Today’s topic is the culmination and unfortunate consequence of the “Top 10” lists we’ve reviewed over the past 5 weeks:
Yes, studies and empirical evidence confirm what you may have observed already from personal experience – that most of those self-identifying as “Christian” in America today don’t act markedly different from non-believers. Note that I used the term “Christian” and not “Disciple”. There was a time, frankly most of recorded history, when those terms were interchangeable. Roughly 80% of Americans self-report as Christian in polls yet their answers vary widely when asked how they would respond if confronted at the pearly gates with the question, “Why should I let you in?” Clearly the definition of “Christian” has been stretched beyond its reasonable limit when professing believers stammer replies to that question that begin with “I never (did certain bad things)…” or “I always tried to (do certain nice things)…”
Confession and belief alone may assign the modern label “Christian” but it’s surrender and transformation that earn the moniker “Disciple”. However, that standard has been lowered to the point where anyone who attends church, even as infrequently as CEOs (Christmas and Easter Only), is considered a “Christian”. “Christian” is even by default often applied to Americans who have no identified affiliations with other religions.
Clearly those are not disciples. Disciples have studied deeply, committed fully and changed drastically. They’ve assumed the attributes of Jesus and live like Him, exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit. As the Book of James repeatedly emphasizes, faith without works is dead. In Jesus’ time, disciples of a rabbi were called Talmudine. It was considered a great honor to be asked by a rabbi to “come follow me”. It meant they were deemed worthy, with potential to become exactly like their rabbi one day. To attain that goal, disciples imitated who they followed in all respects – literally every step of the way. In fact, a common blessing in Jesus’ day was, “May the dust of your rabbi be upon you.”
Too many Christians talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Most “Christians” are willing to gather, pray and worship occasionally but struggle when it comes to altering their mode or standard of living. As a result, surveys reveal that Christians in name only closely resemble their non-believing counterparts in 10 important ways:
- Not Vocal about their Faith – The vast majority of Christians understand their obligation to share the Gospel, but a far lower percentage have done so in the past year or feel comfortable doing so. It’s not entirely their fault. Churches have become increasingly reluctant to ask members to endure the training needed to answer the tough (yet predictable) questions that likely follow a Gospel presentation. Companies train sales staff to memorize and rehearse answers to typical objections, but pastors simply encourage congregants to give their testimony, invite people to church and let the “professionals” handle conversions. Disciples take personal responsibility for telling others about Jesus and discipling them. Christians who aren’t disciples can’t make disciples.
- Volunteer the Same Amount (outside of church) – Believers are not more likely to invest hours in helping the poor or homeless. Congregants volunteer at church regularly, but are not shown opportunities to serve outside the 4 walls on a year-round basis. Spiritual gifts assessments point members back to “church chores” rather than to external avenues and outlets for putting those gifts to Kingdom use.
- Comparable Moral Failure Rates – Self-identified Christians gamble, cuss, illegally download music, view sexually explicit material and get intoxicated nearly as often as the average American. Churches enable continuation of immoral behavior by disassociating conversion from discipleship. By reducing discipleship to voluntary small group meetings and not holding churchgoers accountable to the Great Commission standard, new Christians are left with the impression that the gift of eternal life carries with it no moral obligations that should naturally and necessarily accompany following Jesus.
- Equally Worried and Concerned – Christians suffer from anxiety and depression at roughly the same clip as other Americans, despite Jesus’ cautionary parable about the plants choked out by thorns.
- Respond Much the Same Way in Crisis – Besides prayer, the knee-jerk reaction of Christians in the face of unexpected difficulties is typically not noticeably different from others going through the same situation.
- Not More Generous (if you exclude giving to churches) – Reports that Christians donate substantially more than non-Christians fail to exclude donations to churches.
- Not Viewed as More Loving – On the contrary, Christians are widely seen as more about judgment than justice and condemnation than compassion.
- High Divorce Rates – While active church members are far less likely to divorce than the average American, some studies show that divorce rates for “nominal” Christians (e.g. infrequent churchgoers) are actually higher than the national average.
- Similar Emphasis on Financial Security – Despite Jesus’ warnings during His encounter with the rich young ruler, in essence citing His earlier proclamation that we can’t serve both God and money, what is your personal experience doing business with those who display the Christian “fish” symbol on their business card? Is that profession of faith intended to engender trust or are they truly trustworthy?
- Self-Orientation – Few churches today emphasize Paul’s inspired edict to die to self, “crucify the flesh” and “no longer live” except as a vessel for Christ. That’s not exactly an attractive proposition in our nation’s consumeristic, happiness-driven day and age. So again, it’s not surprising that recent polls show most Americans do not see much difference between the actions and behaviors of their Christian and non-Christian neighbors.
It’s Your Turn
In light of all this, let’s rephrase our original question, “Can you spot the disciple in the crowd?” Statistics show the crowd in America is full of “Christians”, but the token disciple should stand out like a sore thumb. That person will be the authentic Christ follower who exemplifies the opposite of each of those 10 characteristics listed above…