Faith In Crisis
by R. Dale Tedder, Jr.
For six years I have had the opportunity to serve as a pastor in the United Methodist Church. I have served both as an associate pastor in large suburban churches and as the senior pastor in smaller settings. Through my experiences as a pastor, my contact with leading Christian scholars and cutting edge churches, a rigorous reading program and a great deal of prayer, I have had an opportunity to observe Christ's church. And I must confess that I am utterly grieved and horrified by what I have found. Put simply, I believe the Church is sick, and in many ways dying. I readily and optimistically acknowledge that it was our Lord Himself who said that He is building His church, so I know that His bride will not ultimately die. However, it is my honest judgement that unless the church moves back to a biblical direction, things will get much worse before they get any better. In this paper, I wish to identify what I believe a central problem is in the church today and then recommend some ways that the church might respond.
II. A Church in Crisis
Let me begin by citing some empirical data concerning the condition of the church today. Consider these statistics:
Knowledge of Bible and Christian Doctrine
Perceptions of the Bible
· While millions believe the Bible is accurate in its recording of information, a substantial number of adults do not believe that all of the information is relevant for today. One out of every five adults (18%) contend that one of the renowned portions of the Bible - the Ten Commandments - is "not relevant for people living today."
· There is much misunderstanding about the history of the Bible. For instance, four out of every ten adults (38%) believe that the entire Bible was written several decades after Jesus' death and resurrection.
· The proportion of adults who read from the Bible during the course of week, other than when they are in church services, has declined dramatically since the early nineties. In 1992, nearly half of all adults (47%) read from the Bible during the week. That figure has plummeted to just 34% by 1996.
· When it comes to defining what "God" means to people, a surprisingly large proportion - nearly three out of ten - describe a deity other than the God portrayed in the Bible. The other depictions of God include: a state of higher consciousness that an individual may reach (11% endorse this description of "god"); the total realization of personal human potential (8%); the belief that there are many gods, each with its own power and authority (3%); everyone is their own god (3%); and 2% who maintain that there is no such thing as God.
· Large proportions of adults - although still a minority - are not convinced of the perfect nature of Christ. More than one-third (37%) say that Jesus made mistakes when He was on earth. More significantly, though, 44% claim that when He lived on earth, "Jesus Christ was human and committed sins, like other people."
· Many born-again Christians struggle with the idea of Jesus being sinless. One out of four adults (26%) who are born again - i.e., people who contend that Jesus Christ is the spiritual savior of humankind, and who have personally embraced Him as their savior - claim that He committed sins during tenure on earth.
· Only four out of ten Americans (39%) believe that "people who do not consciously accept Jesus Christ as their savior will be condemned to hell."
· There is a growing tendency to believe that "all good people, whether or not they consider Jesus Christ to be their savior, will live in heaven after they die on earth." The public is now evenly divided on this matter: 46% agree, 47% disagree.
· One out of four people (22%) believe that Jesus Christ never got married because He was a priest and priests did not marry.
· 42% of adults know that it was Jesus who preached the Sermon on the Mount.
· Most Americans believe that spiritual salvation is an outcome to be earned through their good character or behavior. Six out of ten people (57%) believe that "if a person is generally good, or does enough good things for others during their lives, they will earn a place in heaven." This perspective has remained constant throughout the nineties.
· Adults are evenly divided on the role played by religious beliefs in people's life-after-death experience. 45% contend that one's religious beliefs will impact their spiritual condition; another 45% argue that a person's beliefs will not matter. The other 10% refuse to take a position.
Sin, Satan, and Evil
· Most Americans do not believe in Satan (or, the devil). Six out of ten adults (58%) believe that Satan "is not a living being but a symbol of evil."
· One-third of adults (32%) contend that there are some crimes, sins, or other things people might do which cannot be forgiven by God.
· About one-fifth of the adult population (19%) believe that "the whole idea of sin is outdated."
· Only three out of ten adults (31%) believe that hell is a physical place of torment. Four out of ten (37%) describe it as a state of permanent spiritual separation from God; two out of ten (21%) view it merely as a symbolic term.
· A common term used by the church leaders is "the Great Commission." Most adults (84%) could not even hazard a guess as to what that term refers to. Only 9% of all adults were able to correctly identify it as the command given by Jesus Christ to His followers to evangelize the world. Even among born-again Christians, 80% did not offer a guess as to the meaning; just 14% provided an accurate answer.
