State of Faith in America

Some time ago, the following article by Keith Robinson appeared in Alternative magazine. I feel his comments address a critical issue, and I would like to follow the article with some comments of my own.

According to national polls, 98% of Americans affirm a belief in God; nearly 80% are members of some church, and one half of that number consider themselves to be active in their church. Tens of billions of dollars are given each year to churches and their affiliated benevolent and educational institutions.

The other side of the coin, however, exposes a rather tarnished view of America's religious involvement. Last year, more than a million American families were dissolved in divorce. In our nation's capital more children are born to unwed parents than to married couples. In the same city abortions outnumber all births. Some ten million serious crimes were reported last year, one half of them committed by children under the age of 18. Two and one-half million juveniles were arrested last year. In this last generation (20 years), juvenile crime has risen an unbelievable 1,600%. Assaults by students caused bodily injury serious enough to require medical attention to 70,000 teachers in one year; at the same time damage to public school property costs more than is spent for school textbooks at all grade levels. Alcohol has enslaved literally millions of America's adults, and now has become a problem of major proportions among teens and preteens. What might be said about pornography, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, and dishonesty of every kind?

How can a nation so apparently religious have so many of its citizens so obviously intent on defying every moral, ethical, and religious principle? Perhaps a part of the explanation rests in the fact that increasing numbers of our countrymen consider faith in God more of a cultural heritage than a personal commitment. Faith is considered something that happens to the individual, not something that the individual does, or is.

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). After giving this definition of what faith is, the author of Hebrews gives us a series of great giants of faith from the Old Testament. The thing that most people miss about all of this is that these giants of faith did not acquire that faith from their ancestors or their culture. Abraham, for example, had to grow in his faith. He lived in heathen lands and dealt with barbaric people. The pressures caused him to fail on several occasions. Failing to trust in God, he was willing to allow his wife to become a part of the Pharaoh's harem-and even told a half-truth to make it possible. Several years later, he attempted it a second time. Through these failures, he eventually grew to become a man of tremendous faith-held out to us as an example.

The apostle Peter is another example of repeated failure. Peter's spiritual life is like a yo-yo. In one instant he is vocally defending Jesus, willing to draw his sword and fight, willing to walk on the water-willing to do his very best. The next instant he is sinking in the water, denying Jesus three times with an oath, and doing his best to convince those around him that he has no association with Jesus.

Those of us who wear the name "Christian" have failed miserably in understanding how faith is acquired. Dragging a child to the church building three times a week will not of itself produce faith. All of the teaching in the world will not in and of itself produce faith. Even living a "perfect life" before a child will not do the job! Jesus' perfect, sinless life before His disciples did not produce instant faith. As Keith Robinson says in his article, faith is something that a person does or is. Faith is something you develop, you train, you grow! It is not a forced experience pressed against us involuntarily. Solomon said that we should "train up" our children, not talk up, preach up, lecture up, or even teach up. All of the things we have mentioned can be helpful in developing faith, but there are some other ingredients that must be included if faith is to be built as a lasting and guiding force in our lives. Let us look at some of these.

The use of intellect. When you read of the dealings of Christ with His apostles and with the people of His day, you see Him developing logical, rational, practical arguments for what He was teaching. He used parables to challenge their thinking. He blasted away at ridiculous religious tradition with solid academic teaching that silenced His opponents. At a young age, He confounded the religious leaders of His day with His understanding and logic. The teachings of the New Testament continue that theme. We are told that we can know there is a God through the things He has made (Romans 1:19-23). We are challenged intellectually on Mars Hill in Acts 17. The methods of building faith employed by Jesus and His followers involved using all kinds of evidences, debating, challenging, questioning, reasoning, and pitting the wisdom of God against the superficial and insane logic of man.

In our day, faith has been assumed. We confuse "acceptance" with "faith." Many times we are told "you just have to believe." Those who question or challenge are frequently driven into seclusion (at least mentally) rather than nurtured and developed. With many young people, attendance at church is a boring experience that is endured as a payment for peace at home. Even some Christian colleges have a tendency to press inquiring minds into submission if those minds are not easily convinced about accepted positions.

