By Monte Sahlin, June 20, 2017: Last week the Gallup Poll released its annual survey asking Americans how they view the Bible: 26 percent said it is “an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man” (the skeptical view), 24 percent said it is “the actual word of God to be taken literally, word for word” (the literal view) and 47 percent took an in-between view; “it is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally.”
Since 1976, when Gallup first asked this question of a random sample of the general public in the United States, the portion of the public taking a literal view has dropped from 38 percent to the current lowest point on record, while those taking the skeptical view have doubled from 13 percent to 26 percent. The percentage selecting the middle ground or mixed view has stayed about the same.
This is the first time that the literal view of Scripture has declined to the lowest share of the overall population. Less than one in four Americans now see the Bible as the literal word of God.
This presents a major challenge for Adventist evangelism because the Bible lessons and sermons used in public meetings, Bible studies and much of the media productions all assume that those interested in the Adventist message take a literal view of Scripture. There are no proven methods and few resource materials that seek to convert individuals who may take the middle ground or skeptical views, although they now include three out of four people.
A few evangelists have used documentary film and other materials from archaeology to attempt to convince people of the literal view, although there is no data on whether this approach works either to change the minds of participants on this topic or to generate converts at a rate comparable to conventional approaches. An even smaller number have urged that Adventist pastors and evangelists use some of the philosophical approaches of conservative Evangelical apologetics to convince to buy into the literal view, although that is a complicated task often beyond the understanding of the average person.
In general, little has been done to develop and test new strategies for outreach that can easily convince people with the middle view, furthermore those with the skeptical view, to find a good reason to join the Adventist fellowship and faith. Increasingly relationships are more important to attracting converts than are proof texts or traditional Adventist logic.
One result is that in recent years a growing percentage of converts are individuals who had a prior connection with the Adventist Church. Often the majority of the people baptized in an evangelism campaign are returning to their Adventist roots.
Research has shown that these are people who were raised in an Adventist family and never established membership as an adult, or they joined the church long ago and then found it did not meet their needs, or they were disfellowshipped at some point most likely due to a divorce or other issues related to sexuality. Those who drop out as young adults often returned to church when they have children and those who drop out in mid-life often returned to church when they retire or face major health issues.
In North America, as well as in Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, the number of people with no Adventist background who join the church as adult converts has been in significant decline for decades. This is in contrast with other parts of the world where not only are there large numbers of adult converts, but even larger percentages of the adult population tell the official census that they are Adventists than the membership statistics can account for.
The Gallup Poll conducted in May found that Americans over 50, adults who do not have a college education and ethnic minorities were more likely to take the literal view of the Bible. Adults under 50, those with a college degree and whites are more likely to take a skeptical view of the Bible.
At the same time, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that 71 percent of Americans still view the Bible as a holy document that is God-inspired, even if they do not see the literal language as God’s own words. This creates a context that many Adventists find uncomfortable in which clearly-defined concepts and a high degree of certainty give way to a highly personal and flexible approach to spiritual life and religion.
There are some Adventist resources that provide a more relational approach to teach the same 28 Fundamental Beliefs the denomination has always taught. I have published a bibliography in my book One Minute Witness which is available from Amazon.com in both paperback and eBook editions.
Monte Sahlin is CEO of Adventist Today and served as a research officer at the denomination’s North American Division as well as at the local and union conference levels for three decades before he retired.