The word “should” comes easily in church life and literature. You should go to church weekly. You should read your Bible. You should love your enemy.
To lay a Christian “should” on someone makes a massive assumption: That other person wants to be a good Christian and is eager to know how. It’s an application of the Medieval motivation discussed in the previous blog: If you just clearly and rationally tell someone why he or she will understand and do. How naïve that sounds today.
Polling results usually show that the majority of Americans still self-identify as Christian. But the proportion active in this faith typically comes out less than half. The growth of the “nones” (no religion) took a sharp jump up in the last decade. About half the population is not really interested in what Christians should believe and do.
The reaction of some Protestants to the national advancement of the LGBT agenda brings the issue into sharp relief. The USA was (and therefore, it is argued, should still be) a Christian nation, and the Bible says that a homosexual lifestyle is sinful (and therefore should not be legally recognized). For younger generations, equal rights for all people is self-evident. Insistence on this heavy should not has actually done damage to the Christian cause among young people.
Does this mismatch mean that biblical standards should no longer be promoted by conservative Christians? No, the biblical standard remains for those who want to please God with transformed Christ-like living. Such motivation is the necessary pre-requisite. But that no longer exists for most of the American population.
What becomes of motivation for a Christian life in a world where “should” doesn’t cut it anymore? The challenge is to move from what Christians “have to do” toward what Christians “get to do.” The emphasis needs to be on the benefits of living in Christ. These are the benefit of eternal life, certainly. But in relatively affluent America what happens in the next life is no longer as compelling as it used to be. Living a life permeated by God’s guilt-relieving grace can be a great motivator. So, too, can experiencing the life-enhancing benefits of how the Spirit can change inner motivations and bring more love, joy, peace and patience into a believer’s life. Sin remains, of course, but the Spirit can bring greater wisdom to limiting the impact of our remaining sinful nature.
Consider the image of the dove descending and sitting on Jesus’ shoulder at his baptism by John. The dove represented the Holy Spirit. Think of the Spirit whispering into Jesus’ ear. Then transfer that dove image to the Spirit sitting on your shoulder and whispering godly thoughts into your ear. To complete that picture, imagine the Enemy sitting on your other shoulder whispering his temptations. The more you learn to listen to and be motivated by the Spirit, the greater quality of life you will experience.
In today’s unChristian nation, people are usually only interested in how your beliefs work themselves out in your daily living. When your life has a distinctive plus to it, most observers will be interested in your story. The future of Christianity in this country will depend less on what Christians believe and more on how they practice their beliefs. From the How will come interest in the Why.
Many of the earliest Christians were described by Luke as God-fearers. In comparison to the many gods of Roman life, they were attracted to the one God proclaimed by the Jewish apostles. Early generations met and worshipped in house churches of perhaps thirty believers out in the various neighborhoods of a city. Those who became God-fearers witnessed how these followers of Christ lived. We have testimony that they were known by how they loved each other.
Mainline churches are used to living in the Christendom of institutional churches backed by government and common assent. Those centuries are gone. The best way forward is to go back to New Testament times and Paul’s perspective. Be sure to notice his emphasis on how the Spirit helped believers grow in new motivation.