The solution to reversing this situation is to challenge the intellect of growing faiths. This can be done in Bible schools that will make a commitment to rigorous academic teaching. If parents and Bible teachers work together, use tests, demand homework, provide meaningful rewards for study, young people can see that belief in God and in the precepts of the Church are logical and reasonable. Teachers need to learn to take a special interest in questioning minds. These are the minds that can eventually become our spiritual giants of the twentyfirst century. We, as parents, can also do this by providing our children with challenging books, tapes, and other materials in critical areas. Workshops and lectureships should be encouraged and supported. There are so many challenging, informative, useful programs in operation in the Church today that there is no excuse for not providing our youth with a myriad of opportunities to build their faith through their intellect.

The use of experience. "Faith is something the individual does or is," Keith Robinson said. How can our youth build dynamic, working faiths in a vacuum? Jesus sent his disciples out two by two for field training. They came back overflowing with enthusiasm for what they had done and seen. Every giant of faith described in Hebrews was an active, dynamic, involved person. No where do we see a giant of faith coming out of inactivity.

In many church groups, young people are viewed as something to be seen and not heard. This inactivity chokes any faith that might be present. Whether we are talking about babes in faith or physical babes, immediate involvement and experience is a must. The only way to have an active faith is to be active in the faith. All babes need to be involved. No matter how old or young someone is physically, they can experience Christianity. All ages and all people can do active benevolence. All of us can be involved in one way or another in campaigns and workshops and Vacation Bible Schools and camps and retreats and work projects. Most of us can visit jails and hospitals and nursing homes and shut-ins. If a person does not have some of those kinds of experiences on a regular and systematic basis, he dies in faith. Apathy is bred by lack of opportunity to do something. Complacency is spawned by inactivity. Church leaders must build faith by dynamic, forceful opportunities for involvement. Without it, faith dies even if acceptance remains.

The dynamic fellowshipping of Christians. The Church of the first century met together on a daily basis (Acts 2:46). Jesus commanded His followers to develop a close and loving relationship among themselves (2 John 1:5, 1 John 3:11). Many of the letters of Paul and others are flowing with love and warmth for his brothers and sisters in Christ. Many of us who have attended services of the Church for years have never really felt love from our brethren. Faith dies if it is not warmed by the love of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Many times, I have had people say to me "I leave the church building feeling worse than when I came in." I am convinced that this is an impossible statement if any local group of Christians has developed the love that Christ said we are to have.

Young people usually do not experience this kind of Christianity until they leave home if they ever do experience it. New Christians sometimes see it briefly, and then it dies as their brethren fail to bring them into the kind of fellowship that they need and crave.

Fellowship is something that has to be planned and worked at. The early Church did it by eating together and learning to enjoy each other. Some of them grew in love as they traveled together to do the Lord's will. Many of my dearest Christian brothers and sisters are people with whom I have traveled and worked in camps and lectureships and other evangelistic efforts. Many of the followers of Jesus have never had that experience. Their fellowship is predominantly with unbelievers and the world. Nothing will smother faith faster than constant fellowship with the world. This is why we must not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. It is also why we must not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. We can voluntarily kindle the flames of fellowship and love, but we cannot be forced to do it by the preacher or the leadership.

A personal relationship with God. Every great man of faith that we see in the Bible demonstrated a special relationship with God. Like the other things that we have discussed, this was something they worked at continually. Peter had a vision at a time when he was quietly and personally praying and meditating in the spirit. An active prayer life, a regular quiet time of thought and meditation, and a period of one-on-one with God were all regular parts of the lives of these giants of faith. So, too, with us the quiet time with God is essential. We can not force it on others, but we can encourage it, promote it, teach it, and do it ourselves. I firmly believe that when a person really engages in an honest search for faith, he or she will find it. "Seek and ye shall find" is not idle talk; it is the key to a successful faith-filled life.

--John N. Clayton

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