Good News for Almost Christians

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In The Explicit Gospel, Matt Chandler recounts a disturbing, but eye-opening, moment during a public baptism at The Village, the church he pastors in Dallas, Texas.

“One after another, each person stirred the waters and told some variation of the same story: “I grew up in church; we went every Sunday morning and night; we even went to Wednesday prayer, vacation Bible school, and youth camp. If the doors were open, we were there. I was baptized when I was six, seven, or eight, but I didn’t understand what the gospel was, and after a while I lost interest in church and Jesus and I started walking in open sin. Someone recently sat me down and explained or invited me to The Village and I heard the gospel for the first time. I was blown away. How did I miss that?” Or they would say, “No one ever taught me that.”

Concerned, Chandler decided to interview several people who until recently had been “dechurched” (people who grew up in church, but left). Sadly, the interviews confirmed the pattern he first noticed in the baptismal waters—some had heard the Gospel but had not previously had the ears to hear it, but many people had grown up in church their whole lives without ever actually hearing the Gospel at all. “Their old journals and student Bibles were filled with what Christian Smith in his excellent book Soul Searching called ‘Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,’” Chandler writes. “What I found was that for a great many young twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, the gospel had been merely assumed, not taught or proclaimed as central. It hadn’t been explicit.”

Two and a half centuries ago, John Wesley explored the effect of an assumed Gospel in a classic sermon titled the “The Almost Christian.” Such a Christian has “a form of godliness,” Wesley preached, doing “nothing which the gospel forbids.” Furthermore, the Almost Christian is zealous in doing good, not restricting himself “to cheap and easy offices of kindness.” He avails himself of all the means of grace and is utterly sincere in his piety, having “a real desire to serve God, a hearty desire to do His will.” What, then, does such a believer lack? Drawing upon his own personal experience, Wesley replies simply that the Almost Christian does not truly love God or his neighbor, since his piety does not proceed from faith, which Wesley defines as “a sure trust and confidence…that, by the merits of Christ, his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God.” Only such faith saves, says Wesley—“if any man die without this faith and this love, good it were for him that he had never been born.”

Wesley’s warning is timely. Research shows that today’s “almost Christian” is tomorrow’s post-Christian. “Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate,” write Harvard professor Robert Putnam and Notre Dame professor David Campbell in their book American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives. “Thirty to forty percent have no religion today versus 5-10% a generation ago.”

Wesley’s warning is timely. Research shows that today’s “almost Christian” is tomorrow’s post-Christian.

When one pairs this research with the insight of sociologist Christian Smith referenced by Chandler that a large percentage of American youth—including a large percentage within the Christian church—subscribe to “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism,” one begins to see why these youth are leaving. Many of these “dechurched” youth, who never encounter the Gospel explicitly in church, eventually find church to be irrelevant. Never confronted by the life of Jesus as the moral standard for true humanity, these youth slide into moralism, believing that God simply wants people to “be good” and will accept people’s sincere efforts to do so. Unfamiliar with the news of Christ’s suffering death as the basis for our peace with God and the cruciform pattern for own lives, they settle into the cultural notion that God simply wants people to “be happy.” Unaware of the implications of Christ’s resurrection as Lord before whom every knee shall bow, a vague, “your truth is good for you” pluralism clouds the eyes of their heart. Unfamiliar with the presence of the Holy Spirit made manifest through the proclamation of the Word, these Almost Christians drift out the church door, many of them never to return.

Two thousand years ago, the apostle John wrote, “We love [God] because He first loved us.” One implication of this verse is that if our people are truly to love God, they must first be presented with the story of how God loved them. This is the role of preaching in the Christian life—to carry the grand narrative of God’s love in Christ to the doorstep of the heart and provoke a decision.

In a world in which the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:17) and in which “faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), evangelical churches urgently need to assess the state of their pulpits. Is the explicit Gospel being preached, or is it being drowned out by promises of prosperity, exhortations to social justice, or “Biblical principles for living”? Ministers laboring for a harvest of “altogether Christians”—to use Wesley’s phrase—would do well to labor to draw explicit connections between the sermon topic (no matter what the topic) and the Gospel message, and to institute feedback sessions (perhaps in the format of question-and-answer times after the sermon, or in small groups) to take stock of how well their people are hearing what is being preached. In the give-and-take of preaching and answering, proclaiming and explaining, they will be fostering a culture of active engagement with the Word of God. And the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, more than powerful to sever the hearts of God’s people from the crippling effect of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

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John Adams grew up Cap-Haitien, Haiti where he currently teaches at Institut Biblique l’Alliance de Grâce.

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