· The most commonly used verse of the Bible in evangelistic conversations and preaching is John 3:16. Two-thirds of the population (63%) has no idea what "John 3:16" refers to, much less has the ability to quote that verse. One-fifth of adults (24%) knew that it is a verse from the Bible that addresses salvation. Among born-again Christians, 50% were aware of this.
· One of the most frequently used phrases in Christian circles is "the gospel." Amazingly, few adults know what this term means. It could either refer to its literal translation, "Good News," or to the perspective that salvation is available only through the sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ and a person's acceptance of Christ as their savior. Less than four out of ten adults (37%) knew this; 34% had other, inaccurate perceptions of the meaning of the term; three out of ten adults did not offer a guess. Even among born-again Christians, only 60% correctly identified at least one meaning of this expression.
Christian Living and Morality
· Three out of ten adults (30%) strongly agree that they have a personal belief responsibility to tell other people their religious belief. Overall, about half of all adults (48%) strongly or moderately believe that they have such a responsibility.
· The frequency with which people attend church services has not changed since the turn of the decade. On average, about one-third attend every week; one-third attend one to three weekends each month; and the remaining one-third never attend, except for special occasions such as weddings and funerals.
· About sixty to sixty-five million adults, and an additional twenty to twenty-five million people age seventeen or younger, fail to attend church services, other than those for special events such as weddings and funerals, during a typical six-month period. Although many of those individuals are church "members," they do not get involved in church activity.
Church Program Involvement
· Adult Sunday School attendance is on the decline. One out of four adults (23%) attended such classes in 1991. The proportion has dipped to one out of six (17%) in 1996.
· Christian education classes held on the same day as church worship services is a Protestant phenomenon. Three out of ten adults (28%) associated with a Protestant church attend such classes on any given week. Less than one out of ten Catholics do so.
· During a typical week, one out of six adults (17%) is involved in some type of small group meets regularly for Bible study, prayer, or Christian fellowship, other than Sunday school class or twelve-step group. This involvement is much more common among Protestants (24%) than Catholics (7%).
Commitment to Christianity
· People may view themselves as Christian, but their intensity of commitment to the faith is lukewarm. Less than half of its self-proclaimed adherents (41%) say they are "absolutely committed" to Christianity. A similar proportion (44%) say they are "moderately committed" to the faith.
Religion as an Influence Regarding Truth and Ethics
· One out of four Americans (23%) state that religious beliefs and teaching are the single, most significant influence on their thinking about whether or not there is such a thing as absolute moral truth.
· When adults make ethical or moral decisions, various influences come into play. One out of five adults (20%) claim that the Bible is the dominant influence of their decisions.
The Church and the World: Can Anyone Tell the Difference?
Can the world of unbelievers look at the church today and discern any real difference between the two? Are Christians today serving as the salt and light to a world in need? Those are two questions that are set up by Barna's following statement:
"Two out of every three American adults claim that the United States is a Christian nation. Don't believe it. Never have so many be deceived.
Based on an analysis of 131 measures of distinctive attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviors, we have developed a means of assessing the influence of the Christian community in America. This evaluation is based on a comparison of the similarities and differences between Christians and non-Christians. The data demonstrate that although Christians are distinct in some areas of thought and deed, they generally represent an invisible and ineffective presence in the U.S. Surprisingly few Christians have developed a holistic, integrated and balanced form of Christianity that provides non-believers with a viable lifestyle alternative to consider."
After revealing that unbelievers and Christians are almost identical in many spheres of life, Barna then summarizes his conclusions to the above questions. He says:
"The bottom line is that in the dimensions of life where Christians can truly influence their world - i.e. in the non-religious domain - we have to failed to demonstrate the power of our faith. Christianity is not losing influence in America because it is overmatched by the challenges of the day; it is losing its impact because believers have been unsuccessful at merging faith and lifestyle outside the walls of the church. Non-believers expect us to have different religious beliefs and practices; those differences fail to impress them. Only when those beliefs and practices shape every other walk of life do they sit up and take notice."
Make no mistake about it - the church of Jesus Christ is in trouble. Her knowledge of what she believes is almost non-existent. The lives of her members can barely be distinguished between that of unbelievers.
