I had a friend some years ago who came to work all excited. He told me of a new business he had become involved with and invited me to come check it out for myself. I asked him to fill me in on the details, but he wouldn’t disclose any information without my attending this business meeting. I decided to go. I wasn’t obligated to anything and wouldn’t become involved with something illegal anyway, so, why not?
After seeing a business plan that actually intrigued me a bit, I was introduced to the name of this company: Amway! I was shocked. All I had ever heard about that company was negative. I prodded my friend as to why he did not disclose the name of the organization up front. His response was a simple question. “Would you have come along if I had told you?”
He had me. Truthfully, I would not have attended. I have nothing against a network marketing strategy; it is just that I would have yielded to the negative assumptions I already had about that particular company. That name carried a certain amount of baggage, and my friend chose to circumvent it by withholding whom we were dealing with until I had all the information.
I suppose, in his mind, it was a case of the end justifying the means. I’m concerned that we are doing this in the Church today with great detriment.
I have heard nearly all my life that Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship. There were usually some barbs leveled at the Catholics in our proximity, too. In other words, Christianity isn’t a bunch of “do’s and don’ts,” like the sacraments, but a living relationship wth Jesus. Just accept Him into your heart, as you are, and you will be saved — no strings. That’s how I was sold Christianity.
Then came the process of discipleship. I was taught that I should be baptized, if I had really “accepted” Jesus. I followed. I was told that I needed to attend church, if I was true to my profession. Of course, I followed again. Then came the instruction that I needed to make moral choices, read my Bible every day, give in the offering, pray for others (without ceasing), and the most austere demand, share my faith with others.
What happened to “It’s not about do’s and don’ts”? I was never told I would need to make changes. I was only encouraged to “accept Jesus in my heart.” I was led to believe those “do’s and don’ts” were NOT part of the equation. Had I been the victim of a well thought out bait and switch? Why not let me in on the expectations, right up front? Furthermore, if I am saved by my “accepting” Christ, isn’t all this Christian conformity superfluous?
By now you have probably noticed that I have placed the word accepted in quotes with regard to coming to faith in Christ. I have heard, “Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior,” all my life. As a pastor, I have asked the question, “Have YOU accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” numerous times just before plunging the individual under the waters of baptism.
But this is what needles me: Is accepting Jesus the fullness of the response to the gospel of Christ? If not, why are we presenting it that way?
This really began to bug me when I started seeing people leave the Christian faith for another one. You can’t exchange a faith system for a supposedly neutral place. Everyone has faith in a worldview, no matter how convoluted — even the Atheist. Why did we begin to see so many “Christians” leave their relationship with Jesus for another belief system? Why is this attrition growing at such an alarming pace? Is there something in our message that has unwittingly helped this deconstruction along? I think so.
What do we mean by “accept” Christ, anyway? Do I accept Him like I accept the weather conditions of the day? Just what do we propose when we present the Gospel?
When I think of the words Jesus left behind, I just don’t see a laissez faire Gospel presented. Rather the call is for a resolute and determined response. He told the rich young ruler to, “Sell all that you have and come follow Me.” He likened the Kingdom of God to a field with a treasure or a pearl of tremendous worth. In both cases, the parables reveal a person selling everything to attain those valuables, which represent God’s Kingdom. When Jesus took to preaching after His time of testing, He said, “Repent. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” If Jesus preached repentance, how is it believers mirror the world’s pathologies? Doesn’t the Gospel accord with godliness?
Maybe instead of asking people to “accept Jesus in your heart,” (which I find nowhere in the Bible) we should ask them if they are willing to be identified with Jesus, which is what baptism truly signifies. That question will, no doubt, require some explanation. An individual who chooses to identify with Christ, rather than merely accept Him, will make a significantly more purposeful declaration at the beginning of his walk. Accepting is a private sort of thing, but identification is both private and public. We can objectively discern what it means to identify with Christ, while acceptance is necessarily subjective.
There is a human relationship we see everyday that mirrors this identification. It is right under our noses. It is called Holy Matrimony or marriage. According to the Apostle Paul, marriage is a symbol, or a picture, of the Church’s relationship with Christ. Imagine, for a moment, asking your future spouse to “accept” you rather than to marry you. Is it likely she would assume you meant the same thing? No matter the choice of words? A willing marriage presupposes acceptance of some kind, but acceptance does not presuppose marriage. When we present the Gospel, do we invite people to be joined to Christ like in a marriage? We should.
I don’t have all the answers for how we stop people from abandoning Christianity. I am not even saying that everyone in the Church is pulling a fast one on future Christian prospects. When I wasn’t told up front that the business meeting was an Amway function, I felt manipulated. That didn’t foster a healthy business relationship. In fact, it worked against one.
When a new believer eventually comes face to face with the need to conform to Christ, will he balk at that mandate because it was never “part of the deal?” Worse yet, how many Christians already believe that conformity to Christ is optional? If true, that would make discipleship unnecessary and undermine the Great Commission. Is it possible that we are seeing the fruit of our message?
No matter how badly the Church bleeds members, my exhortation is that we do not begin to “sell” the faith as something other than it is — total identification with Jesus Christ. If it becomes less than that, in the minds of its adherents, it is doubtful that brand of Christianity will ever survive the challenges of a hostile society.