As we discussed on Saturday’s show, the trend in American Christianity is to produce "followers" who simply don’t follow. A large percentage of Christians openly disregard the plain moral teachings of their church. Catholic Pat Buchanan and Evangelical Ronald Sider lament the same sorry condition of their respective bodies:
…if John Paul II achieved greatness as a man, a leader, a pope, the same cannot be said of the church he led.
Here in America, there has been a dramatic contraction in the numbers of nuns, priests, churches and parish schools since Vatican II. The church in America has been horribly scarred by the ugliest scandal in its history, the abuse of thousands of altar boys and Catholic children by pedophile and homosexual priests, who crept into the seminaries and were not purged when their predations were discovered.
Moreover, there has been a widespread loss of faith and belief in traditional teachings. On birth control, divorce, sexual morality, abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia, millions of Catholics now embrace Hollywood values and the culture of death. Indeed, it was because John Paul II would not yield on any issue that the "Cafeteria Catholics" still cannot concede his greatness.
Scandalous behavior is rapidly destroying American Christianity. By their daily activity, most "Christians" regularly commit treason. With their mouths they claim that Jesus is Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate allegiance to money, sex, and self-fulfillment.
The findings in numerous national polls conducted by highly respected pollsters like The Gallup Organization and The Barna Group are simply shocking. "Gallup and Barna," laments evangelical theologian Michael Horton, "hand us survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general." Divorce is more common among "born-again" Christians than in the general American population. Only 6 percent of evangelicals tithe. White evangelicals are the most likely people to object to neighbors of another race. Josh McDowell has pointed out that the sexual promiscuity of evangelical youth is only a little less outrageous than that of their nonevangelical peers.
Alan Wolfe, famous contemporary scholar and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, has just published a penetrating study of American religious life. Evangelicals figure prominently in his book. His evaluation? Today’s evangelicalism, Wolfe says, exhibits "so strong a desire to copy the culture of hotel chains and popular music that it loses what religious distinctiveness it once had."Wolfe argues, "The truth is there is increasingly little difference between an essentially secular activity like the popular entertainment industry and the bring-’em-in-at-any-cost efforts of evangelical megachurches."
It is not surprising that George Barna concludes, "Every day, the church is becoming more like the world it allegedly seeks to change.
While there are certainly many other factors contributing to this problem, in my opinion the following two are primary.
1. Approaching religion as a consumer product rather than a worldview.
Traditionally, religion has been understood to be a set of propositions that provide answers to certain questions about reality. For example, religion answers the questions "How did we get here?", "Why are we here – what is the purpose of life?", "What has gone wrong – why is there evil in the world?", "What needs to be done (or has been done) to remedy that situation?" and "What happens when we die?" These teachings were then accompanied by a set of moral guidelines that followed naturally from the answers to those questions.
As such, each religion is understood as an all encompassing worldview. The question to ask of a faith is "Is it true?" and once you accept any particular religion as factual, the only reasonable thing to do is follow the subsequent moral teachings. After all, within this framework, your goal is a human is to align yourself as closely as possible with reality – you were made for religion.
In contemporary culture, however, religion was made for you. Most people today understand religion as something which meets a desire in your life. It is a product that we use for personal enhancement. Within this framework, faith is does not tell us anything objectively true about the universe. Rather, it meets a subjective "need" within humanity. We treat it like we would any other consumer product – shop around until you find the model that best "works for you" and try it out for awhile. If your needs or desires change or you become dissatisfied with the product, you can always change.
Within this framework, morals are an antiquated relic of that old view of religion. If they get taught at all, it is usually with some utilitarian emphasis so as to show off how consumer friendly they are. (Don’t have sex before marriage because you might get a disease," etc. rather than "God’s design for sex is to have it within marriage – don’t disobey God.") Mostly, however, they either don’t get taught or are taught as optional extras for those who are "really into" the religion. Whether or not you actually keep any of the rules is completely up to you, as you are the customer and the customer is always right.
The approach to religion is found in both the clergy and the laity. Parishioners are now notorious at being "cafeteria Christians", but Church leaders must take blame as well for encouraging the church-hopping, consumer mindset by constantly striving to change the church to meet the "felt needs" (read "arbitrary whims and selfish desires") of their "target market." Having worked in the church sub-culture, I can assure you that there is an overwhelming desire to get and keep butts in the seats through whatever marketing scheme or business technique is available. Jesus is now as product, as I have commented on before, and the results speak for themselves.
2. Dispensing Cheap Grace
A second reason that so few Christians actually obey church teachings is that they believe they can be saved anyway. They think they are OK with God even without the hassle of obedience. "God still loves me," I have heard from more than one openly rebellious sinner, "He’ll still let me into Heaven." These folks believe God’s main business is forgiving, and since He does that without end and unconditionally, they can go on disobeying with impunity, confident that this grace without cost will make everything all right in the end.
The Catholic side of this equation emphasizes the assurance of future forgiveness. You can plan debauchery Saturday night knowing that your slate can be wiped clean in the confessional booth Sunday morning.
The Protestant side emphasizes past forgiveness. Because Jesus died for the sins of mankind once for all, as long as you have "asked him into your heart" by confessing once in your life, nothing you can do is outside of that forgiveness. No matter what kind of sinful life you live, God’s grace is big enough.
Both of these views belay an astoundingly umbiblical approach to sin, salvation and discipleship, not to mention the nature of God and his purposes.
Jesus’ offer of salvation is one of grace, but it is an offer of the grace to follow Him and become like Him so as to better reflect His glory. Any Christian life that is not following Jesus and becoming more like Jesus is not likely a Christian life at all. From 1 John 3:
8He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. 9No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.
The grace of God is not dispensed to enable us to live in sin. It is dispensed to enable us to live in righteousness. Any life that is not lived in righteousness has not understood or received grace. As Paul says in Romans 6:
1What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?