Polls are like having cats for pets (as I do). They are usually nice to have around, and I occasionally take a moment to pay attention to them, sometimes even in a positive manner. But, honestly, I don't trust them very much. They're not very helpful, even if they offer pleasant diversion now and again. They are hardly reliable when it comes to meaningful information. And I sometimes suspect they have a hidden agenda, and that their purring, pretty faces hide something less than genteel and agreeable.
Which brings me to this poll, as reported in Christianity Today:
To understand the range and differences among American Christians, Christianity Today International (publisher of Leadership) recently partnered with Zondervan Publishers to commission Knowledge Networks to conduct attitudinal and behavioral research of U.S. Christians. In September 2006, more than 1,000 self-identified Christians 18 years of age and older were surveyed on their religious beliefs and practices. The results reveal a number of significant differences, illustrated by the examples of Hua and Smith. In fact, portraits of five distinct segments emerged from the study. We have named them Active, Professing, Liturgical, Private, and Cultural Christians.
Each group represents about one-fifth of those identifying themselves as Christian, with Active Christians (such as Hua) most likely to have a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that affects their beliefs and inspires an active church life; Cultural Christians (such as Smith) are least likely to align their beliefs or practices with biblical teachings, or attend church. Between the two is a range of beliefs, commitment levels, and public practice of the faith.
And moving right along to the numbers:
Let's see: I'm good (or do my best to be) for all six of the points under "Active Christians," for #1 and #2 under "Professing Christian," and all four under "Liturgical Christian." I understand, of course, that polls are set up to track trends, find patterns, identify commonalities and differences, etc. But, not surprisingly, the Evangelical pollsters are looking through a particular lens, and they seem to see at least an implicit tension or conflict between, say, believing salvation comes through Jesus Christ and recognizing the authority of the church. Or between seriously reading the Bible and choosing to worship in a church that is liturgical. (It would help to see the questions asked of those polled.)
But why bother bringing this up? After all, CT is an Evangelical publication; why should Catholics take notice? Well, it interests me, as a former Evangelical, because it highlights, even in a rather subtle fashion, the "either/or" mentality at work, a mentality, generally speaking, that creates some significant disconnect when it comes to Evangelical-Catholic conversation. Even as more and more Evangelicals (and I use the term broadly) are taking an interest in liturgy, Church history, and traditional devotions, there still remains a huge divide when it comes to ecclesiology.
It is, I continue to maintain, the divide. And some Evangelicals agree: “If Christ and his church are one, then a great deal of Catholic doctrine simply follows naturally. In a word, ecclesiology represents the crucial difference between evangelicals and Catholics.” That is from Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Baker Academic, 2005), by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, which I reviewed for Touchstone magazine.
As I began to study Catholicism many years ago, there were four works in particular that helped me reassess, deepen, and clarify my understanding of the nature, purpose, and reality of the Church: The Spirit of Catholicism by Karl Adam, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man by Henri de Lubac, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church by Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council's dogmatic constitution on the Church. Each of them demonstrated to me in varying (but complimentary) ways that believing in Jesus Christ, reading and loving Scripture, evangelizing, worshiping God in and through the Liturgy, and acknowledging the maternity and authority of the Church were not only not incompatible, but vitally interconnected and necessary. To put it another way, God's call is so personal and intimate, we are called to become actual children of the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit, within the arms and by the sacraments of Mother Church, birthed in baptism and fed by the Scripture and the Eucharist.
De Lubac wrote, in the chapter titled "Mater Ecclesia":
That said, there is some interesting and important work being done by Evangelicals in the area of ecclesiology. I can't track all of it, of course, but one example is a book that I recently read and then wrote a blurb for, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction (Brazos Press, 2009), by Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger, both of whom are professors at Multnomah Bible College (my wife's alma mater). Here's my blurb:
Harper and Metzger, by the way, quote de Lubac and von Balthasar (along with other Catholic theologians), and engage with aspects of their writings on ecclesiology. Their book is an excellent example of Evangelical theologians seriously studying and considering the beliefs of the Catholic Church (as well as the Orthodox Church), and assessing their ecclesiologies in light of those beliefs. And while it is hard to know, through polls or other means, what exactly that will lead to in Evangelical-Catholic dialogue, it surely is a good thing.
UPDATE (Aug. 17, 2009): Ted Olsen of Christianity Today has pointed out to me that the original poll appeared in Leadership Journal, not CT (although available from ChristianityToday.com). He also pointed out that the piece originally appeared almost two years ago, on October 1, 2007. I somehow overlooked the publication date; I arrived at the article via an August 11, 2009, e-mail from CT, which had the article above linked under a section titled, "Most Popular Articles of the Week."