A New American Christianity

Would you agree that Christianity is slipping in the United States? The Barna Group is a research organization that surveys the United States religious scene on a regular basis. They reported in 2006 that the population of what they call “born again Christians” has increased in the United States since the early eighties. However, the very next year, the results of their surveys showed that although the spiritual activities of Americans remained relatively stable, our belief in Biblical views was slipping. These views include foundational biblical doctrines (such as the sinlessness of Jesus, and the view of God as the “all-powerful, all-knowing perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today”).

Why are numbers of Christian “adherents” seemingly growing in America while authentic Christianity wanes? I believe a major contributor is lack of commitment and sacrifice. We are so busy and distracted by our material “blessings” that we are unwilling to sacrifice. As David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, puts it,

“Most Americans have one foot in the biblical camp, and one foot outside it. They say they are committed, but to what? They are spiritually active, but to what end? The spiritual profile of American Christianity is not unlike a lukewarm church that the Bible warns about.”

I think many American Christians struggle so much with sacrifice because they don’t understand why God would want them to give up all that He has supposedly blessed them with. They believe, and rightfully so, that God wants them to enjoy life while serving Him. Certainly they are right in this respect, since Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” God wants us to be joyful, to rejoice, to enjoy life. But, notice Paul says we are to “rejoice in the Lord.”

One of Jesus’ most beautiful parables is also one of His shortest. In John 12:24-25 He says,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

The grain of wheat makes a perfect illustration for His point. Unless that seed is buried in the ground it will always be lonely, just a single seed. Where is the enjoyment in that? But, if the seed gives up its life as a seed to be planted, then true, full life results.

The application is so obvious Jesus probably doesn’t have to explain, but He does anyway. “Whoever loses his life” and “hates his life” will “find” and “keep” life for eternity. To frame it in the language of our modern-day discussion, Jesus says that unless we are willing to let go of everything we have in this life, including our very lives, then we will never truly enjoy life.

The trouble with American Christianity today is that we think our enjoyment of life is attached to everything in this life. But, true enjoyment comes from serving God, and even giving up everything in this life, as Jesus says. That’s why first century Christians rejoiced when they faced persecution, while we complain about it and try to fight it. That’s why first century Christians had such wonderful community and “glad hearts” when they were willing to share all of their possessions, while we look suspiciously on those who ask for handouts. Their enjoyment of life was not based on what they had, but on Who they belonged to. I supposed this is what Jesus meant when He told us to “store up treasures in heaven.”

If you believe that God wants you to enjoy life, then you are absolutely right; but, if you think that enjoyment comes from stuff, and going to the movies, and having a good job, and getting an education, and whatever else people mean when they speak of “living life to the fullest,” then it is time to reevaluate just what Jesus meant by that dying seed parable.

Did you notice that that wonderful little parable came in the context of Jesus talking about His death; His sacrifice; the cross?

So, we need a new American Christianity. We need men and women who are willing to put God first, to make time in their schedules to study the Bible and pray. We need Christians who will sacrifice their “get ahead careers” to come under others in service. We need teens who are willing to help their parents understand that Bible homework is more important than school homework, and that church activities are more important than sports, band, and debate. We need Peters, Johns, and Pauls who will drop everything to follow Jesus. We need to get over our fear of sacrifice, and take up our crosses.

Only then will we learn what true enjoyment is.

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4 thoughts on “A New American Christianity

  1. I don’t want to sway too far off topic here, but when I speak to people, they tell me its all too confusing and they cite the many denominations with contrary doctrine. Perhaps that’s another topic for another day.

    You are right though, lack of commitment and sacrifice play a big role. Today, we are so centered around materialism and worldly pleasure, that we often do not see the big picture.

    If professing Christians were more giving,we would not have the decline cited by Barna Group.

    My personal opinion is that most who profess Christ are setting bad examples. The early Church were a people who gave up their own possessions for the cause of Christ. Their pattern was Jesus — He gave his Life that sinners could be saved from sin, the early Church understood this and their hearts were solely committed to winning more souls to Christ. So, maybe it boils down to a heart condition.

    • I think you are right…it is a heart condition. But, I believe it is also an addiction. We can’t imagine living with less, or doing less so we can do more for God. We say we can quit any time, and we justify what we do and have.

      But, I am not just meaning that we need to be more giving, but that we need to be sacrificial. And maybe they are the same thing, but I’m reminded of the story of the wealthy men who dumped bags of money in the collection bins at the temple; they GAVE a lot. But the widow who dropped in two small coins SACRIFICED everything. I don’t believe that in our giving we are truly sacrificing. And, of course, this is not just applicable for monetary giving, but for our time, energy, attention, etc.

      And, I have this problem, too. I know I need to work on it. I just hope other Christians see the problem in their lives and choose to address it as well.

  2. Clint good article, I was struck with the visual by Barna of Christians having one foot in the biblical camp and one foot outside it. It reminded me of Matt. 6:24ff Jesus says, “you can’t serve two masters…” Only in America do we claim to be able to do that. Our claim comes in the form of our actions. We compartmentalize our lives into little pieces that act as if islands unto themselves, so that what I do on Tuesday has little bearing on what I sing on Sunday. This disconnect has lead to much confusion by those outside looking in. I often ask myself, what is it about my relationship with God that others would want. In other words, if someone came up to me and said, why would I want what you have? Most Christians in American culture do not have an answer that does not involve some level of materialism. I believe there are some other Barna studies (not sure) that indicate that Christians, are not showing that a relationship with Christ makes much difference as it pertains to divorce rates, alcoholism, abuse etc… so it comes back to the question asked by the seeker, Why would I want what you have, if by your own actions you show that what you have offers little help over life without Christ. Sadly, many American Christians are now being presented with the opportunity like never before to share Jesus, Him crucified, only to find that they have no voice, because they have chosen to serve two masters and it hasn’t worked. Thanks again for your article, looking forward to working with you guys this summer. In the Shadow of the King, Jeff Procter

  3. Jeff,

    I agree. The disconnect between what we claim to believe and how we live has been so damaging to our influence…and I think you are right about those Barna studies showing that, morally speaking, the secular and Christian worlds are very similar.

    Any thoughts on how to fix this? (besides the obvious answer: just keep preaching it)

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