Many people today are talking about why many Christians seem to lack devotion to their faith. It has been said that a lot of Christians are “Christian in name only,” in the sense that they claim to be Christian but, other than that, Christianity does not seem to have a big presence in their lives. It has also been noted that people of other religions seem to be more devoted to their faith than many Christians are.
Obviously, there is not a single answer to this dilemma, given that everyone has their own personal circumstances affecting their devotion or lack thereof. But from my consideration of the testimonies, experiences, and teachings of Christians, both in past eras and the present, I would like to share my thoughts on why we are seeing some of the reported characteristics within the church today.
Many Evangelicals believe Christians are overall less devout today than in past eras. In some sense, I can accept that assessment (I say “in some sense” because I’m not sure that claim is absolutely true, for reasons I’ll discuss later). So, if it appears that Christians are less devout today, to explain why, a reasonable approach would be to compare what modern Christianity teaches to what Christianity taught in past eras.
In terms of what Christianity teaches today, there is not much difference since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century. However, regarding the presentation and delivery of the message, there is a major difference.
Modern Evangelicals are really trying to emphasize God as a God of Love. They emphasize that God desires the best for everybody, and that what God wants from us is not religious devotion, but rather, a relationship with Him. They seek to make their message more inclusive and less judgmental.
However, while modern Evangelicals present their message of God’s benevolence, there are other issues they have to deal with, such as, how to talk about sin, judgment, or hell. And this is where the modern Evangelical gospel faces some tensions. For instance, Evangelicals are usually adamant that they are not promoting religious regulations, but rather, relationship with God. But then they are confronted with Scriptures that condemn certain things which conventional, secular morality does not necessarily believe to be immoral. This creates a tension because blanket prohibition of those activities very much appears to be religious regulation, something that many Evangelicals supposedly do not believe in.
So, on one hand, Evangelicals feel bound to condemning those activities because they see them as a real danger, morally and spiritually, and they believe that those who live in sin are going to face judgment in some form or another. However, at the same time, they do not want to talk about these issues too much; otherwise, Christianity would become about rules and regulations, which they do not want to happen. So, they try to minimize the tension by talking about these hot button issues just enough to get the point across, but keeping the main focus on love, forgiveness, and relationship with God.
Topics such as judgment and hell are also recast in modern Evangelicalism. Judgment is viewed as what happens when people separate themselves from God, thus separating themselves from His protection, and facing the consequences of their sins. God is not portrayed as actively causing harm to anybody, but rather, allowing them to face the consequences of their actions so that they may be led to repentance. On the issue of hell, modern Evangelicals still preach eternal punishment in the afterlife, but instead of fire and brimstone, they tend to portray hell as isolation from God.
However, I sense that in the minds of the audiences, these concepts create tensions. If God is loving and benevolent, and Christianity is not about rules and regulations, then it does not seem to naturally follow to say that people will face judgment or isolation from God if they don’t believe in Him, or if they live certain lifestyles that do not seem to be immoral apart from Christian teaching. These tensions prevent a lot of Christians from really connecting with their faith. And since the teachings against sin and warnings of judgment are given a comparatively small share of teaching material, many Christians tend to resolve the tensions by just focusing on the positive aspects of the teachings and very much disregarding the more “serious” parts.
But concepts like sin and judgment have to be regarded in some way or another in order for salvation to be meaningful in one’s mind and one’s life. We learn a lot of things by contrast. Thus, modern Evangelicalism’s tendency to deemphasize the “negative” aspects has the consequence of reducing the power of the redemptive aspects in the lives of the audience.
Prior to the past couple centuries, God was often viewed as a righteous judge who actively punished sinners. If the Bible condemned a certain activity, you were going to obey because God said so, and if you didn’t obey, He would be coming after you!
Some of you may know about Jonathan Edwards, a famous preacher during the Great Awakening revival of the early-mid 1700s. His sermons (most famously “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) had graphic depictions of hell that frightened many people into repentance. The Great Awakening era, which Edward’s preaching came to symbolize, was a time in which there did appear to be a surge in real devotion to the Christian faith.
I believe that what made the Great Awakening preaching effective was its inward cohesion. Hell was terrifying, sin was gravely serious, and God was just as intimidating to sinners. The whole package worked together. Preachers were not trying to juggle a lovey-dovely message with warnings about sin. Furthermore, for those who were saved, there was an extra degree of appreciation to Christ for one’s salvation, which I believe led to the apparent changes in the lives of Christians in that era.
Now, I’m not saying that I personally recommend that kind of preaching. However, it had a kind of inward cohesion that got apparent results. However, it is hard to know what was really going on in people’s hearts long after their conversion experiences. If people have the conception of God in their minds that was prominent in that era, they will try to live right. They will put on an appearance of morality (especially in public). They will acknowledge God in their lives. But their deeper attitudes or secret thoughts inside, and what they do behind closed doors, could be a very different story. After all, sin is stimulated by Law (Rom. 7:11).
Nevertheless, if we look at the kind of preaching that got results in the past, it seems apparent to me why modern Evangelicalism is not getting the kind of results that its proponents desire. So, what should we say?
Well, first, I should say that God can work through many types of preaching, including that of the Great Awakening and that of modern Evangelicalism. I am not trying to say that there is a definitively “right” or “wrong” way to present the Gospel message. However, when we’re on the subject of why many Christians seem to lack devotion in their faith today, I believe that the lack of cohesion in modern Evangelicalism is a problem.
I believe that Christians should seek a way to present the Gospel in which various themes are integrated together, such that to talk about one subject is to talk about another. As an example of this paradigm, the truth of redemption is revealed by talking about sin and judgment, and the truth of judgment is revealed by talking about redemption. Under this paradigm, you are no longer trying to balance various themes. You cannot talk about one subject more than the other, because to talk about one theme is to talk about another.
There is more than one way that this can be done. As long as the message is Christ-centered, the specific teachings being presented are not my main concerns here. For example, there is a lot of debate between Christians over whether people can lose their salvation. The doctrine of Eternal Security (“once saved always saved”) is viewed by some as a cause of the lack of devotion today, but it is viewed by others as the way to teach a consistent message of grace. However, I do not believe that Eternal Security necessarily resolves the tensions discussed earlier. In many cases, I feel that the doctrine of Eternal Security is just a screen to hide the incoherence under the surface. In fact, some of the most bewildering websites I have EVER encountered are teaching Eternal Security.
So, my main concern here does not involve the specific doctrines being preached. Instead, what I encourage is that, regardless of what doctrines are being taught, the principles of the teaching have internal cohesion and are not creating the need for awkward attempts to balance various themes.