While many suggest that the root of our problems revolve around moral issues, I believe the crisis is far deeper than that. Putting a Band-Aid on the scratch of immorality will not alleviate the hemorrhaging that is taking place in Christ's body. Instead, I contend that many, if not most, of the problems that exist within the church today are derived from a poor understanding regarding the nature of faith. What exactly is Christian faith? It's rather important that we answer that question correctly. Indeed, it's at the very heart and soul of whom we claim to be as Christians. We profess that we are saved by faith. We live by faith. What a person understands faith to be will inform not only how they live here and now, but where they will spend eternity.
However, there is a proliferation of views when it comes defining Christian faith. One collection of Christians within the church today believes that Christian faith can practically be reduced to purely intellectual knowledge. For this group the formulation of and believing in correct doctrine seems to be central to the life of a Christian. Still, there's another group that apparently believes that any content to the Christian faith is peripheral at best and irrelevant at worst. Instead, to them, what matters is "living out the faith." However, Jesus and the Apostle Paul never saw it that way. They saw the two, doctrine and obedience or faith and practice, always linked inseparably together. Who we are (doctrinally) shapes how we live. How we live shapes who we are. There's an essential reciprocity between these two aspects of faith. Let me explain in greater depth, the proper understanding of the Christian faith.
III. What Is Faith?
As previously mentioned, faith is obviously important for Christians. We're saved or justified by faith. We are to live by faith. Faith is an essential component to the religion called Christianity. But just what exactly is "faith?" I mean, if the only way we are able to stand before God as righteous is by faith, then we surely better know what faith is. I would like to take some time now and explain what faith, biblically understood, is. I believe this will prove to be a helpful way to understand the notion of an authentic Christian faith. Faith, biblically understood, can be broken into three parts: knowledge and belief of content, trust in that content, and a commitment of one's life to that belief.
Faith as Knowledge and Content
"Just have faith brother." Have you ever heard that? I often hear from well-meaning Christians, "you have to have faith" or "just have faith." I've even heard, "faith is believing what you know ain't true." Well, what does the Bible mean by "faith?" How ought a Christian respond to the question: "what is faith?" Some folks say, "just let Jesus into your heart." Well, what does it mean to say that we believe with our heart? Does that mean that the center of Christian belief finds its home in the organ that pumps blood through our body? Of course not. We believe with our minds. Faith doesn't bypass our minds to make its way to our hearts. Yet, it is also common to hear some say that "it doesn't matter what you believe, just as long as you are sincere." Can the Christian agree with that and remain faithful to the Word of God? Again I say, of course not. The Christian responds by saying, a person can be sincerely wrong. God does not commend the worship of idols because the worshiper is sincere. So what is faith?
Theologian Millard Erickson captures the essence of those within Christianity who assert that believing correctly, those truths of the Christian faith, is not a vital part of the faith. He writes:
"Does it matter what I believe?' the young woman asked. 'If I love Jesus, isn't that enough? Do I have to believe all those things about creation and sin and being born again, too? And do I have to believe that people who don't believe those things are going to hell?' She is neither the first nor the last to ask those questions. To some, even Christians, doctrinal beliefs seem more of a hindrance than a help. Requiring belief in specific teachings seems to be keeping some people out of the church and even to be keeping some Christians apart."
Erickson follows by saying:
"In answering such questions and dealing with such issues, we as Christians naturally turn first to what Christ himself had to say on the subject. What people believed about him was very important to Jesus. After asking what people believed about him and hearing the disciples' recital of the various opinions which were current at the time, he then asked the disciples who they said that he was. James Orr, a prominent British theologian a century ago, correctly pointed out that when we say with our whole heart that Jesus is Lord, we have thereby accepted much more besides, for we have committed ourselves to Jesus' teaching about God, the human race, sin, redemption, an the various other topics he discussed. If Jesus is Lord, he is Lord of our beliefs as well as of the other areas in our lives. Just as we cannot call him "Lord, Lord," and not do what he says (Lk. 6:46), so we cannot call him "Lord, Lord," and not believe the things he teaches. And of course in loving Jesus we will want to know all about him including what he has done and is doing, and everything he taught."
