What does it actually mean to be a Christian? I mean, I read Christian things from Ameri-Christian culture via social-media…
And then I read the Bible.
And the differences make me wonder about myself, about American Churches, and about what I now call Ameri-Christianity.
The principle growth strategy of many churches is to make it easier for people to believe in Jesus. They want to remove obstacles to Christianity, or make it sound more appealing, to make it easier for people to begin identifying themselves as Christian. People will more easily identify themselves as Christians (and join churches and give to ministries), if Christianity can just be made to sound a little easier than it really is, or a little better than it really is.
Three methods of implementing this strategy are pretty common if you look around.
Just make the church look and feel more familiar, more like-able, like our favorite Monday-Saturday places and experiences. Churches have music and singing; so do concerts. So, let’s make our music and singing feel more like we’re at a concert. It’ll feel more relevant, more high-powered (depending on the skill of your musicians and tech crew), and people will just, plain, feel good. They’ll show up, sit back, and enjoy.
Churches have a sermon; so do those popular (e.g. profitable) self-help, inspirational events. So, let’s make our sermons feel more like a how-to, self-help event. All we have to do is selectively use relevant parts of the Bible, like a manual, for how to have a better/fuller/xtreme life, marriage, career, kids, etc.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit, people like that sort of sermonizing. In fact, if you don’t deliver, you run the risk of having church meetings which you’re not invited to.
Another common way to make Christianity seem more appealing is to fudge a bit on the story about what it means to be a Christian. To make this work, all you have to do is keep on being selective about how you use the Bible in a sermon. After all, there are so many upsides to being a Christian, why not focus just on those? Just talk about the benefits; what you get. And many churches do. Still worse, I see some people directing these for-Christians-only benefits to everyone on social media, not just Christians. There is no “If you belong to Christ…” part of the message. So, not only do people never hear the whole story, but apparently, you needn’t even be a Christian for the benefits to apply to you.
How do they succeed at this? Easy—people like it. Christians. Non-Christians. Everyone. And more importantly, fewer and fewer people who self-identify as Christians have ever read the Bible. All they know is what Pastor X tells them. So, after people start coming to church because it feels familiar to hear about all the benefits of being a Christian (and only the benefits), pretty soon they’re showing up twice a month wanting to hear more of the same.
Believer it or not, some churches take half-gospeling even further. They reason that since Christians sometimes experience (or believe they experience) a few highly desirable benefits that hardly anyone ever experiences, why not promote those very rare, incidental benefits as the central promises of Christianity? No matter that the Bible doesn’t specifically, clearly offer these as promises.
Who does that you may ask?—Anyone who says Christians are supposed to be rich if they have enough faith. Anyone who says Christians won’t ever be sick if they have enough faith. Anyone who says God’s plan for you is to have your best life now, not in the next life.
It is true that Christians can find their financial situations improving as they give up gambling and drunkenness, as they learn moderation, frugality, and generosity. It is also true that Christians can experience full, meaningful lives as they gradually unlearn the behaviors which brought disfunction into their lives and families. But it is not true that God promised Christians would never experience injustice, poverty, heart-break, betrayal, infidelity, deadly illness, discrimination, war, or crime in this life.
Actually, calling this Over-Promising is too generous; perhaps its better to call it what it is: lying in God’s name.
Ameri-Christianity is a populist approach to religion. It figures out what people want and offers it to them. But Jesus, was no populist. And he made it hard, not easy, for people to believe in him. The Scriptures say he didn’t trust himself to people, meaning, He knew when their motives for hanging around, or even promoting Him, was driven by a self-serving agenda. Because He could see motives like you and I see mountains, it even seemed at times He was purposefully driving people away.
I lay this out for you, Reader, because you may experience the populism of Ameri-Christianity Sunday after Sunday without ever noticing. Or, maybe you feel something isn’t quite complete in the messages your hear, but you’re not sure what.
This doesn’t mean your church is of the devil, or that you’re doomed unless you leave it. But it is important for Christians (this writer included) to examine ourselves in light of what Scripture tells us.
Sometimes, when biblical light shines on our conscience, a course of action will appear obvious and necessary; but sometimes, not. Sometimes, the best thing to do is repent, and bring attention to the thing that hasn’t seen enough light for far too long. Our Christian lives and our churches are like a beautiful, yet under-exposed photograph, the darkness can hide flaws that we get used to, flaws that feel normal to us. And we never notice the gospel dimming here and there compared to how it shone when Jesus announced it for the first time.
So, here is some gospel light shining straight from the lips of Jesus. Here are ten sayings that—when I take them seriously—make me stop and reconsider, What it really costs to be a follower of Jesus? Do I really deserve the label, Christian? Does my life do credit to Him as the only One worth following?
Let us together, you and I, reconsider our lives, our Churches, and our Ameri-Christianity again in the light of these faithfully recorded words of Christ. May He give us ears to hear, and eyes to see. May He give us hearts to truly believe and obey.
For His Sake, and by His grace.
(All quotations are from the English Standard Version with verse numbers removed. Summary titles added by me.)
1. God’s Exclusive Claim on Us
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.—Matthew 6:24
2. The Priority God Expects of Us
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.—Matthew 6:33
3. What Following Jesus Will Cost Us
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.—Matthew 16:24
4. More About the Cost…
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.—Matthew 16:25
5. And More…
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.—Luke 14:27–33
6. By Nature, We are Unfit for God’s Kingdom
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”—John 3:3
7. Faith in Jesus is Our Only Escape From God’s Wrath
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.—John 3:36
8. The Demand for Repentance (And What It May Mean for Us…)
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.—Mark 1:15
9. God’s Demand for Our Radical Dependence
Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.—Matthew 18:3
10. Jesus is both Our Savior and Judge
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”—Matthew 13:24–30
Thanks, so much for reading. I hope it helps you reflect more deeply on what it means to adopt the name, Christian.
Oh, and here’s something else I wrote on what it means, specifically, to believe in Jesus.
Finally, please know that I believe there is still tons right with the church in America. I believe in the work of many ministries, and receive personal, spiritual benefit from the instruction of several. I’m also a member of my local Presbyterian (PCA) congregation. If you want ideas about what to read, who to listen to, and who to avoid, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.