That Instagrammed photo of your girlfriend with her Bible and coffee the other morning was probably staged…so kinda like every other perfectly groomed post upholding our never-ending pursuit of social acceptance and apparent perfection.
When you imagine “a week in the life of a Christian” you might imagine a church visit, an occasional Bible reading before bed, and some community involvement after school or work. However, this is not likely the case, if American Christians act in accordance with what they find essential to their faith.
Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center published some data on what American Christians value in everyday life. The data is fascinating, and I’d encourage you to read the summary here or the full report here. Today, I want to look at just one of the graphs they provide.
The most fascinating graph in this Pew report, for me, is this one:
So, to make sure we’re on the same page when it comes to interpreting that graph: 86% of American Christians think that “believing in God” is an essential part of what it means to be a Christian. (This post isn’t even about that statistic that, while higher than the rest, is troublingly low.)
Following “believing in God” the four “essential parts” that received the most votes were: “being grateful for what you have,” “forgiving those who have wronged you,” “being honest at all times,” and “praying regularly.”
Obviously, all four of these actions are admirable and should be present in anyone who calls him- or herself a follower of Jesus. Any day of the week I can carry out one of these actions with some success I consider it a good day as far as obedience is concerned.
However, the intrigue in this graph is not so much in what is valued, but rather, what is not valued by a majority of American Christians.
Here are the stats plainly listed for you:
Now, if you’re like me, you may think what I thought at first, “Well, to be fair, the way the question is asked, maybe the respondents think ‘essential’ means “necessary for salvation.” That’s a fair point. Christians don’t need to be saying reading the Bible daily, attending church weekly, or teaching a Sunday school class is essential for salvation—so, in that way, these actions aren’t “essential.”
That may be the case. But these statistics are evidence of an epidemic Christian leaders have recognized for some time: American Christianity has been hijacked by the individual at the expense of the whole.
Prayer is important, but it is no surprise that the individualistic nature of personal prayer propelled it much higher than the more corporate requirements of attending church services or serving in the local church. Bible reading, while often a more “personal” act than a corporate one, requires us to be more God-interested than self-interested, so it is also no surprise that it fell so low on the list.
Don Miller, Millennial Christian hero and best-selling author wrote a blog post back in 2014 about how he doesn’t go to church often because it doesn’t really fit his learning style. (Don later clarified that he doesn’t mean to demean the church experience by writing a three-thousand-plus word blog post describing the church experience as “a University” from which he has graduated. So, yeah.)
Don isn’t the only major Christian leader who thinks this way. Plenty of others do and just aren’t as willing to be open about it. When influential Christian leaders focus on individual stories more than God’s story, it is no surprise American Christians have so little need for the corporate experience of the local church.
Aside from “believing in God” which is obviously unimportant among non-Christians, the values are nearly identical. See the highlighted box below:
Removing “believing in God,” the top six values of Christians and non-Christians are as follows:
Basically, the only real difference is that Christians value prayer and non-Christians value protecting the environment. Other than that one difference, Christians and non-Christians pretty much value the same things.
That’s a little concerning.
The most important values of American Christians are virtually no different from the most important values America’s non-Christian, but moral population.
Unfortunately, the Pew data did not break down the values by age group, or at least the data they published did not provide this information, so we can’t see how Millennials fare against this overall data. (Though I would venture to guess Millennials are more individualistic than less.)
In short, pastors and church leaders must be willing to tackle “why” questions. Pastors and church leaders must be ready and willing to answer questions like:
“Because the Bible says so” simply does not cut it anymore, pastors. Many people in your church will simply respond, “I don’t care if the Bible says so because I don’t know why the Bible matters.” You must go deeper than that, and it will be hard, like any important ministry is.
Pastors and church leaders must shepherd as the Scriptures have called them to shepherd. The sheep are stubborn, but they must be led to drink of the rivers of living water and to consume the bread of life, even when they think they aren’t thirsty or hungry.