Do modern Christians believe Jesus meant what He said in the Gospels? Do they believe they’re obligated to follow His commands? Or has American Christianity become something that has little to do with the words that the Son of God left for us?
In the last 22 years, the number of people who say they have no religious affiliation has more than tripled in this country. In 1990, 6 percent of people answered “None” when asked their religion, but it’s now up to 19 percent, according to one new study. Another survey from earlier this year shows that roughly 78 percent of people claim to be Christians.
When I look at the state of the country (and of the world), the question I have is why so many people still profess to faith in Jesus Christ. When people say they don’t believe, I have to confess that I don’t blame them — based on the example they see from most of us who call ourselves Christians. How many of those 78 percent of Americans actually believe? And how many are just attending services because they always have? And how many of the remainder just call themselves Christians because they happened to grow up in a church and never discarded the label?
I have a radical idea. Why don’t those of us who call ourselves Christians decide whether we believe Jesus or not? If we don’t believe Him, why keep up the pretense? Why not join the ranks of those who are atheist or agnostic or just plain indifferent?
But if we really do believe Him, why don’t we take what He said seriously?
Honestly, I don’t believe that most of the people in our churches today take Him seriously. They like being affiliated with a religion and they like the idea of a “spiritual Santa Claus” who they can ask to give them things. But they’re not very interested in believing the words Jesus left for us.
When I look at the modern church, I don’t see a lot of love for our enemies. In fact, I see a tremendous amount of hatred for those who hate us. This might make sense in human terms, but it’s not what Jesus taught us. For instance, Luke 6:27-36 starts with these two verses:
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
This is difficult to read and think about, because I frequently don’t love the people I should love. Do I believe it’s OK to ignore Jesus’ command about this? What about the angry preachers and lay Christians who curse those who dislike us and are full of hatred for those who disagree with us? How can they reconcile their lack of love with Jesus’ words?
The last command that Jesus leaves His followers with at the end of Matthew is known as the Great Commission, because he is ordering His followers to spread the Good News to those around the world those who haven’t heard it:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The vast majority of people around this world have still never even heard of Jesus. In some of the countries where they live, it’s illegal for people to convert from the religion of their birth, but even in countries where preaching the Gospel is legal, American Christians have made it a very low priority. We build expensive new buildings for ourselves here. We build huge “family life centers” — which is just a code name for recreation areas where we don’t have to mix with “those people” — but we spend almost nothing on the rest of the world.
I’m told that of every $100 that an American Christian earns, we spend approximately a nickel of it helping those around the world and spreading the Gospel to those who haven’t heard it. So let’s be honest. Do we believe that we’re obligated to obey Jesus? Or do we think His command about this was optional?
Jesus spoke frequently about feeding people and giving to others. For instance, in Luke 3, Jesus was specific about sharing food and clothing:
And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”
We are surrounded by an excess of cheap food, while there are people around the world starving to death. Was Jesus serious about us helping them? Did He really mean we’re responsible for helping to improve the lives of the poor, both here and abroad? We don’t act as though we believe it, because we sit in our beautiful, expensive churches — spending money on programs for ourselves — while people starve around the world. Are we going to take Him seriously about this?
Jesus fed people and healed people and changed lives. We tend to think of things Jesus did as being things we couldn’t possibly accomplish today — except through our modern, pragmatic methods — but Jesus told us otherwise. In John 14, He was pretty explicit. For instance, here are verses 12-14:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”
So He claims that if we ask Him, He’s going to enable us to do great works — “greater works than these” — through the Holy Spirit. In other words, if we’re not seeing people’s lives changed and great things happening in our ministries, we have no excuse, assuming we believe He was telling the truth.
Jesus told us quite bluntly that we could have whatever we asked for through the power of faith. There’s no mistaking the meaning of the words of Mark 11:22-24:
And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
Do we believe that? Was Jesus serious when He said it? Do we take Him seriously? Or is it easier to just ignore His words that require actual faith on our part, as opposed to intellectual knowledge and lip service?
If you’re not a Christian and you believe everything I’ve quoted here is nonsense, I don’t blame you. The people who call themselves Christians haven’t been taking the words seriously, so why should you?
If you are a Christian, though, and you’re not taking Jesus’ words seriously — or if you just don’t believe them — why bother to call yourself a Christian?
If we don’t believe this stuff, let’s quit playing church and pretending that it matters. Let’s join that ever-increasing number who say they have no religious affiliation. But if we do believe it’s true — if we believe that Jesus’ words represent Truth with a capital T — it’s time for us to change our lives. It’s time for us to get out of our comfortable pews and start living the Gospel as Jesus preached it.
When the rich young man came to Jesus, according to Luke 18:17-31, he asked the teacher what he had to do to be saved. Jesus told him some moral basics and the man said he already did those things. Scripture tells us that Jesus looked at the young man and “loved him,” telling him that he needed to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor. But because he was wealthy, the man was unwilling to obey and went away sad.
By the standards of the entire world, those of us in this country are exceedingly wealthy, especially those who are educated enough to be reading here. I think we’re just like that rich man. We’re too in love with what we have — our lifestyles and houses and cars and retirement — to follow Jesus. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with those things, but if we love them more than we desire to follow Jesus, we have a serious problem at the heart of the faith we claim to have.
Do we really believe Jesus? If we do, let’s start taking His words seriously. If we believe Him, we’ll obey Him. If we’re not obeying Him, we clearly don’t believe. So which is it going to be?
Note: The photos accompanying this article were all taken last month in Cambodia during ministry work with a group called TransformAsia.