Cultural Christianity

Are most American Christians Christian in name only? Cultural Christians say they are Christian only because it is the cultural thing to do.  I recently read a modern paraphrase of a 224 year old book by William Wilberforce called “Real Christianity” (paraphrased by Bob Beltz).  Being Christian in name only was William Wilberforce’s concern for his fellow English Christians back then in 1797, and it is my concern today.  65% of American adults will say they are Christian but I believe that most of them say it because it is the cultural thing to do.  I believe many of them believe in some variation of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, not Christianity.  Reading this book showed me that these concerns are nothing new.  The problems back then are the same problems still here today. 

(Note a paraphrase conveys the meaning of each sentence or paragraph and it is not a word by word “translation” but it still carefully follows the flow of ideas in the book.  It was easy for me to compare passages in the original and the paraphrase. The flow of ideas tracked, and the ideas explained were the same.)

William Wilberforce was a British politician that supported many causes, but he is best known for his long campaign in Parliament to abolish of slavery in the British Empire.  He was motivated by a desire to put his Christian principles into action and to serve God in public life. (A good movie on his life is Amazing Grace.) He wrote this book because he was concerned that many people in his day were not Christian, even though they said they were.  They did not believe the Christian doctrines and/or understand what it was supposed to mean to call oneself Christian.

Cultural Christianity then and today has the state of humanity wrong.  Cultural Christians would consider the average human to be relatively good, and not evil.  The Bible says something different.  We are not good.  Because of our fallen nature, we are instead proud and selfish. 

Real authentic Christianity recognizes our depravity and our inability to save ourselves from our own sinful nature.  The good news is that God saw our plight, and Jesus came to save us from our sin.  He did it by living a perfect sinless life, and he then died on a cross in payment for all our sins.  After that he rose from the dead.  And by the Holy Spirit we can have a life in him. That humbles us.  We recognize that the grace we received was not cheap. It cost Jesus his life.  That is real authentic Christianity.   And as real authentic Christians, we believe those historic teachings of the Bible.

Cultural Christianity today seems to be either moralistic or therapeutic or both.  A moralistic cultural Christian will say “I am a good person and I will do good deeds so that I will be good enough to make it into heaven”.  They do not realize that only one sin is all it takes to keep them out.  God demands perfection. They also miss out on the fact that God has already done it all for them.  A therapeutic cultural Christian will hang onto the fact that they are loved by God.  They will say “I need God to make me feel better”. They don’t realize that God desires to grow them and that may mean uncomfortable discipline.  They miss out on the fact that God wants to be in a relationship with them and he is not a big lovable guy in the sky that is supposed to always make them feel good.  In both cases those cultural Christians are centered on themselves and not on God. And that means their relationship with God is transactional and is not relational.  Their Christianity is not true Christianity.

Real authentic Christians put their beliefs into practice, because what they believe is central to their life. To quote Wilberforce (via the paraphrase), they are “looking unto Jesus Christ!”  And 

“But to the men and women that possess authentic faith in Jesus Christ, these truths are the center of gravity toward which all life is in motion. They are the sun of their solar system! They are the origin of all that is excellent and lovely and the source of light and life.” [Italics are in the original and the paraphrase.]

As real authentic Christians, we commit to living life in the service to God and for his glory.  It is important that we live out our faith, because the roles we play are crucial for the well being of society, and for the witness of our faith to others.

That is what Wilberforce in his book had to say to me.  It is interesting, but not surprising, that a 224 year old book can speak to today’s situation.

PS I wonder if cultural Christians are becoming less common because today only 65% of Americans say they are Christian but in 2007 it was 78%.  In 14 years the percentage of adult Christians in America has dropped 13%. That is a huge drop.   Is that because some people no longer call themselves Christian? Or is it because the old, who are more likely to say they are Christian, are dying off and the new adults, the Millennials (and Gen Z), are less likely to say they are Christian? (Only 49% of Millennials say they are Christian.)

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