The entire experience left me with more questions. I wanted to know how unified Christians, especially evangelicals, are on the subject of the Gospel. Specifically, I wanted to know if the majority of people agreed on the content of the saving message. Over about two years, I have built a sizable online audience. I have one social media account which has around 20,000 followers, most of whom are Christians. It occurred to me that I might be able to survey this audience to find the answers for which I was searching.
I put together two surveys. These, I hoped, would be more standardized than my previous impromptu one at the conference, though I crafted these online surveys around the same simple question. This time I wanted more information about the participants. I titled the project: Salvation Survey. Below is the content of the survey.
There were 623 participants who initially completed the multiple choice survey and then another 476 took part a later essay survey. In all, we had 1,099 responses to our surveys, which gave us a lot of data to consider. Participants from all over the country as well as some international responses were received. All participants were self-identified Christians. Quite a few conclusions can be drawn from the responses. I'm only going to hit the high points concerning this topic.
As we considered the data some basic patterns emerged. The survey showed that those who volunteer in churches, such as Sunday school teachers, are statistically more likely to include additional requirements (such as good works) for salvation. See the chart on the following page.
Another interesting thing we noticed was that no single requirement was unanimously chosen by all participants. In fact, the most agreed upon requirement was agreed upon by only 77% of the participants. On most requirements, there was much more disagreement. The most startling conclusion came when the results were arranged into what I would call agreement groups. We bundled the participants into groups who agreed with one another on the requirements for salvation. When the results were averaged, 98.9% of self-identified Christians disagreed on any given assortment of salvation requirements.1 Even more heart-wrenching, 324 participants, that's 52%, did not agree with anyone else on what was required for salvation.
This is difficult to visualize I admit, so let me illustrate it this way. Imagine you have a town where the Christian population is 623 people. Now you want to create churches where the members of each church agree on what is required for salvation. You survey the town's Christians and find that there is so little agreement among the Christians that the average church size would be about 6 people. Many of the churches would only have two or three people. What's even sadder is that over half of the town's Christians couldn't go anywhere because they don't agree with anyone else. This is an image of how much Christians disagree on the requirements of salvation. Based on these responses what seems to happen is that people ignore some of their own convictions in order to attend church.
I knew it was terrible, but I didn't realize it was this bad. I wanted more data. I wanted to prove myself wrong, so I devised a second stage for this survey. In addition to the primary study, two written surveys were also conducted. One was done as part of the first round of surveys; a second was done entirely independently. These second surveys were open-ended and included 476 participants. Each participant was also a self-identified Christian. They were asked the question, What must someone do to be saved? This time they were given a blank page. The results of this survey were much more challenging to analyze because it was not a standardized model. The results of this written survey made things seem even bleaker.
Many responses were a near incoherent jumble of Gospel jargon. Others wrote long paragraphs which included many unclear and implied requirements. A host of responses were self-contradictory. Many answers explained no requirements at all. Some just wrote the single word, "Jesus." There is almost no way to systematically or empirically analyze these essay responses, but a general sense emerged as I combed through the results. The wide variety of responses demonstrates that there is minimal consensus on the essential question of salvation. Disagreement concerning the fundamentals of the Gospel is rampant. The people who claim to be Christians do not agree on what is required to be a Christian. The exceedingly vast majority disagree on what is necessary to have eternal salvation.
There was a bias inherent in the survey which did not occur to me until some time after the study was completed. The survey did not have an option for, ‘I don't know.' This was a massive oversight on my part. I very badly would like to know how many people we surveyed were absolutely confident that their view of the Gospel is correct. There may have been many who would have admitted that they were not actually sure what is required.
This survey, along with loads of personal conversations since, has convinced me of this simple fact: People are confused about what God requires a person to do in order to gain eternal life. People are either doggedly in disagreement or simply uncertain. In either case, the result is functionally similar. They disagree, and they can't all be right.
1 The average grouping of agreement was approximately 1% of the whole sample size. A one percent grouping represents about 6 people out of 623. Thus, on average only about 6 people out of 623 could agree on any given arrangement of salvation requirements. This means that if a person presents the Gospel with the requirements they believe should be included, on average 98.9% of self-identified Christians would disagree that they have presented the correct requirements for salvation. Though this was the average there were a few groups with larger numbers. The largest agreement cluster in the survey was 53 out of 623. This means that the largest grouping of agreement comprised only 8.5% of the whole. The next largest groups were 4.8%, 4.4%, and two groups of 3.3%. Even when the most agreed upon salvation requirement is presented, 91.5% of self-identified Christians would disagree that it is correct.