Christianity for the Rest of Us

Over the weekend, I spoke to a large group of mainline churchgoers who posed their conference theme as a question: “Who Are You Christians Anyway?” 

The question is a good one–and it is a question that people
ask me all the time, especially when I travel.  Although the
United States remains the country with the largest number of Christians in the
world, even here Christianity is experiencing a decline in demographics.  The absolute number of Christians rose
from 1990 to 2008 as the overall population increased, but the actual
percentage of Christians dropped from 86.2% to 76%.  Many people feel increasingly anxious about identifying
themselves as Christians, some obviously rejecting Christianity toward other
spiritual alternatives, while others reach toward different terms to identify
themselves such as “Jesus-follower.” 

Younger Americans feel greater ambivalence toward the word
“Christian” than do older adults. 
In 2005, the Barna group polled 16-29 year olds asking the question,
“What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Christian’?”  91% of young adults outside the church
replied, “anti-homosexual;” 87% responded “judgmental;” 85% said
“hypocritical;” 72% reported that Christians were out of touch with reality;
and 68% pegged Christians as “boring.” 

Put simply, the word “Christian” has very high negatives right
now–especially with the generations that represent America’s religious

When many of us were children, the question of Christian identity
was moot.  Pretty much everybody
was a Christian (except for a few Jewish friends) and we shared the assumption
that “Christian” equaled “American.” 
If someone had pressed us further, we might have said that a Christian
believed in Jesus as God’s son, or was a baptized person, or who was saved by
grace.  Typically, our responses
involved the family tradition we had inherited or what we believed about
God.  Now, however, answers about
family identity and, increasingly, even about one’s beliefs about God are
eroding in meaning and power. 

At the conference, I answered the question by saying that Christians
are not people who inherit something or believe in something.  Rather, Christians are people who do something:  They walk the Jesus way by practicing the love God and love
of neighbor.  Christians
participate in a way of life that reflects God’s dream of justice, beauty, and
love for all creation.  We aren’t
trying to convince anyone to believe in what we believe; we are trying to live authentically
as Jesus would have us live in today’s world.  Christians don’t believe in Jesus; Christians experience the reality of Jesus in their lives. This is a rather different definition than that which many
of us knew from generations past–but it also may be the understanding of faith
that commends itself to a skeptical culture.  That is, of course, if we manage to practice what we

Who are you Christians anyway???

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