A Guide to Examining the Way We Believe So That What We Believe Will be Secure
A bit over a decade ago, Evangelical pollster and sociologist George Barna concluded, based on numerous surveys, that nearly 40% of the individuals sitting in the pews in Evangelical Churches do not have enough content even to be saved. Christian Smith, the director of the National Study of Youth and Religion and associate chair of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, coined the label “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” to describe the religion of America’s youth in his 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. This means that the God that today’s youth is accepting is very different than the God of the Bible. In her fascinating book Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, associate professor of Princeton Theological Seminary, talks about the faith of America’s youth. In it she says that while 75% of today’s youth claim the name “Christian,” only 8% take their faith seriously. In a chapter provocatively entitled “Mormon Envy” she argues that Mormons are doing a much better job of passing on the content of their faith to their kids. Most Evangelicals, she argues, are more content to hope that the content of their faith will sooner or later be assumed by their children. But this is not happening.
I remember a Peanuts cartoon where Linus is waiting for the Great Pumpkin who is dreadfully late. I think it was Lucy who attempts to comfort him with the words “It does not matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.”
As well, I recall an AT&T commercial a few years ago where people are standing in lines in downtown New York City holding up signs that said, “I believe.” The scene then goes to a sky rise apartment where a banner is dropped out of a window that says, “I believe.” Then a plane flies by with a banner, “I believe.” Finally, there is a police officer sitting on his horse in the middle of the street with a sign, “I believe.” Then the AT&T logo came on the screen and the commercial was over. I thought to myself, “You believe what?” When I was in Washington DC a few months ago, I saw over the window of Macy’s their new slogan: “Believe.” Believe what?
We live in a culture that loves to talk about faith, belief, and spirituality. But the one common element that we often find is that this belief is going to the prom stag. It is not accompanied by any content. More often than not, there is nothing to believe in or to believe that. It is just that people believe. No object necessary. It is a virtue to be a “believer” so long as you don’t know what you believe. In fact, if you accompany your belief with an object, your “faith” will quickly become the subject of ridicule and scorn. This is especially the case if the content of your belief necessarily excludes other options. Many think it is best these days to just believe.
We call this postmodernism.
We also live in a time where the basic content of the Christian faith is not being passed on accurately. It is being screened through a filter of political correctness, therapeutic necessity, and seeker sensitivity. It seems we are taking a que from Burger King telling people to “have it your way.” Have God your way!
We call this American individualism and commerce.
With regard to the Christian faith, a content-less faith is not possible. When the Reformers talked about faith, they understood that faith must include substance. One’s faith can only grow to the degree that substantial and definite content is present. Both a lack of content and accuracy can cause one’s faith to be seriously troubled.
Notice here the “consent” meter. Consent represents the idea of trust. The postmodern mindset is very favorable toward “spirituality” and belief. Therefore, their consent (trust) meter is theoretically very high. They are people of faith, remember. But due to the confusion that is out there with regards to the content, they are unwilling to commit themselves to a belief in or belief that. It is a naked belief. There are simply too many options out there. To commit to one is to condemn the other. Who are we to say that we are right and they are wrong. Besides all this, there is internal conflict among those who agree. In other words, even those who agree, eventually part ways over disagreements. The postmodern looks at Christianity and says “Which one? Catholic? Orthodox? Baptist? Presbyterian? Methodist? or one of the divisions of these? It is just better to be a person of faith, but not choose which faith.”
Notice the conviction meter is turned off since there is no content about which to be convicted. The big meter, which represents the totality of ones faith from a Biblical standpoint, is at zero. No matter how high the consent meter, one’s faith is not going to be affected. It is impossible to have faith without any content, no matter what Lucy, AT&T, and Macy’s tells you. One cannot be a believer without an object in which to believe.
