Since President Donald Trump’s election, “evangelical” has almost become a dirty word. Many biblical Christians have rejected the label due to political connotations, but a new report suggests evangelicals value politics far less than they value Christian doctrine. Ten times less, in fact.
When asked what would cause them to “strongly consider changing churches,” evangelicals valued Christian teaching far above anything else — worship style, a pastor’s departure, even politics.
According to a LifeWay Research survey, American Christians overall proved most likely to consider changing churches if the church altered its doctrine (54 percent). Only changing residences (46 percent) came close to this level of impact. About a fifth (19 percent) said they would strongly consider switching churches if the preaching style changed, while even fewer said a pastor leaving would have the same impact (12 percent).
American Christians overall proved rather unlikely to consider a church change if a family member suggested it (10 percent), if “political views were expressed that are different from mine” (9 percent), if they didn’t feel needed (6 percent), if the music style changed (5 percent), if they had a relational conflict with someone (4 percent), or if friends stopped attending (3 percent).
Overall, American Christians proved about six times more likely to change churches for doctrinal reasons over political ones. That gap widened even further among those with evangelical beliefs.
Evangelicals proved more likely (59 percent) than other Christians (48 percent) to say they would consider changing churches if the church altered its doctrine. Evangelicals also proved far less likely (6 percent) than other Christians (13 percent) to consider leaving a church over political beliefs. That means evangelicals were ten times more likely to consider leaving a religious body over doctrine than over politics.
Evangelicals were also less likely to say they would consider a church change if they moved residences (42 percent versus 56 percent), if the preaching style changed (16 percent versus 22 percent), if a pastor left (9 percent versus 16 percent), or if they don’t “feel needed” (4 percent to 8 percent).
Churchgoers with evangelical beliefs were also more likely to describe themselves as completely committed to their church (67 percent). Only 45 percent of other Christians said they were completely committed.
It matters a great deal how you define “evangelical.” LifeWay asks respondents a set of four questions regarding the Bible, the need to reach out to non-Christians with the gospel, Jesus’ death on the cross as the only way to remove the penalty of sin, and the need for people to “trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior to receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.” Only those who “strongly agree” with all four statements count as evangelical.
These evangelicals are different from the self-described “evangelicals” who voted for Trump by 81 percent. A Barna Research study in 2016 revealed that Christians with evangelical beliefs actually voted less for Trump than they did for Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. Areas of the country with higher rates of church attendance went for Ted Cruz over Trump in the 2016 primaries.
Most Christians care more about doctrine than about politics, evangelical or not. Most Christians are also rather loyal to their churches, the LifeWay Research study found.
“Most church members have been at their church longer than their pastor,” Scott McConnell, executive director at LifeWay Research, said in a statement.
Only 21 percent of Christians in the survey said they had been attending their churches for less than five years, while 17 percent said they have been at the same church for between five and nine years. Another 35 percent said they have been at their churches between 10 and 24 years, while 27 percent said they have been there for 25 years or more.
Nearly four-in-five American Christians (79 percent) have been at their churches for more than five years. More than half (57 percent) of churchgoers said they are completely committed to their current church.
In light of the importance of doctrine, it should not be surprising that most churchgoers said they agree with their church’s teaching. About half (52 percent) said their beliefs are “completely aligned” with those of the church, while another 42 percent said their beliefs are “mostly aligned.”
Churchgoers with graduate degrees proved least likely to accept all their church’s teachings. Even among them, however, 35 percent said their beliefs are “completely aligned” with those of the church, while 60 percent said the beliefs are “mostly aligned.” Evangelicals proved most likely to agree with their churches, with 62 percent “completely aligned,” compared to only 39 percent of non-evangelicals.
Most churchgoers also told LifeWay Research that their church has fostered their spiritual growth. More than three-quarters (76 percent) said their church has been “extremely helpful” (36 percent) or “very helpful” (40 percent). Only 16 percent said their church has been “moderately helpful,” while only 1 percent said it had been “not at all helpful,” and 2 percent said they were unsure.
When asked what their church could do better to foster spiritual growth, a third (36 percent) said there is “no improvement needed” at their church. A quarter (27 percent) said they would like the church to help them “understand more about God and His Word.” One-fifth (20 percent) expressed the desire that their churches would help them “find new ways to serve that fit my abilities.”
Others asked for more Bible study groups (19 percent), Bible study groups at different times (18 percent), opportunities to know more people in the church (16 percent), a forum to answer spiritual questions (14 percent), opportunities to serve more often (13 percent), worship experiences fitting their needs (13 percent), more time with the pastor (9 percent), and a mentor (8 percent).
Churchgoing Christians are dedicated to their churches, they want to learn more from their pastors, and they rightly value doctrine over politics. Perhaps biblical Christians should reconsider the “evangelical” label, because evangelicals are actually leading the way in this kind of fidelity.