Christian Spirituality in America

Our church is going through a church-wide campaign called, “r12 – True Spirituality According to Jesus.” This has the potential to transform people who simply profess Christ or attend church into authentic followers of Jesus; true disciples.

I was reading the September 13, 2011 Barna report on American Christians and the lack of spiritual depth and found the information troubling, if not totally accurate. Take a look at this information:

The ceremonies conducted last weekend on the tenth anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001 raised important questions for people to ponder: What does it mean to be an American? What are the duties and obligations of people who call themselves citizens of the United States?

Perhaps churches and other ministries throughout the nation would benefit from similar exercises that pose parallel questions for their adherents: What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ? What are the duties and obligations of someone who calls himself/herself a Christian or claims to be a citizen of the kingdom of God?

While everyone is on a lifelong journey, the Barna research revealed that a relatively small proportion of individuals stick with the process long enough to become the mature Christ-followers and world changers that they are meant to be. The nationwide studies indicate that there are several barriers to overcome before many people are likely to persevere and maximize their connection with God.

Obstacle 1: Commitment

  • 81% say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today.
  • 78% strongly agree that spirituality is very important to them.
  • 18% claim to be totally committed to investing into their own spiritual development.
  • 22% claim to be “completely dependent upon God.”
  • Those figures help explain why 52% believe that there is much more to the Christian life than what they have experienced. Without a full determination to live like Christ and for Him, the path to complete transformation is blocked.

Obstacle 2: Repentance

  • 64% say that they have confessed their sins to God and asked for His forgiveness.
  • But the evidence is quite clear that relatively few self-identified Christians are serious about abandoning the lure of sin and handing total control of their life to God. Only 12% admitted that recognizing and grasping the significance of their sins had been so personally devastating that it caused them to crash emotionally.
  • Only about 3% of all self-identified Christians in America have come to the final stops on the transformational journey (the places where they 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).

Obstacle 3: Activity

Mired in a culture that rewards hard work and busyness, it’s not surprising that tens of millions of self-identified Christians have confused religious activity with spiritual significance and depth.

  • 39% have participated in a combination of three “normal” religious activities in the past week (i.e., attending church services, praying, reading the Bible).
  • But far fewer have engaged in another trio of deeper faith expressions: less than 10% 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.
  • Various spiritual disciplines (including solitude, sacrifice, acts of service, silence, and scriptural meditation) are also infrequently practiced.

Obstacle 4: Spiritual Community

Most self-identified Christians note that they feel comfortable and connected within their church, however, various measures show that there is not much vulnerability and accountability occurring within the context of those faith-based connections.

  • Many self-identified Christians do not take their faith community seriously, whatever type it may be, as a place to which they should be open and held to biblical principles.
  • 21% believe that spiritual maturity requires a vital connection to a community of faith.
  • 35% claim to have confessed their sins verbally to another believer at some point during the past quarter.

The Big Picture
According to George Barna, there are several church-wide concerns that could be addressed toward helping self-identified Christians experience a more fulfilling and robust relationship with and faith in Christ.

  1. The first challenge has to do with tools and expectations: Barna noted that most churches encourage people to engage in an increasing amount of religious activity, asking them to pour themselves into efforts related to the “core six” spiritual dimensions: worship, evangelism, discipleship, stewardship, service, and community. While growth in those areas is important, Barna expressed two related concerns.
    1. The first was that people often fail to realize that the end game of spiritual development is godly character, not worldly accomplishments.
    2. And, sometimes people get so wrapped up in church programs or producing specific religious results that they lose sight of the purpose of their faith, which is to have a life-changing relationship with Jesus.
      1. It becomes easy to substitute religious activity for intentional and simple engagement with God.
      2. American Christians, in particular, have become known for doing good works and religious exercises rather than simply being friends and imitators of Christ.
  2. A second challenge is to help believers embrace the necessity of sacrifice and suffering in order to surrender and submit themselves fully to God: Unfortunately, in a society that disdains purposeful sacrifice and suffering that leads to growth and depth, brokenness is an unappealing and rare objective. Until such brokenness occurs, people’s transformation is hindered.
  3. A third challenge was the importance of perceiving and experiencing a faith community as a vital support system in the pursuit of a deeper relationship with God: Today, the ultimate product of small groups is a combination of knowledge and comfort more often than it is commitment and application. Knowledge is a crucial step in the growth process, but without transparency and accountability the information rarely gets converted into personal, congregational, or cultural transformation.

