According to a 2010 study, there are 5.8 billion religiously affiliated people in the world today (representing 84 percent of the 2010 global population of 6.9 billion). Based on those statistics, the chances are good that if you’re reading this you probably identify yourself within a specific religious tradition. That may mean you attend a temple, mosque, or church once a year, on a weekly basis, or something in between; but nevertheless you would identify yourself as a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist … and the list goes on.
You can certainly count me amongst those 5.8 billion people. I was raised in a Christian home where I was taught at an early age about God. I went to church weekly and learned of the way God expected me to live my life. In return, he wouldn’t fry me. I’d also get to spend eternity with him. Overall, it sounded like a pretty good deal to me.
Yet, many times growing up, and even entering into adulthood, I found myself having thoughts similar to this: “Isn’t it fortunate that I was born into a Christian home?” And I was sincere in those thoughts. If I hadn’t been born into a Christian home, I figured there was a chance I may have never been told about Jesus. Or even if I had, who’s to say I would have become a Christian later in life? So, I considered myself truly fortunate that I had been born into a Christian home and raised in the Church. After all, I didn’t want to risk being ‘doomed to hell’ at the end of my life.
However, God wasn’t the only influential character in my life that I was told about as a child. I was also told about Santa Claus. In fact, I distinctly recall confusing the two at times. Santa Claus seemed to have many of the same characteristics attributed to God – He knows when you’re awake or asleep, He knows who is bad and who is good, and those who are bad are punished and the good rewarded. It’s a familiar story. Karen Armstrong discusses this phenomenon in her book, The Case for God. She talks about the fact that we learn of the existence of God and Santa Claus at about the same, but while our understanding of and belief in Santa Claus matures as we get older, our belief in God often remains infantile. That was certainly my story, and likely the story for many of those other 5.8 billion people referenced earlier.
As I got into my mid-20’s, the thoughts I had about my beliefs began to shift. I realized I was one of those people who was fairly infantile in their beliefs and understanding of God, and I wanted to go deeper. So, instead of thinking about how fortunate I was to be born into a Christian home, I began to ask myself a new question instead: “What if I had been born into a Buddhist home? A Muslim home? Or into any number of other belief systems?” It was a troubling thought, because I realized if I had been born into a different religion, it’s very likely I would have still held strongly to those beliefs. I would have believed that particular religion was the right one, and all others – including Christianity – were wrong. For me, that simple thought was life-changing; I would never look at religion, or my beliefs, the same again. And it led me to ask another question I never dreamed I would be asking: “Do I even believe in God?”
If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve all asked that question before (or at least had passing thoughts similar to it). While we desperately want to believe in God, we occasionally have doubts, but in the end it’s easier, and more comfortable, to believe what we’ve been taught our entire lives is true. Well, this wasn’t one of those moments for me. It went much deeper than that. I knew if I truly believed in God, if I really believed what I had always said I believed, I would live my life in a different, more meaningful way. I knew I would actually be compelled to live my life according to my beliefs. So when I asked myself that question at that point in my life, my answer shocked me: No. I didn’t believe. I didn’t believe in God deeply enough that it would change the way I lived my life. And if our beliefs don’t change the way we live, then we don’t really believe. And while some of you won’t like reading that, I’m convinced it’s true.
Fortunately, I wasn’t content to stop there. Even though I came to a point where I didn’t believe in God, I wanted to believe. Yet, I knew if there was any chance of me discovering God for myself, I couldn’t approach it from a Christian worldview. Before I could do that, I had to first get to the point of believing a being such as God even existed. If I got that far, then I could worry about whether he was Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or all/none of the above. So I began to study various belief systems, their origins, and their progression over time. I studied eastern religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Taoism. I studied the western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I even studied some ancient religions like Mithraism and the myth of Osiris and Isis. Through that process the improbable happened: I became utterly convinced there was a God. I simply couldn’t deny that fact any longer. While I didn’t yet know who that God was, at least I was making progress.
To make a long story short(er), after many months of intense study I ultimately ended up affirming my belief in the Jesus of the Bible. When compared to everything else I had studied, there was simply something different about Jesus. About the things He did, the way he lived, and who he claimed to be. By finally arriving at that destination after a long journey, I could now say with full confidence that I believed in God and in Jesus Christ. But more importantly, I now had a deep-seeded belief that would empower me to live according to my convictions. To steal some terminology from Kyle Idleman, I was finished being a fan of Jesus — I was ready to be a follower of Jesus.
The thing that struck me most however, during the course of my studies, was the impact religious tradition has on the way we interact with the world around us. Even within Christianity, our worldview is often colored by the particular denomination we grew up in or currently associate with. While we can all hide behind the broad label of “Christian,” the reality is that we all have our own version of Christianity, typically based upon the particular tradition we identify with — be it Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Mennonite, Reformed, or something else — and those traditions tend to inform our beliefs, our actions, and what we expect when we walk through the doors of a church on Sunday morning. It seems that church tradition oftentimes impacts our actions and beliefs more than the Word of God itself does.
As I thought back on my own Christian experience, what I saw was an exclusive, close-minded religious community that often placed more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following him. I saw an intellectual community that was often more interested in studying what the Bible said, rather than actually doing what it taught. I saw a community that would often jump at the opportunity to tell you what they stand against, but rarely would you hear what they actually stand for. And while I’m merely reflecting on my own Christian experience, I suspect many of you could say the same things if you’re being honest. In a recent study from The Barna Group conducted among unchurched 16 to 29-year-olds, a staggering 87% saw Christians as judgmental, while 85% saw them as hypocritical. Why? Because we’re usually no different than everyone else. We just say we are. And by doing so, we end up alienating those around us. Those who we should be drawing nearer to Christ, we end up pushing further away. And there’s no greater tragedy than that.
By no means is the description above true of all Christians. Far from it. But the assessment above is what you get when we allow Christianity to be more strongly influenced by religious tradition than by the Word of God. As I’ve shared, it had certainly been true of my own personal experience. By allowing the Church to dictate how to act and what to believe, through its traditions, rituals, rules, and regulations, I was always deferring to someone else to tell me what to think. Since the pastor was paid to study and preach the Word, I was content to simply consume what was said from the pulpit without question. In the end, all I wanted was my “get out of hell free” card, and by attending church on a weekly basis I was holding up my end of the bargain. Or, so I thought. As it turns out, the particular verse that teaches that doctrine was left out of my bible.
The good news is that it’s not too late to begin to shift this Church culture we’ve created, where religious tradition lulls us to sleep in the pews. As I referenced earlier, we’re not called to be fans of Christ – we’re called to be followers. But, by merely sitting in the pews for an hour once a week, allowing religious tradition to be our sole form of scriptural education, all we’re doing is living out the life of a fan. We’re just observing Christianity, not participating in it. To be a follower of Christ, we need to get our hands dirty. We need to dig into the Word for ourselves, ultimately allowing Scripture to inform our lifestyle and our beliefs, rather than being content with the comforts of tradition. Once we do that, no longer will we continually ostracize unbelievers with our words and actions; rather, we will compel them to want to learn more about Christ, based simply on the authentic way we live our lives. No longer will we be content to sit on the sidelines, merely observing this thing called Christianity while life passes us by. Because most importantly, once we have a deep-seeded belief within us, we won’t be able to help but answer the call to be a fully devoted follower of Christ.