Often, people’s solution to the problem of disagreements in the church and society about content is to opt for as little content as possible. This is a sort-of “least common denominator” type faith. Most liberally, this may boil down to a simple belief in a God who is good, loves all people, wants us to do what is right, and has goodies for us in the afterlife. This way all people can make it to heaven. That way the content, while low, is accompanied by a large degree of conviction and consent. However, as can be seen, this definition of faith does affect the large meter at all. Why? Because in order for the large meter to begin to move at all (saving faith), there has to be a minimal amount of content that is sufficient to construct the essentials of the Gospel. If the Gospel is absent or grossly distorted, the faith meter cannot budge. In the current graphic, the content meter must move beyond the yellow area before there is a chance for true biblical faith to be possessed. This type of faith is that which we see in liberal churches all over the world, no matter what denomination.
The content of belief that I would include in the yellow includes:
- Belief in God
- Belief that Jesus is God’s Son
- Belief that Jesus died on the cross for their sins
- Belief that Jesus rose from the grave
- Belief that the person is sinful and in need of God’s mercy
Essentially, after a belief in God is established, I boil the essentials for salvation (as far as content is concerned) down to the person and work of Christ as defined by historic Christianity.
Next I present to you what I call “shallow faith.” Unlike the previous version, we now have a minimal amount of content that is able to issue forth saving faith. In other words, the content of their conviction and consent rests in the person and work of Christ. However, notice that the content does not go much further than this. While the conviction is pretty high, it is not as high as the previous due to the amount of content. The more the content, the harder it is for the conviction to come intuitively. The consent (trust) is still very high though.
But the key thing to notice is that this person’s overall faith is still not very strong. The primary faith meter, while it increased, did not increase much. This is due to the lack of content involved. People can have a strong trust and conviction in Christ, but remain as children in their faith due to a lack of information. I believe that this is representative of so many in pop-Evangelicalism today. The seeker mentality of a “taste-great-less-filling” church, while wonderful in getting people above the yellow, will not go too far in increasing people’s faith too far. I know that not all seeker churches are this way, but most that I have seen are.
But isn’t this enough? We have the person saved, with a good degree of conviction and consent, why burden them with more content than is necessary to bring them into the Kingdom?
The best way to describe this is by way of analogy. Let me try here.
Men, suppose you were to approach your wife in this attitude. Just after you get married, your wife seeks to deepen the relationship through getting to know one another. You respond, “Hold on there. I know enough about you to love you. I don’t want or need to know any more.” Your wife says, “Yes, you know many of the main things about me, but I want you to get to know me more.” You respond, “Nope. I know enough. I know your name, height, weight, what you look like, that you are a Republican, that you are a girl, that you love God, and that you love me. That is all I need. I don’t want to know about your past, your family, what your high school experience was like, how many kids you want, what kind of music you like, who your best friend is and why, nor do I want to know about your brothers and sisters.” “But,” she says, “I have so much to tell you.” “No way,” you bite back, “There might be something I don’t like. Plus, it is hard to sit and listen to all of that. Who knows if I will interpret you right anyway. Those kind of things get confusing. Let me just love you based on these few things and no more.”
As you know, this would never work. The relationship would never grow. In fact, eventually, it would go in the wrong direction leading to disaster. It is the same with God. When we enter into a relationship with him, yes it is important to get the most important things first. However, there is so much God wants to share with us. He has written a rather large book to inform us about all the things he has done, what he is going to do, and how we can live for him. He has told us about himself in great detail. Yes, a lot of it is confusing and, even, can be discouraging. But there is a lot more content than just the basics.
In sum, our faith cannot grow much without much content, no matter how sincerely we believe it. This is why it is so important for us, as Christians, to study God’s word and God’s world. This is why we spend so much time in Bible study and interpretation. This is why we read the whole of the Scripture, not just the parts we like and are easy to believe. God calls on us to increase our faith, but without continually examining the content that he has given us, we will never be able to grow in faith. Many people are stagnant in their faith, not because of a lack of trust or conviction, but because of the lack of information upon which to base their trust and conviction.
Mormons may be doing a better job of passing on the content of their faith, but the content is the wrong content. Content cannot be abandoned. We need to be writing it on the doorposts of our houses and on the collars of our shirt. We need to talk about it as we rise and as we sit. Most importantly, content does not just happen. It has to be taught and it has to be taught often.
It does matter what you believe; sencerity alone is worth very little.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]