Two Muslim men once came to our Sunday worship service. The morning’s Scripture text, from the Book of Genesis, featured the story of Abraham’s visit to Egypt. Muslims revere Abraham and regard him as one of the special messengers God sent humanity. Something I said in the sermon offended our guests, who got up noisily and stormed out.
I talked to one of the men afterwards, and set up a time to meet at a local restaurant. Each of us brought along a friend and we discussed our faith perspectives. At one point in the conversation, my new acquaintance stated that everyone born in the U.S. is a Christian, unless born to parents from another religion. From his perspective, if you were born in the U.S. to parents who were not Jews or Muslims, you are a Christian.
Likewise, he said a person born in a Muslim country to Muslim parents is a Muslim. He added that he or she may not be a good Muslim, but that was irrelevant. Good or bad, he or she was a Muslim.
I told him the Bible teaches that people are not Christians by birth but by second birth, by conversion from one state to another. I pointed him to texts like John 3, where Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” and Acts 2, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
But the idea that race or lineage does not automatically make a person a Christian was not something he grasped. As far as he was concerned, if you were born in the U.S. and are not something else, you are a Christian.
From what I can tell, his viewpoint is broadly shared. Most Americans believe themselves to be Christians, even though many rarely or never attend church, don’t know even the basic doctrines of the faith, and have never been baptized. Of the founder of the faith, they know little. They cannot articulate what he taught and have never even considered the possibility of acting on his instructions. The idea that a Christian will – or at least should – do what Jesus taught is to them completely novel.
Many Americans can only loosely be called Christians, even those who self-identify as such (about seven out of ten people). This makes any genuine entrance into the Christian faith more difficult: why enter when you are already in? It also makes understanding who Jesus really is, and practicing what he taught, seem entirely optional.
In recent years, there has been an upswing in people who do not identify with any religious group. Sociologists sometimes refer to them as “nones” because of their response to the question about religious affiliation on the census. Many people, especially parents of “nones,” view this trend with apprehension, but I think it is, overall, a positive step. Most of these people never were Christians by any objective biblical or historical standard, but didn’t know it. They assumed, like my Muslim friend, that they must be Christian because they were born in America and were not Jews or Muslims.
Acknowledging that they are not Christians is a first, critical step. Though this can be extremely painful, both for the person and for friends and family members looking on, it is necessary.
For most people, the next step is to realize the faith they have rejected is only a caricature of the real thing. They were right to discard it. They are like the woman who says she dislikes crab but has only tasted the ground fish meat and other body parts – “crab-stick,” as it is commonly called – that is sold in supermarkets.
Eventually, people must be introduced to the real thing – to Jesus himself and his teaching. Many will be surprised by what Jesus is really like, what he taught, and the kind of life he makes available to those who trust him. Surprised and, I think, eager to learn more.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/9/2017