Most Evangelicals Say Worship Alone Is A “Valid Substitute” For Church

In a large national survey, most American evangelicals say worshiping alone or with family is a “good replacement” for regular church attendance. Reflecting a 15-point increase from a similar 2020 survey, this is the first time a majority of evangelical believers have affirmed this view.

This is according to the “State of American Theology” study, a biennial survey of a nationally representative sample, which was released on Monday. It was conducted by Lifeway Research, a Nashville-based research company affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and sponsored by Ligonier Ministries, a teaching ministry grounded in Reformed theology.

The survey reports that two-thirds of all Americans (66%) believe that worshiping outside of a local congregation is as “valid” as worshiping with one. When controlling for respondents with “evangelical beliefs,” most evangelicals (54%) affirm the statement.

The State of Theology survey has been tracking Americans’ religious beliefs for several years. (Image: Life Pathways Research)

“Religious identity, beliefs and behavior are interrelated,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “When in-person church attendance behaviors were disrupted and habits were broken, it affected some Americans’ beliefs about the need to come together with other believers to worship.”

Last fall, Pew Research reported that the vast majority of places of worship had reopened to the public without restriction. Evangelicals were notably the segment with worship services that were fully open, and the most opposed to the COVID-related restrictions that continue to be imposed.

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For this recent study, Lifeway Research interrogates a statistically significant group of 3,011 Americans. The research firm’s lead writer, Aaron Earls, said The Roys Report that 711 of these respondents met the criteria for gospel belief.

To be classified as evangelical, respondents had to affirm the “Bebbington Quadrangle”, a set of four beliefs defined by theologian David Bebbington. Specifically, they had to “strongly agree” that:

  1. The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  2. It is very important to me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  3. The death of Jesus Christ on the cross is the only sacrifice that could take away the pain of my sin.
  4. Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Confusion about God, including among evangelicals

The survey also revealed that most Americans are far removed from understanding the nature of God as set forth in historical Christian doctrines.

Specifically, 60% of American adults say religious belief is a matter of personal opinion rather than objective truth. Additionally, 67% of Americans say God accepts worship from all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. And 53% of Americans say Jesus was a great teacher but not God.

“Many Americans think of God as if he only revealed himself in some vague, indescribable way,” McConnell said. “They seem to fill in the gaps with whatever they want to believe. This creates stark contrasts between what Americans believe about God and how He is revealed in great detail in the Bible.

americans religious beliefs worship only replacement
The State of Theology study finds that many Americans’ religious beliefs are not aligned with historic Christian doctrine (Image: Lifeway Research)

However, confusion over doctrine seemed to be mirrored, if not exacerbated, among American evangelicals.

In the most striking example: 55% of Americans and 73% of Evangelicals believe that Jesus is the first and greatest created being. (This belief stroke counter to historical Christian doctrine.)

The survey also found that 59% of Americans overall say the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being — a percentage that is mirrored among evangelical respondents. (historical Christian doctrine too refutes this belief.)

Daniel Darling, director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, viewed these latest survey findings as a call to action for evangelical ministers.

He tweeted: “Hot Caught: Pastors & Church Leaders Assuming Theological Literacy That May Not Exist. This is why the regular teaching of fundamental doctrines is important.

Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd writing on faith, culture and public policy for several media electrical outlets. He and his wife live in the Washington, DC area with their two children.

Barry F. Howard