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Think Like Jesus: The American State of Mind

  • George Barna
  • Published Jan 05, 2004
Think Like Jesus:  The American State of Mind

If you have a heart, a mind and a soul-and you do-then you also have a worldview. Remember, your worldview is the product of all the information, ideas, and experiences you absorb to form the values, morals, and beliefs that you possess. But few people spend much time, if any, consciously examining their life lens, even though it largely defines who they are and how they behave. 

For the past two decades, I have been conducting national surveys to track key aspects of people's worldviews. Let me share some of what I've discovered about the worldview elements of born-again Christians.

Why examine the life lens of only that group of people? Because they represent the foundation of God's Church and are the very people on whom He relies to communicate His principles and standards to others. If the born-again constituency has a life lens that accurately represents God's view of reality, then there is a firm foundation on which to build the Church and a culture that understands, loves, fears, serves, honors and glorifies God.

But if the born-again community generally does not possess a worldview that squares with Scripture, then we have a much bigger and more serious problem to address.

Possessing a Biblical Worldview

To ascertain the nature of people's worldview, we ask how they make their moral and ethical choices. After extensive interviewing of a large cross-section of the nation's population, we have learned that there are several popular perspectives that drive people's moral decision-making.

  • Among born-again adults, six out of ten follow a set of specific principles or standards they believe in that serve as behavioral guidelines.
  • Two out of ten born-again adults do whatever feels right or comfortable in a given situation.
  • One out of ten born-again individuals do whatever they believe will make the most people happy or will create the least amount of conflict with others.
  • Lesser numbers of believers-about one out of ten-make their moral choices on the basis of whatever they think will produce the most personally beneficial outcome, whatever they believe their family or friends would expect them to do, or whatever they think other people would do in the same situation.

Moral Absolutes

Among the largest group-those who say they base their moral decisions on specific principles and standards-we then ask about the nature of those guidelines. Through this line of questioning we discover that slightly fewer than half use the Bible as their source of life lens principles and standards.

About two out of ten lean on the values and views taught to them by their parents, and a similar proportion say other religious teaching or ideas shape their moral decisions. One out of ten say the principles of impact are based on feelings, and about one in sixteen say their life experiences determine their morals and ethics. Just 2 percent say laws and public policies dictate their moral choices.

If we put all of these figures together we arrive at an understanding of how people determine right from wrong in order to make moral choices. Among all born-again adults about one-quarter make their moral and ethical choices on the basis of the Bible. One out of five bases his or her choices on whatever feels right. One out of twelve relies on what parents taught in terms of values and principles. Another one out of ten born-again adults do whatever will minimize conflict, while lesser proportions of the group trust various other approaches.

In essence, this tells us that three out of four born-again Christians overlook the Bible as their shaping worldview influence. But this also raises the question of what the one out of four who supposedly trust the Bible as their moral guide believe that God's Word says about the nature of moral truth. To measure that, we ask people if they believe that moral truth is relative to the situation or if it is absolute and unchanging.

If we accept the idea that the Bible conveys God's timeless and unchanging truths, then the survey results are nothing less than shocking.

Among those who say they rely on biblical standards and principles as their compass for moral decision-making, only half believes that all moral truth is absolute. The rest either believes that moral decisions must be made on the basis of the individual's perceptions and the specific situation, or that they haven't really thought about whether truth is relative or absolute.

That means the bottom line is that only 14 percent of born-again adults-in other words, about one out of every seven born-again adults-rely on the Bible as their moral compass and believe that moral truth is absolute. While these perspectives are not, in themselves, the totality of a Bible-based worldview, they form the foundation on which such a life lens is based. Very few born-again Christians have the foundation in place.

For the sake of context, if we examine how many other adults-that is, people who are not born-again Christians-maintain a biblical worldview, the numbers are anemic. For instance, just 2 percent of those who attend a Christian church but are not born-again (a segment that represents about half of the church-going population) have the foundation of a biblical worldview in place. Among adults associated with a Protestant church, 9 percent have a biblical life lens foundation, compared to 1 percent among Catholics.

There are huge generational differences as well. While 7 percent of those in the Builder and Seniors generations (those in their late fifties or older) base their moral decisions on the Bible and contend that morality is absolute, and 10 percent of the Baby Boomers concur, just 3 percent of the Baby Busters and only 4 percent of the oldest quarter of the Mosaic generation have a similar perspective. 

Not surprisingly, women are nearly twice as likely as men to base their moral decisions on the Bible and say that morality is based on absolutes (7 percent versus 4 percent, respectively).

Overall, just 6 percent of American adults possess a solid foundation on which to build a biblical worldview.

Spiritual Beliefs

But your view of life is not based solely on your perception of moral absolutes. Religious beliefs also play a central role in people's understanding and response to life. If we want to know whether people think like Jesus we must examine their core spiritual beliefs too. For years we have used a standard battery of six questions that begin to reveal people's adoption of central biblical principles. Specifically, we examine the following beliefs:

  • God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe who still rules that universe today.
  • When Jesus Christ was on earth He lived a sinless life.
  • Satan is not just a symbol of evil but is a real, living entity.
  • A person cannot earn their eternal salvation by being good or doing good things for other people; that salvation is the free gift of God.
  • Every person who believes in Jesus Christ has a personal responsibility to share their faith in Him with other people who believe differently.
  • The Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches.

These six statements are, of course, an incomplete inventory of a person's belief system. There are so many additional elements that we would ideally include in a full profile of someone's spiritual perspective. To more completely think like Jesus we would have to consider views on worship, love, obedience, stewardship, service to the needy, accountability, forgiveness, and so forth.

Using even this limited scope of indicators, however, we find something very disturbing. Let's say we define a biblical worldview as one in which a person believes that the Bible is the moral standard, believes that absolute moral truths exist and are conveyed through the Bible, and possess an appropriate point of view regarding each of the six belief statements listed above.

By that definition we discover that only 9 percent of born-again adults have a biblical worldview! Another 6 percent believe in absolute moral truth and that the Bible is the repository of that truth, but do not hold appropriate views on the six theological statements. And, of course, the most disturbing finding of all is the 85 percent of America's born-again adults do not possess either the foundation or
the beliefs to qualify as having a biblical worldview.

Let me restate this in a different form: 91 percent of all born-again adults do not have a biblical worldview; 98 percent of all born-again teenagers do not have a biblical worldview.

Let's put this in perspective. As of 2003, the United States has about 210 million adults. About 175 million of them claim to be Christian. About 80 million are born-again Christians. Roughly 7 million have a biblical worldview. That is less than one out of every 30 adults in this nation.

If your heart did not just drop to the floor, you don't understand the implications of these chilling facts. When people wonder why the Christian Church is losing influence in American society-which seven out of ten American adults currently contend-the reason is that so very few think like Jesus.

God does not need a majority to get His will accomplished in our world. But these figures give new meaning to the biblical description of true believers as "the remnant."

Excepted from Think Like Jesus by George Barna, Chapter Two. Integrity Publishers.