Decaffeinated Christianity

The challenges of contemporary American Christianity

Joel Sarli, D.Min., is the former associate secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association

Some time ago I received a newsletter assessing the overall impact of the Christian populace in the United States. The writer mentioned Anglican bishop Michael Marshall, who suggested that there is a problem with contemporary Christianity in America. He says many Christians have settled for a facsimile of Christian freedom: running their own lives while at the same time saying they believe in Christ. He contends that many so-called believers have accepted a decaffeinated Christianity it promises not to keep you awake at night.

It is getting harder to distinguish Christians from non-Christians. Charles Colson observes that "we live in a time that would seem to be marked by unprecedented spiritual resurgence: 96 percent of all Americans say they believe in God; 80 percent profess to be Christians.... Fifty million Americans claim to be born again. Yet families are splitting apart in record numbers. There are 100 times more burglaries in so-called Christian America than in so-called pagan Japan. Why this paradox between profession and practice?" Colson wonders. "Why is the faith of so many not making an impact on the moral values of our land?"*

Jesus and Zacchaeus

There is a wonderful story in Luke 19:1-10 about the impact that Jesus' teachings made in the life of an undesirable tax collector named Zacchaeus. The text suggests that Jesus' visit in the home of Zacchaeus did more than reorder the dinner conversation. It even did more than reorder Zacchaeus's thinking. His heart was touched; his whole life was altered. Greed was converted into generosity. Past dishonesty was countered with restitution. Zacchaeus's encounter with Jesus awakened a wide-ranging behavior change. He became a different person.

When Zacchaeus staked out his spot in the tree so he could get a clear view of Jesus, in the back of his mind he had a hunch that what Jesus had to offer was more than he already possessed. The longer he and Jesus spent together, the more he became convinced that what Jesus stood for was worth his allegiance. Before the night ended, Zacchaeus made his move toward the forgiveness of God, and his life was reordered. He was transformed. During the next week, I believe, Zacchaeus's behavior was the talk of the town. Word got around that his encounter with Jesus was the reason for it all.

Unless word gets around about the behavior of the people who verbally claim belief in God, those who do not believe will have little interest in their claims or in any deeper meeting with God.

Theoretical line easiest to follow

It seems that one reason so many preachers have drifted into theorizing sermons and philosophizing lectures is that they are much easier to prepare and to present. Such sermons do not take so much out of them. Moreover, Christian people cannot truly lead souls to the transforming power of Jesus unless they first know the way themselves. It is impossible to teach others how to live the triumphant life if one is not living victoriously himself or herself.

The present state of affairs among Christians introduces critical consequences for the evangelistic ministry. A brand of faith that doesn't prompt the loss of sleep in our troubled and needy world will not wake up others to their need to be redeemed in Christ. What incentive is there to investigate a message that has lost its reputation for making a difference? If the modern brand of the Christian message is not producing behavioral change, in all honesty, what do we have to offer to those who are not Christians?

If the bishop Michael Marshall's analysis of Christians in America is accurate and we are delivering a decaffeinated message, we should not be surprised that the faith claims of so many are having so little impact on modern society.

* Charles Colson, Presenting Belief in an
Age of Unbelief
(Wheaton, 111.: Victor Books,
1986), pp. 5,6.

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Joel Sarli, D.Min., is the former associate secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association

November 1997

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