George Barna, the dean of evangelical Christianity research, says the traditional, American model for “born again” faith just isn’t working.

That model, which I became intimately familiar with growing up in the home of a fundamentalist Pentecostal Christian preacher, goes like this:

“Whatever your problems, Jesus is the answer. Say the ‘Sinner’s Prayer,‘ accept Christ as your personal savior, pay your tithe and be in the pews every Sunday.”

Being Christ's hands?

To be sure, my Dad always preached that there was more to it than that. A true spiritual transformation had to show in how you lived, how you forgave, how you reached out personally to others in friendship, love and prayer.

Sometimes, I’d see that message take root in people so transformed that they’d do things often only God could know: bringing groceries on the front porch of an a neighbor in need; visiting the sick and those in jail to offer encouragement, or just listening, crying and praying with someone; anonymously making a house payment for someone who lost his or her job; offering a hug and a genuine smile.

In other words, these were people acting as living, breathing conduits for the love of Christ they profess.

Others, though — too many others — just say the words, put their spiritual “fire insurance” premiums in the offering plate, plant themselves in the pews once a week, yawn through the sermon and then return to a life no one would recognize as being any different from those they call the “unsaved.”

So, is this what Jesus had in mind as he hung on the cross? Don’t think so.

More and more, Christians of all stripes are looking for a faith of integrity, purpose and impact — not just on their future in the hereafter, but life now in the Here.

In his new book Futurecast, Barna implies this desire is behind Americans increasing propensity for a sort of personal, “designer faith.” He bases that conclusion on a decade’s worth of annual surveys looking at religious belief and action trends.

In a nutshell, Barna found that while more Americans than ever before say they’ve accepted Jesus as savior and expect to go to heaven, more (37 percent in 2011 compared to 24 percent in 2001) also are saying they haven’t been to church in the past six months.

Just as telling is that only 7 percent of these respondents embrace all points of the Statement of Faith agreed to by the National Association of Evangelicals. (Among other things, belief that the Bible is the only and infallible Word of God; the Trinitarian view of God’s nature; Christ’s deity and virgin birth; personal salvation as a prerequisite for heaven, etc.)

People want to believe. They just want their belief to mean something. It has always been that way. Consider what James, the brother of Jesus, wrote about this some 2,000 years ago:

“Now someone may argue, ‘Some people have faith; others have good deeds.’ But I say, ‘How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.'” (James 2:18 New Living Translation)

More from Beliefnet and our partners