people are, by nature, good. Only 18 percent believe the smallest sin deserves damnation. I think their view of people is very humanist: We are good; God is up there.
What can a pastor do with this data that will help them maybe move the needle on some of these things? What’s fascinating to me is there is still a lot of theological confusion, even among evangelicals. … We are not raising up believers who understand basic theological views. Let me give you an example. We might come from different traditions, but if you are Wesleyan or Pentecostal or Baptist or Calvinist, Presbyterian—all of those groups believe, in one way or the other, that salvation is initiated by God. Yet, that’s not how people answer on our survey.
It seems to me that too often people use religious data for one of two purposes. Either they say, this survey shows how bad things are, and if you’ll buy my book or go to my seminar that will solve your problem. Or, they just use the data to beat up the church or to get the church to change its practice in a way that suits their ideology. Are those concerns valid? I think the answer is yes. I’ll give you an example of the famous statistic that went around the world: 86 percent of evangelical youth drop out of church after high school never to return. I’ll tell you where it came from: A basic group of youth pastors guessed, and an average of their guesses is one of the most widely quoted stats. Your listeners could Google that and find it all over the place. You can tell immediately it’s not true because how in the world would you know if they never return? … I would encourage people to look at Brad Wright’s book called Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites and Other Lies You’ve Been Told. … I wrote the forward to it, and it really looks at how we have fallen for some bad statistics.
History tells us that when a culture abandons biblical ideals, especially as they relate to moral questions in the basic building blocks of culture, like the family, that culture is in big trouble. Do you see that as the future for America? Right now, it’s very confusing to the world that 75 percent of Americans say they are Christians. Many of those people [who] say they are Christians hold views that are very contrary to the texts of what Christians [believe]. As the nominal Christians become the “nones”—nones fill out a survey and they say “I’m nothing; I’m none of the above”—society will become increasingly secular and that will put pressure on Christians. They will become increasingly serious.