Therefore, we should recognize that the first component of faith is knowledge of content. "Faith is about believing that certain things are true. In this sense faith is basically assent. 'I believe in God' means something like 'I believe that there is a God,' or 'I think that God exists.' Faith assents to belief in the existence of God and his promises. This is an essential starting point. Before we can begin to say anything about what God is like, we need to assume that there is a God in the first place." Faith without content is no true faith at all. There's content to our faith. As Christians we're confessing that certain things are true. With relation to our salvation for example, we're saying we believe that a person named Jesus existed and that he was hung on a cross for our sins. The New Testament speaks often of "the faith." Concerning this component of faith, New Testament scholar Leon Morris says:
"So fundamental is faith that the term may be used to categorize the whole Christian way, and the expression 'the faith' comes into being, not simply as a way of referring to the trust in Christ that is so basic, but as a means of drawing attention to the whole body of teaching and practice that characterizes the Christian group it all springs from faith and is an expression of faith, yet it articulates and expresses what Christians believe, their doctrine or 'deposit' (a term frequent in the Pastorals)."
Thus, there is content to be believed in. Let me illustrate this point. There were two men hiking in Colorado in January. Around dusk, they realized they still had a long way to go before the reached their lodge before dark. So they decided their only chance was to cut across the lake. But one of the men was pretty scared about this idea. He didn't believe the ice would hold him, and so he hesitated. But his friend reminded him that it was the middle of January, therefore the ice had to be at least six feet thick. So he didn't have any reason to worry. But this fact didn't matter too much to the frightened man. He didn't have much faith in his friend's comment about the ice, and so he inched his way very slowly back to the lodge.
Now, in spite of his lack of faith, the ice still held because even though his faith was weak, the ice was strong. Later that year, the same two men were hiking again. And just like before, they found themselves trying to beat the sunset back to the lodge. The man who had been scared last time now suggested they cut across the lake. His friend, however, told his friend that it was late May, and the ice was no thicker than a quarter of an inch. Therefore they better go around the lake. But his friend wouldn't be dissuaded because his faith was strong. So he stepped out onto the ice and crashed straight through. His faith was strong, but the ice was weak.
What is the point to this story? The point is that our faith is only as strong as its content. Christian belief is not belief in Santa Claus. There is real content to our faith, and it is in the God of the universe who really is able to forgive you of your sins. It truly does matter what you believe according to the Bible. Therefore, believing, as the Bible describes it, does have something to do with the content of one's belief. The New Testament witness is not, "believe and you will be saved." Instead, the New Testament witness is, "believe in the Lord Jesus Christ." There are certain things that we have to believe. Even a cursory reading of the book of Acts reveals that every sermon preached by the Apostles, is saturated with particular content. There is an intellectual content that has to be received and understood and affirmed as true.
God doesn't ask anyone to affirm the irrational. God does not ask anyone to believe against the evidence. God does not ask our hearts to embrace what our minds reject. Can a person honestly embrace and believe in something like the Christian faith if all the evidence points against it? I believe the answer is no. We don't live our daily lives like that. We do not get on a plane if it is missing a wing. Even the fantastic things that Christians believe are not irrational because the Christian asserts that God has told them that it is true. The old bumper-sticker saying, "God said, I believe it, and that settles it," misses the point. For if God has said anything, then it doesn't matter if you believe it or not, it is still true.
Unfortunately, in much of the church today, belief means "I believe in Christ in spite of the fact that my reason tells me Jesus could not possibly be Christ." Our culture has made that kind of thinking, (or non-thinking), a virtue. The problem is, not only do people think like that, but also they think that is the way it ought to be done and they believe it is the biblical way.
Again, however, the New Testament never calls people to believe and submit to Christ without evidence of an historical and empirical nature. Instead, we hear people in the New Testament saying things like: "Hey, we saw him;" "We talked with him, touched him, ate lunch with him." That's the testimony of the New Testament. Faith without evidence and content is not biblical faith. Therefore, the mind not only has to be able to understand the information, but it has to be able to say that it affirms that information intellectually. The mind is involved in New Testament faith because there is information involved. Biblical faith is more than this, but it is not less than this.
Faith as Trust
The second component of faith has to do with placing your trust in that content or information. For example, this aspect of faith moves beyond merely receiving the content of Jesus Christ being sent to the cross for your sins, and actually embraces that content as personally true for you, and placing your trust in it for yourself. Alister McGrath puts this well:
"Faith is trust. When I say that I believe in the promises of God, I am declaring that I trust them. It is more than a recognition that these promises exist; it is an awareness that they can be trusted and relied on. Faith is not something purely intellectual, enlightening the mind while leaving the heart untouched. Faith is the response of our whole person to the person of God. It is a joyful reaction on our part to the overwhelming divine love we see revealed in Jesus Christ. Faith is both our recognition that something wonderful has happened through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and our response to what has happened. Faith realizes that God loves us, and it responds to that love. Faith trusts in the promising God."
