Our Gallup Poll shows a positive correlation between age and belief. The inverse is true for education.

How much does a person’s age and education influence his religious beliefs and practices? For example, do older persons and the college-educated have unique characteristics that should concern the churches’ ministries to them? Further, what about that old stereotype, “Faith is for the ignorant”? The purpose of this analysis of data from the CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll is to single out and reflect on some of the differences, so that churches might more accurately assess their present and projected ministries of evangelism and Christian education.

America’s older people may have a number of problems, but lack of religious faith is not one of them. The CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll clearly shows that persons 50 and over have a solid commitment to God that goes beyond intellectual assent and is relevant to their everyday lives.

This is an important finding, because the problems of the elderly now occupy center stage in much of the country’s political, economic, and social planning. Researchers make it clear that in the future an increasingly larger segment of the total U.S. population will be made up of older persons.

In the context of this social trend, it is encouraging to see that older persons have a secure faith rooted in the Scriptures and in faithful participation in both personal and corporate worship. A significant number cling to personal faith in Christ as their assurance of heaven, even though one of the major problems of the elderly seems to be connected with attacks of doubt.

By and large, the elderly have not been deterred from their commitment to the Bible’s standards of morality. On the other hand, the CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll shows that, for many of them, talking to another person about their faith is a very difficult proposition.

Many older persons face severe financial strains, yet they have not cut back on their giving to their churches and other religious works. All things considered, those 50 and over constitute a vitally important cog in the overall health of the churches.

Of course, there are continuing needs among these persons. For example, despite the very high percentages of those over 50 who show many signs of active faith and participation in religious duties, two-thirds of them have never had a life-changing religious experience. One-fourth of them are not members of any church, and about one-fifth of them never attend church services. Likewise, 20 percent never read their Bibles.

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Churches will find there is a strong reservoir of support, good will, and service among older persons. At the same time, they will have to ferret out those pockets of elderly persons hidden away in nursing homes, tiny apartments, and rural shacks, and minister to them according to their special needs.

When it comes to drawing a religious profile of America’s young adults (18 to 29 years old), the picture is fuzzy at best. Or perhaps it would be better to say they talk a good faith, but have a hard time practicing it. And in some important matters they simply flunk.

Of course, 9 out of 10 of them believe in God, but only 4 out of 10 draw a lot of consolation from their belief. However, 7 out of 10 have a healthy respect for the Deity, in the sense that they believe he rewards and punishes according to deeds done.

From there on, it is clear that young adults lack strong personal commitment to God, are ignorant of Christian doctrine, and are uninvolved in the life and ministry of the churches. More than two-thirds of those 18 to 29 have never had a life-changing religious experience.

The CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll gives stark evidence of the effects of subjectivism and existentialism upon America’s youth in recent decades. Of those who have had a religious conversion, nearly one-fourth asserted that it had nothing to do with Jesus Christ. Their subjectivism is also seen in the fact that more than one-third of them determine their religious beliefs first by what the Holy Spirit says to them individually. Further, only 31 percent think the Bible is free of mistakes. On the origin of man, young adults lean heavily toward theistic evolution.

Only 26 percent have a correct doctrinal understanding of Jesus as fully God and fully man. Because of their ignorance of basic Christian doctrine, huge numbers of young adults are trying to earn their way to heaven, and many others don’t care because they don’t believe what they do in the here and now has any effect on their fate in the life after death.

It is in terms of church life that the religious weakness of America’s young adults is most noticeable. Thirty-one percent of them never go to church! Nearly half of them (44 percent) never give any money to the church or religious work. Only 57 percent belong to any church—10 percent less than the national average.

Their private worship record is no better. Thirty percent of the young adults never read the Bible and 28 percent of them read it less than once a month. In this regard their performance is not much below that of the public as a whole.

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All in all, in spite of the much touted religious revival among youth in the sixties, it is clear there is urgent need for evangelism among young adults and for a new revival of personal and corporate piety and Christian duty among those who have some level of commitment to Christ and his church. Perhaps the prevailing pressure of the cultural “counterrevolution” of the late sixties and early seventies made a more lasting and deeper impact than has previously been conceded by scholars, pastors, and church workers.

Middle-aged Americans (30 to 49 years old) also are strongly committed to the church, but a remarkably high 63 percent of them recall no life-changing religious experience. Nearly 7 out of 10 are members of a church, and one-fourth of them go to church once a week or more. On the other hand, 20 percent never go to church at all, so that means there are some 10.5 million persons in this age bracket who need to be reached.

Their commitment to the Bible’s authority, internal integrity, and moral application also ranks high. On the other hand, their personal devotions leave much to be desired: only 11 percent read the Bible daily or more and 25 percent never read it.

At the same time, those in their middle years for the most part do have a personal faith in Jesus Christ as their only hope of heaven. Such faith needs to be nurtured; discipleship training is imperative. Bible knowledge is lacking and daily witnessing is virtually nonexistent.