Wow. Looks like we need to get back to the mission and get serious about our faith. How do we as church leaders bring up the subject without seeming “holier than thou?” Perhaps it is a matter of investing into one another. Jesus modeled and lived it out in the presence of the Twelve; perhaps we must really grasp the meaning of Christian community and embrace our mission in the world.

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The Berean Example

Luke and Paul’s missionary team seem to part ways for a while since he again uses the third person when writing about the events in Philippi (Acts 16:22), Thessalonica (Acts 17:1) and Beara (Acts 17:10). Remember that Luke occasionally changes his style from that of a third person observer to a first person participant. In Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-16; 21:1-18; and Acts 27:1–28:16, the author speaks of “we” and “us” in relationship to Paul’s travels. The language implies the author himself traveled with Paul. These “we” sections include the time when Paul was imprisoned at Rome.

Before we get to Acts 17, Paul and Silas travel 100 miles from Philippi to Thessalonica. I sort of wonder what made one city more of a priority than some other city. The first criteria I’d say is it was the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Another criteria was Paul wanted to preach the gospel where it was not already known (Romans 15:20). While in Thessalonica, there was a mob seeking Paul and Silas to do them harm (Acts 17:5, 6) because they had upset the entire world. The believers got Paul out of there and sent him by night to Berea (Acts 17:10).

I read that Mount Olympus could be seen from the foothills of Berea, just 20 miles from the sea. Like Virginia, they had a landscape that went form the mountains to the beach; but the people we more noble than others in the region, which is an excellent standard set for us today (Acts 17:11).

They were willing to receive the message (Acts 17:11): meaning they accepted the offer deliberately and readily, to come and hear what Paul had to say. Many people today do not ever get to the place where they will come and hear or receive the message of Christ. It is truly sad because we have so many opportunities to hear but people choose to ignore Christ’s invitation.

They were ready to receive what Paul had to say (Acts 17:11): with eagerness, meaning a predisposition for learning (according to Strong’s). Let’s make sure we are ready and eager to learn about Christ.

They examined Paul’s message with the light of the Scriptures (Acts 17:11): they did not take his word for it, they did their own research. The word used here means to “ask, question, discern, examine, judge, search” (Strong’s). It is very important that we learn to study the Bible for ourselves. We are a people so used to being spoon-fed the Word of God that we just might starve if it were not for the preacher.

As you research or study the Bible, make sure about the nutritional value of the stuff you read. With the internet full of so much great information, there are plenty of sites that will lead people into inaccurate interpretations of the Bible. Do not accept anyone’s teachings without backing it up with Scripture. Then allow the Bible to make commentary on itself.

These Bereans had the right practices but also the right heart. They did not search the Scripture to find error in Paul’s theology, but to see if what he said measured up to the Bible. They did not want to argue or fact-check the truth of the teacher, but to check what he says to the standard of truth.

The Jews in Thessalonica soon discovered Paul was in Berea and were mean enough to travel fifty miles to stir up the people (Acts 17:13). It seems to me that not much has changed in all these years; some people just love causing God’s leaders grief and stirring up people to set their hearts and minds against them. The word used here is “to rock, topple, shake, stir up” (Strong’s).

Application: How often to do search the Scriptures to make sure that what is being taught is true? Are you in a position to receive God’s Word? Are you familiar enough with the Bible to allow it to bring comfort and healing when the world begins to rock, topple or shake your world? I pray that we all will become as noble as the Bereans, who set such a great example for future generations.