According to the U.S. Census Bureau and just about every polling agency that tracks such things, America is becoming less Christian. There are various reasons for this but, by all indications, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian is shrinking.
How is America becoming less Christian? Older generations of Christians are dying and there are fewer babies being born into homes with a Christian presence.
People are also leaving the faith. These are people who identified as Christian in the past but no longer do so. Many have made no conscious choice but have merely drifted from the faith. Some have chosen to leave because of hypocrisy within the church. Others have left because they are uncomfortable with the church’s stand on sexuality in regard to premarital and same-sex relationships.
This is a snapshot of how people leave the Christian faith. But how do people enter it?
A Christian friend and I once dialogued with two Muslim men about our respective beliefs. The conversations were enjoyable and enlightening. Among the differences that still stand out for me was the disparate views we had about how a person becomes a Christian or a Muslim. One of our dialogue partners said, “Everyone born in America is automatically a Christian, unless he is a Muslim or a Jew.”
From his perspective, religion is like a physical trait. People are born with it. Yes, a person can undergo a kind of spiritual surgery to change her faith, rather like a person can undergo surgery to change her nose. But, apart from such radical intervention, a person’s faith is the faith her parents gave her.
The Bible offers a different and more nuanced perspective. It is the news and entertainment medias and, frankly, uninformed academics, that present oversimplifications. The Bible offers a rich, multi-layered, intelligent exposition of faith.
Faith starts with the faithful God, “who wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” The implication, it should be noted, is that people are not saved automatically or by virtue of their parents’ religion. It is also important to understand that the biblical understanding of salvation is much bigger than escape to an afterlife. Salvation is a whole life that begins in the present and initiates a fundamental personal transformation that even death cannot stop.
While faith begins with the faithful God, people have a role to play and a decision to make. Most Christians recognize this reality. There is something for people to do.
That something is not a laundry list of good deeds. Doing good things may make a person pleasant to be around or, as is frequently the case, exceedingly unpleasant to be around, should he or she have a self-righteous attitude. The one thing it will not make a person is a Christian. That is something, theologically speaking, that only God can do.
To say that God makes people Christians is, however, an inaccurate way of putting it. Jesus and the apostles never used such language. In biblical terms, God gives people a new kind of life. He offers them forgiveness. He imparts to them his Spirit. He unites them to others and begins transforming them into a new humanity, restored to the original specs. He grants them a place in his kingdom, under his rule. The Bible summarizes all of this by saying that God “saves” his people.
How is this accomplished? What is the mechanism by which it takes place? At what point does a person go from not possessing this kind of life to possessing – or being possessed by – it?
The biblical answer, trumpeted by the Apostle Paul and others, is that this happens by faith. Faith in Jesus as Lord – humanity’s rightful leader, ruler, king – is the prerequisite to this kind of life. This recognition of Jesus as Lord is all wrapped up with repentance – a radical change of mind which is accompanied by a reorientation toward God.
Not everyone who was born into a religious family or goes to church possesses this whole-life salvation. It simply does not come about in that way. It comes through faith in Jesus, whom Christians confess as their dying savior and risen Lord.
(First published by Gannett.)