A college education doesn’t do much for one’s religious faith; in fact, Americans with only a grade school education are more consistently religious in belief and practice than those who have been to college. Those who have completed high school fall somewhere in between.

This fact places the churches in a critical bind. For many years, Christians were taunted with charges of ignorance and obscurantism. Faith was said to be for the ignorant and pastors were accused of ducking tough intellectual questions. Church kids by the thousands went off to college and promptly lost whatever faith they had.

More recently, the Christian faith has achieved a more respectable standing in academia, thanks to the hard work of committed evangelical scholars. Yet the pressures of secular culture and economics have been such that college is seen as a necessity for Christian and non-Christian alike.

Facts from the CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll show the necessity of a much stronger precollege Christian education program in the churches. Of course, it could also be said that part of the answer is Christian higher education. The poll of the public’s religious attitudes does not test the distinction between those respondents who went to secular colleges against those who went to Christian ones. That may not make much of a difference in the future, considering the vast differences in enrollments. The country’s religion in the future, perhaps even more than in the past, will be determined to a significant extent by what happens in its colleges and universities. Here’s why:

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As a group, across the country, college-educated persons rank lower than others in belief in God, in belief that the Deity rewards and punishes, and in the degree of consolation they receive from their faith. They stand lower in commitment to a Bible free of errors, in belief that human life began when God created Adam and Eve, and in going to the Bible first to settle religious questions.

It follows that college-educated persons read their Bibles less often, but it is striking that 84 percent of them believe the Ten Commandments are valid, and more college-educated persons can name at least five of the commands than can either high school—or grade school—educated persons.

But when compared to others of lower educational attainments, college-trained people have less hope in Christ alone to save them, and more than one-fourth of them either do not believe there is life after death, or if there is, it doesn’t matter how one lives now.

On the other hand, there is no small indication that a religious experience of some kind has touched the lives of a significant portion of people who have been to college. Thirty percent of them testify this to be true of themselves, but of that group, one-fifth had no personal encounter with Christ and one-fourth said the experience was not a “conversion.”

There is solid data to show considerable vagueness in religious understanding. But that vagueness does not deter college people from church membership and attendance. Interestingly, in membership and attendance one’s educational attainments make virtually no difference at all. There appears to be significant commitment to institutional religion among those with college degrees, but intellectual and doctrinal understanding are lacking.

Compared to the general public, to Roman Catholics, and to Protestants, America’s 31 million evangelical Christians show remarkably higher levels of religious commitment, knowledge, and practice. However, what makes interpretation of the CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll a tricky business is the fact that figures for the public at large, as well as for Catholics and Protestants, include evangelicals as well.

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For example, take away the evangelical presence, and what would happen to the 94 percent figure that measures the public’s belief in God? Or to the statistic that shows 42 percent of the public believing the Bible is without mistakes? And if you took the evangelicals out of the Catholic and Protestant percentages, where would you be?

However, one of the benefits of using poll data is achieved by comparing the statistical separation of the groups. (See accompanying chart.) In some matters there are significant differences, in others none. For example, evangelicals as a group do tend to have a firmer commitment to God who rewards and punishes. They also are ahead in terms of getting more consolation from their faith.

It is to be expected that evangelicals, when compared to nonevangelical Catholics and Protestants, would outrank them in having a life-changing religious experience. And in greater numbers they identify this experience as a conversion that involved Jesus Christ. Consequently, they are much more sure of heaven solely on the basis of their faith in Christ.

Their doctrinal understanding is sharper, as is their Bible knowledge. They surpass Catholics and Protestants in believing the Bible has no errors, in believing human life began when God created Adam and Eve, and in going to the Bible first as their authority in religious matters.

When it comes to church life, evangelicals rank highest in membership, attendance, and giving. In expressing their faith, evangelicals are ahead in witnessing and in daily Bible reading.

Comparisons of Catholics and Protestants confirm traditional strengths and weaknesses. To a greater extent, Catholics believe God rewards and punishes; Protestants draw more consolation from their faith and are more strongly committed to Christ alone as their hope of heaven.

More Protestants than Catholics believe the Bible has no mistakes, and of course Protestants far surpass Catholics in going to the Bible first as their religious authority. Conversions and life-changing religious experiences are predominantly Protestant territory.

Protestants and Catholics rank about the same in accepting the validity of the Ten Commandments, but Catholics know them better. Catholics also are ahead of Protestants in a proper doctrinal understanding of the person of Christ.

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In terms of personal devotions, Protestants do much better than Catholics. There is not much difference in church membership and attendance, but Protestants tithe to a greater degree. There’s not much to brag about in this category: one-fifth of Protestants and Catholics alike don’t give anything.

Clearly, the country’s religious pulse is strong. That strength no doubt is due in significant measure to the lasting impact of widespread evangelism, strong local churches (many independent), and commitment to Bible study personally and institutionally. The dissemination of Bible teaching by radio, television, literature, and at camps and conferences is also important. As evangelical distinctives are maintained, strengthened, and targeted to meet changing social and intellectual needs, Protestantism, Catholicism and the nation at large will benefit.

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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