A few weeks ago a pastor friend of mine said to me over lunch, “I am afraid that a lot of people in church are there because they like the Christian culture and not because of Christianity itself.” The idea struck me then, and I agreed with him that I thought this may be the case. I then forgot about the conversation for a while. Later it came back to me during a church service and I wondered just what exactly all these people were here for. I certainly hope that they were all there to worship God. There is no other good reason to be there. Yet I do know that the pastor was right in what he said. Despite, or perhaps because of, the decline of faith in the public arena today there has been a growth of what one would call a Christian culture in America. The actual numbers of dedicated Christians are about the same according to most research. The amount of money and time they put into Christian-themed endeavors may have increased though. I believe this is especially true in medium to larger sized churches. I do not know the actual numbers involved, but it is safe to say that there is a noticeable increase in Christian themed expressions among church goers.
One of my pet measures of culture is by its T-shirts. One can pick up on current trends often by watching the most common expressions which almost invariably find their way onto clothing. The past decade has seen a marked increase in such displays, especially by younger and middle-age Christians. There is nothing at all wrong with this. On the whole it is a very positive thing to see people display openly their beliefs in an age of public disavowal of faith.
My concern however is among those attending church, wearing the T-shirts, saying the right things, yet never coming to accept the reality of Christ. They are totally involved in a Christian lifestyle, yet it is hollow. I know this is starting to sound like a judgement. In some ways it may be. Yet do not think that it is a condemnation. It is not. It is rather a concern of mine. I worry that if we focus only a Christian lifestyle, we do run the risk of missing the Message.
We may promote health, wealth, and open display of a Christian family and do very well. However there must never be any ambiguity that we do this in the name of Jesus Christ and that in order to actually live a Christian life one must become a true believing Christian. In other words, you must be born again. No amount of loving your neighbor or displaying a cross or protesting abortions will save anyone.
The Christian lifestyle may seem to many outside the church to be a very positive thing. Many see it as a healthy counterculture to America’s obsession with the self and a faithless ideology. For many years in America the idea of an actual full Christian life has been moribund. Christianity was driven into the privacy of one’s home or behind church walls. Expressions outside those boundaries were discouraged, even by the clergy. To those outside the church who by nature like some sort of culture of faith, the growth of Christian culture is at least a step in the right direction.
The problem with this idea is not in what it has, but what it lacks. I fear that for many churchgoers the phenomenon is a gut reaction to America’s increasing anti-Christian attitude. And as a gut reaction it often misses the point. The point being that Christianity is not about T-shirts, bumper stickers, day cares, home schooling, or youth groups. It is about God. Any other purpose it serves is just baggage, whether it be helpful or harmful. Unless a church or an individual Christian is in some way serving to show people the Grace of God and the salvation offered by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, it is a failure.
This includes expression of the Christian culture. If the individual in question has not fully accepted the slogan on his T-shirt as truth, it is only a covering for disbelief. Christ made it plain that there is no use in pretending or sitting on a fence. You are either for Him completely or against Him. Any culture derived from Christian faith must come only after the faith has been accepted.
As a matter of clarification, I think that there are some clues to those playing a game and those serious about God. Note this is not a judgement or condemnation. Instead it is a common sense call to action. One who is in it for the culture alone will probably not last long. At the very least you will see a great wavering when any kind of adversity comes along for them. The true faith in Christ allows the believer to overcome trials that would discourage others to the point of quitting. Another clue is that you may find someone who prescribes to culture alone is hard to find when the difficult work comes around. They are all for youth outings and seminars and perhaps even some bible study. However when serious prayers, sickness visits, and witnessing to sinners comes around, they are far less likely to show up than the committed believer.
A test of the divide between a Christian and one who seeks comfort in Christian culture may be the test of a life change. Does one who was a known sinner before manifest real change in their life after their encounter with Christ? Is it a lasting change that you can count on over time? When they encounter difficulties, do they show what may be deemed a Christ-like response, or at least an attempt at one. Do you see a change in the desires of their life? Are they still primarily world-centered or are they Christ-centered? To ask such questions does not make us a judge, for we should form no condemning opinion from it. Rather, it makes us informed as to the state of the faith around us. How can you admonish and instruct, as Scripture says, if you don’t know what is wrong?
Is the growth of a Christian cultural base good or bad for the growth of the kingdom of God? This is a question that must be raised but I am not certain that I am the one to answer it, not that it has ever stopped me before. The increasing visibility of a cultural expression of Christianity, whether by T-shirts, books, shops, music, or public expression would seem only to further the cause of Christ. Anytime the world outside can be made aware of the saving Grace of God, they are better for it. Yet, the church must take care that the world is not lulled into a false sense of security based on some shallow commercialized form of faith. We cannot expect anyone to face the serious trials of life and temptation with a faith based on bumper-stickers. Such things may be good as attracters and reminders, but they cannot inspire or instruct in the deep, meaningful ways we need.
Today’s world is so utterly fast-paced and complicated that we must do one of two things with our faith. Either simplify our lives to the point that our faith can catch up, or embolden our faith to the pace of our lives. I am not sure which of these is best. One may work better for some, the other for others. Regardless our faith should never be transient or based on a fad or cultural whim. Sometimes a certain book, or phrase will pop up among the faithful that is the catchword of the day. It breaks all sales records and draws much attention to the faith.
This is fine and well, yet such pinpoints of light in a dark world are nothing compared to the everlasting truth found in the bible and in the lives of the saints lived before men. Far more people will watch your life, than will ever read your biography.
I generally advocate that Christians observe all actions and movements within the church with a sharp and wary eye. I suppose that a certain degree of cynicism is part of this view, as regarding the general history of human nature and faith. Also at work however, is a definite scriptural principle. Jesus instructed us to be wise as serpents. We should always be wary and never giving undue trust to any human institution or movement. The Christian faith should never be the lap dog of any politician, political movement or ideological faction. To join in any of these forces would be utterly detrimental to the work of the church. For all these things involve on their basic level a work that is founded in the notion that this world and this life are all that there is. Power in this world is their ultimate goal. This in directly in contrast to the Christian goal of spiritual reunion with God to be lived out in the fully next world.