A great example of this is John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley had been an active preacher and evangelist for years. He knew Christian doctrine, but it hadn't affected him at a genuinely personal level. He believed in a sense, but he didn't really love Christ or trust in him personally. However, one evening he went to a meeting where someone was reading Martin Luther's preface to the book of Romans. And here's what Wesley said about that evening. "About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation. And an assurance was given me that he had taken away MY sins, even MINE, and saved ME from the law of sin and death." Wesley moved from having the knowledge about Jesus Christ to actually trusting in it.
This idea of "trust" is linked with that of "faith" in everyday English. If I say that I have faith in a friend, I mean more than simply acknowledging the existence of my friend. I mean, of course, that I trust him or her. Thus, faith, biblically understood, involves placing one's trust in the content of the message.
Faith as Commitment
Having said that faith involves content and trust in that content, I must hasten to add that there's more than just believing all of this is true and trusting in it for yourself. There's a third part. The third element involves commitment. Let me illustrate this point. Picture a man who has fallen off a cliff. As he falls to his certain death, he reaches out in desperation and grabs a small limb and hangs on for dear life. As he looks up, he sees how steep the cliff is and knows he can never climb up. As he looks down he sees the jagged peaks just waiting for the inevitable. So he begins to panic. Suddenly, he sees an angelic figure floating above him, and so he begins to scream-SAVE ME-SAVE ME! Do you believe I CAN save you? The angel asks. The man sees the powerful wings, the mighty arms, so he says-"Yes, I believe you can save me." "Do you believe I WILL save you?" the angel asks. The man sees the compassionate, merciful face of the angel and so he cries out, "Yes, yes, I believe! Well then, the angel says, "Let Go." Still hanging on for dear life, the man yells, "Is there anybody else up there?!!" It's no use having the knowledge or content, or even believing the content if you don't commit yourself to what you know and trust. Again, Alister McGrath defines this component of faith.
"Faith is entry into the promises of God, receiving what they have to offer. Having recognized that the promises exist and that they can be trusted, it is necessary to act upon them - to enter into them, and benefit from them. I may believe that God is promising me forgiveness of sins; I may trust that promise; but unless I respond to that promise, I shall not obtain forgiveness. The first two stages of faith prepare the way for the third; without it they are incomplete."
When I was about four or five years old my dad taught me how to swim. He would stand in the pool and tell me to jump to him. Now I saw my dad there. I knew he could swim. I also knew he was strong and could catch me. More than that I knew he loved me and would catch me. But if I never jumped to him, that would have shown that I wasn't committed to that knowledge. In other words, just believing that my dad could catch me and trusting that he would catch me didn't put me in the pool. I had to jump. I had to commit myself to that knowledge and trust It is the same with biblical faith. God doesn't ask us to make a blind leap. We trust in him because we know he is trustworthy. Putting our trust in Christ to save us isn't a blind leap in the dark. We're leaping into the arms of someone we know. We know who he is. We know what he has done for us. We have to let go of the limb. We have to jump into the pool. As Norman Geisler says, it involves a leap into the light, not the dark. That's what faith is.
It is obvious then how important a proper understanding of faith is - individually for the Christian and corporately for the church. Merely having orthodox beliefs about what the Bible teaches is well and good. However, that alone is insufficient. Faith, as we have seen, is far more than intellectual assent to an abstract set of doctrines - though it is not less than that. Additionally, those who assert that just "being a good Christian" or "being sincere" in whatever you might happen to believe, also fall short of exercising biblical faith. Instead, faith should involve three essential areas. Faith should include knowledge about, trust in and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ and what He taught. Faith, biblically understood, "is a 'wedding ring,' pointing to mutual commitment and union between Christ and the believer. It is the response of the whole person of the believer to God, which leads in turn to the real and personal presence of Christ in the believer."
[Note to the reader: This paper is fully footnoted. However, the footnotes did not transfer over to Dale's webpage. If you have any questions regarding citations, please fill free to get in touch with Dale and request that information.]
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