I have come to believe that the most urgent business of the Church is not the evangelization of the lost, as important as that is, but the re-evangelization of the saved. Why so? For over a decade, George Barna has been studying the beliefs and behaviors of Christians; his findings are not encouraging.
In his 2001 book Growing True Disciples, Barna reported, “To the naked eye, the thoughts and deeds (and even many of the religious beliefs) of Christians are virtually indistinguishable from those of nonbelievers.” Six years later, he similarly reported, “Born again Christians are statistically indistinguishable from non-born again adults on most of the behaviors studied.” (The studied behaviors included lying, substance abuse, and extramarital sex.)
The pollster’s latest research suggests some underlying causes.
Based on surveys taken from 2005 to 2010, Barna found that less than 20 percent of Christians in America are committed to spiritual formation. What’s more, says Barna, “less than one out of ten have talked about their faith with a non-Christian, fasted for religious purposes, and had an extended time of spiritual reflection during the past week.”
He goes on to report that among self-identified Christians, less than 3 percent “have surrendered control of their life to God, submitted to His will for their life, and devoted themselves to loving and serving God and other people.”
Just think: Eighty percent of Americans profess to be Christians, yet only between 3 to 20 percent (likely closer to the lower end of that range) could be called disciples -- that is, believers who have dedicated their lives to become more like Jesus by learning to do the things He commanded us to do. Is it any wonder that Christians are succumbing to the cultural influences of a secularized society and that the Church is losing its social and moral capital?
But imagine if the discipled population was doubled, tripled, or quadrupled over the next decade. What might happen if the majority of professed Christians were actually practicing Christians -- believers whose works and words align with the teachings of Jesus? I suspect that we would see a kingdom movement not experienced since the time of the early Church.
It’s not working
I am not alone in recognizing the pressing need of re-reaching the “saved.”
Troubled over the systemic incongruence between Christian teachings and Christian practice in the Western church, pastor and writer Bill Hull concluded that “discipleship or spiritual formation is the primary and exclusive work of the church.” “Everything else,” he went on to say in his book Choose the Life, “is a ‘chasing after the wind.’”
Hull recounted the day he stood in the pulpit and put a bracing question to his congregation: “Why should we bring . . . new people into something that is not working?” This, right after the church had received 83 new members!
What wasn’t working was discipleship. Years of investment in programs, strategic plans, cutting-edge worship services, small groups, and outreach events, had generated a frenzy of activity, but little transformation. Against the prevailing wisdom, Bill realized that church involvement and busyness do not translate into personal spiritual growth. The 20,000-member Willow Creek church came to a similar realization several years ago.
Sadly, it is a lesson that could have been learned by close attention to biblical history.
A timeless lesson
The ancient Israelites had the promise of God’s presence, protection, and provision. In return, they were to live as God’s people, obeying God’s Law and blessing their Gentile neighbors. But time and again, their rebellion led to discipline followed by a brief period of revival. The most sweeping of these revivals was led by King Josiah.
Josiah came to power at a time when Israel had hit a moral nadir (characterized as lower than its pagan neighbors!). To lift the nation out of its spiritual sinkhole, Josiah instituted a wave of reforms: He renovated the temple; he gave a public reading of the Law; he pledged commitment to God’s covenant; he reinstituted the celebration of Passover, which hadn’t been observed in 400 years; and he purged the land of pagan idols, altars, and priests.
The reform efforts continued for 13 years, until Josiah’s death, but its effects were tragically short-lived. In less than a year, Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim, ascended to the throne and marched the nation down a spiritual vortex that ended in swift judgment: exile from their homeland and 70 years of servitude in Babylon.
Speaking through the prophets of the day, God said: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Nearly six hundred years later, Jesus said the same of their descendants. Clearly, the greatest revival in the history of Israel produced no discernible change in its spiritual DNA.
Josiah had the right intentions, he re-established the right forms of worship, he exposed the people to right teaching, and he motivated them to right practices. All this rightness produced behavior modification but not heart transformation. That’s because Josiah’s reforms were focused on the externals. And the same holds for the contemporary program-driven church where success is measured, not in biblical discipleship outcomes, but in church attendance; budget; and the number, variety, and popularity of church programs.
In a recent regional meeting, I heard a pastor cheerfully report on the number of members who had just “completed” his church’s discipleship class. (Yes, he said “completed.”) I imagined the “graduates” checking that off their spiritual to-do lists, as the pastor targeted the next group to run through the program.
Contributing to the problem of nominal Christianity are churches that view discipleship as an elective for spiritual “enrichment,” a thing to be addressed through a curriculum, a teaching series, or program, rather than as the essence of the Christian life pursued through an ongoing developmental process.
What we’re passing on
We can’t pass on what we don’t have, and if we persist in passing on what we do have, we will get what we’re currently getting: un-discipled believers with ornamental fruits that are incapable of kingdom-growth, and even detrimental to it.
Re-evangelizing the “saved” is not about reminding them of the good news of the Cross – they’ve got that -- it is about teaching them the rest of the good news:
"Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light."
The good news is that Christians can rest, not only from working for their salvation; they can rest in working out their salvation. By harnessing up with Jesus, believers become operatives in His global renewal project, while experiencing the existential satisfaction (“rest”) of investing in something infinitely meaningful: making the Kingdom of God an earthly reality.
The bad news, at least to individuals of modern sensibilities, is that the yoke involves submission and surrender -- actions associated with wimps and losers. In a society that panders to the little king inside, Jesus’ invitation is off-putting in the extreme, as evidenced by the less than 3 percent of professed Christians in this country who have accepted His call.
Particularly telling is Barna’s passing remark: “[Among self-identified Christians] various spiritual disciplines -- including solitude, sacrifice, acts of service, silence, and scriptural meditation -- are also infrequently practiced.” (My emphasis.)
We can’t know God’s will, much less do His will, if we don’t tune in regularly to hear His will. Spiritual disciplines – especially solitude, silence, and scriptural meditation – create space for God to speak and for us to hear. These disciplines, along with those of prayer, study, confession, and fasting, produce habits of the heart that incline us to develop Christ-shaped attitudes and behaviors.
If we want transformative communities of Christ-like Christians, devotion to, and practice of, scripturally based disciplines must propagate throughout the Church, including the leadership. When one considers the staggering percentage of pastors who admit to viewing pornography or to having had an inappropriate relationship, or the incidence of sex abuse by clergy of all denominations, it is clear that the spiritual formation of church leaders is woefully lacking.
Over 70 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented the number of young seminarians who didn’t know how to care for their own souls or teach others how to care for theirs. Today, although most seminaries offer some training in spiritual formation, it is rare that spiritual formation is given the depth and breadth needed to prepare graduates for their own spiritual direction, much less that of their congregations.
The Church will not transform the culture without transformed leaders and transformed members who have been gripped by the Word of God and who live it, publicly and winsomely. For that to happen, the work of evangelism must begin afresh, starting with those in the pew and pulpit.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.