Gallup, statistics and discipleship

George Gallup Jr. has been studying the numbers for a half century and nobody knows better than he does that they just don't add up.

Most of the familiar, comforting statistics that describe public religion remain remarkably stable from poll to poll. Somewhere around 86 percent of Americans say they believe in God and another 8 percent or so in a "higher power" of some kind. Sixty percent say faith is "very important" in daily life and another 15 percent say it's "fairly important."

In the typical poll, around 80 percent identify themselves as some brand of Christian and claim membership in a congregation. Somewhere between 41 and 46 percent of Americans say they attended church or synagogue in the previous week. Can religious faith answer all of today's problems? Six in 10 say "yes." Throughout the 1990s, nearly two in three affirmed that "God really exists and I have no doubt about it."

But there is another side of this religion equation, said Gallup, during a recent address at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary outside Boston.

"Sadly, our society continues to be wracked by domestic problems," he said. "Four in 10 American children go to bed without a father in the home. One-third of teens have been physically abused in the home. One-fourth of all Americans say that drinking is a problem in their home and half of all marriages this year will end in divorce.

"What lies ahead? Will democracy remain viable? ... How can our faith make a difference? How can it sustain us?"

That final leap of logic -- linking morality, politics and faith -- may seem strange to those who have followed his meticulous work as America's most trusted brand name in public information and the author of 16 books. But Gallup is convinced that most Americans believe that the state of the nation is closely tied to its spiritual health.

Now, the 74-year-old pollster has officially retired. But this doesn't mean Gallup will disappear. As a young man with a religion degree from Princeton University, he considered entering the Episcopal priesthood. No one expects him to stop asking questions about the role of faith in American life.

Truth is, Gallup has more questions than answers. But he said being retired will allow him even more time and freedom to discuss the strategies he thinks clergy should adopt if they want to help the faithful follow the doctrines they claim to believe.

"Surveys reveal an unprecedented desire for religious and spiritual growth among people in all walks of life and in every region of the nation," he said. "There is an intense searching for spiritual moorings, a hunger for God. It is for churches to seize the moment and to direct this often vague and free-floating spirituality into a solid and lived-out faith."

The key, he said, is that too many pastors naively assume that church members know and understand the core doctrines of their own faith.

"For example, half of all Protestants have no idea whatsoever what the word 'grace' means and what it has to do with their salvation," he said, in an interview not long after the Massachusetts address. "Now, that's pretty basic doctrine. Pastors today assume that their people know the basics. They don't."

Clergy assume that believers are familiar with the contents of those Bibles sitting on their bookshelves. They assume church members understand the teachings of other major religions and can hold thoughtful, respectful conversations about the differences between these faiths.

Many even assume their members sincerely want to repent of their sins, amend their lives and become serious Christians.

Gallup said he is constantly shocked to hear that few pastors ever ask members -- person to person, face to face -- about the status of their faith and personal lives. Many pastors no longer see the need to openly discuss the impact of sin.

"Someone has to challenge people to be true disciples of Christ," he said. "Someone has to ask the hard questions. If we don't talk about the whole dimension of sin, repentance, grace and forgiveness, what is the faith all about? What are we doing? ...

"Without true discipleship, the church can simply turn into a social services agency."