In their book, America’s Four Gods, authors Paul Froese and Christopher Bader draw on the Baylor Religious Survey and Interview project to determine the extent to which people believe: 1) God loves the world; 2) God judges the world; and 3) God engages the world.
From this, they suggest that the American public can be split into four theological camps in terms of their belief about the nature of God:
1. The Authoritative God (a God who is both engaged and judgmental)
2. The Benevolent God (a God who is engaged, yet nonjudgmental)
3. The Critical God (a God who is judgmental but disengaged)
4. The Distant God (a God who is nonjudgmental and disengaged)
Which “God” is most popular?
According to the study:
1. 31% believe in an “authoritative” God.
2. 24% believe in a “benevolent” God.
3. 24% believe in a “distant” God.
4. 16% believe in a “critical” God.
5. 5% are atheists.
For those attempting to engage the culture for the cause of Christ, this is a pivotal study to explore. And to consider. When you speak or teach on God, you must have in mind the varying understandings of God in the minds of your listeners.
Most Christian pastors and teachers would assume an authoritative God, and rightly so – that is the majority opinion. It is also the dominant belief of those who were raised in the church. Of those embracing the view of an authoritative God, 22% went to church several times a week as a child. This was true of only 16% of those embracing a benevolent view, 8% of those holding to a critical view, 5% of those who believe God is distant, and 4% of atheists.
Little wonder that 47% of all Evangelical Protestants hold to an authoritative or benevolent view of God. Among Roman Catholics, this drops to 30%, and among Mainline Protestants, it drops to just 18%.
My experience would suggest that the authoritative view of God, while active among the churched, is far from being dominant among the unchurched. There you find the benevolent, critical or distant views of God in full play.
And the more someone is unchurched, the more the scale slides from authoritative to benevolent, benevolent to critical, critical to distant, and finally, from distant to someone who has embraced an atheistic worldview.
All to say, those of us wishing to engage our culture for Christ must learn to speak to each of these perspectives.
If God is simply benevolent in their minds, then we will need to make an apologetic for His authority and demands. They embrace Christ as Forgiver…they will need help with Christ as Leader – and to see that the two are inseparable.
If God is simply critical in their thinking, then they will need to be introduced to His love and grace. They will hear a call to “get in line,” but they also need to hear their name uttered as beloved son or daughter.
If God is distant, then whoever is attempting to speak into their lives will need to understand they are addressing “functional” atheism. God is irrelevant to their life and thought, and He will need to be unmistakably exploded in their heart and mind.
If God does not exist (to them), then we must make a case for His existence in a manner that pushes Him forward into their thinking in ways that will begin the journey from disbelief to belief; to that point where they imagine a God who is, at the very least, there.
The goal is to help everyone journey toward the God who is not simply one of four American ideas, but who is,
James Emery White
Froese, Paul and Christopher Bader. America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God – and What That Says About Us (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published in 2010.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.