As someone who only really became a Christian in my early-mid 20s (after many failed attempts, which I’ll get to later), I can tell you that witnessing the (at best) unchanged lives of believers, and (at worst) the outright hypocrisy of believers was a major deterrent in my own journey towards truth. To this day, when talking with non-believers, I sometimes hesitate to refer to myself as a Christian because—from the perspective of a non-believer—I’m all too familiar with the image that conjures: a person who lives just like the rest of the world, but claims eternal salvation on the back of someone whose life, death and resurrection was marked by utter purity from the sin of the world.
And I know I’m not the only one with this perspective. In his book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience” (subtitle: “Why are Christians living like the rest of the world?”), Ronald J. Sider says
Whether the issue is divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, physical abuse in marriage, or neglect of a biblical worldview, the polling data point to widespread, blatant disobedience of clear biblical moral demands on the part of people who allegedly are evangelical, born-again Christians.
Sider goes on to share some statistics that should grip us, and propel us into deep inquiry, if not immediate action. Just for example, on the issue of divorce, Evangelicals are reported to divorce at rates slightly higher or on par with the rest of the population. (Click through to read all the stats online, or order a full copy of the book for yourself here.)
So why are so many Christians living like the rest of the world? While the reasons behind people’s choices are many, as I reflected on my own journey, a particular oversight kept coming to mind. And as I informally polled friends and acquaintances on the internet, I found that I was onto something. A tiny piece of something, but it’s a start.
I believe one of the reasons there are so many people who would call themselves Christians, but live entirely unchanged lives is that we haven’t clearly communicated what it means to repent, and put your faith in Christ. I don’t think we’re educating people about what they’re signing up for, exactly. Across denominations and regions—but particularly in non-denominational West Coast Christianity—we’ve disfigured the message of authentic repentance, and traded it for the quick, one-time “salvation prayer.” No life change required. Just “say the prayer,” and you’re in the club.
Now, before anyone misunderstands me, I’m not suggesting we preach a works-based, or legalistic plan of salvation. What I am suggesting is that as we encourage people towards reconciliation with God, we present the truth of a changed life as part of the deal. The Bible does not shy away from this, but we sure seem to. Just a few verses off the top of my head regarding our renewal in the gospel, and the evident change in our lives as a result:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! – 2 Corinthians 5:17
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. – Romans 12:2
Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. – James 1:21-22
In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. – James 2:17-18
When we reduce the life-changing power of the gospel to “saying the prayer of salvation,” and don’t shepherd/guide new believers, we end up with millions of “Christians” like me, who for years would have said I was a Christian, but wasn’t noticeably different from my non-Christian peers, bearing out none of the fruits of the spirit.
I can’t tell you how many times I “said the prayer” (seven? eight?), yet it never “stuck.” Nothing changed. I started to feel guilty, like something was wrong with me. Why is my life the same? What am I supposed to do now? Is this really it?
In the spirit of leading more people under God’s will for their life, what if we were more intentional with “on-boarding” new believers? What if, instead of leaving them feeling unchanged and resourceless, we came alongside new believers and actually ushered them into the family? What if a radically changed life was positioned early and often in the process?
The gospel, when it penetrates, radically changes lives. It opens up the gates for the holy spirit to come in and convict hearts that were previously hardened to its calling. I believe if we were more intentional with new believers, we could begin to reignite a church that truly represents the savior we love.
This is part I of a series on “on-boarding” new believers. Part II will focus on the actual components of what that might look like, and part III will look at the applying the same principles to long-time believers whose lives remain unchanged.