April 1, 2010

Where are all the Christians?

The following article first appeared in the May/June 2005 issue of Outreach magazine.  All rights reserved. Used by permission.

2008 1501 page33 capis visit to the pastor’s office was unexpected, and his words were shocking. Paul was 75 years old and a leader in the church.

I was serving as an interim pastor of the church. After the first worship service that Sunday morning, Paul asked if he could speak to me.

“Paul,” I said with a smile, “how can I help you?” He was nervous, and his response did not come immediately.

“I am not a Christian,” he said with a quivering voice.

I wasn’t certain that I’d heard him correctly. Paul had been baptized some 60 years earlier. He was faithful in service and attendance. But he said it again: “I am not a Christian.”

Paul explained to me how he had never fully grasped the Gospel until a few weeks earlier. And he acknowledged that he had lived for the past six decades assuming that good works through church service would get him to heaven. But now he knew differently. Now he understood.

I had the privilege of clarifying the Gospel to Paul. This time, he truly became a follower of Christ. Two weeks later, the church celebrated as a 75-year-old man was baptized as a new believer in Christ.

About Lost Church Members
Recently, we surveyed people throughout the country who had been members of churches prior to becoming Christians, and asked them why they were in a church as a nonbeliever.

2008 1501 page33 An overwhelming number responded that they thought they were Christians. Yet later they had discovered they were wrong.

Then we asked them why they hadn’t become Christians as members. They gave us four common responses.

• First, more than 50% of those surveyed said they never heard a clear presentation of the Gospel in church. Paul told me that 60 years of listening to sermons had not provided that clarity.

• Second, about four out of 10 people indicated that they had confused other issues with salvation. For some, church membership held the same meaning as being a Christian. Others indicated that “walking an aisle” or making a public statement of belief in Christ was a means of salvation.

• Third, some viewed doing ministry in the church as sufficient to get them into heaven. They had a works concept of salvation.

• Finally, about 10% of those we surveyed said that they joined the church originally understanding that they were not Christians. They were willing to be deceptive to gain the political or social capital that comes with being a member of a church.
Non-Christian Church Members
How many members of churches are not Christians? The answer is elusive, but we made a modest attempt at an answer. When we provide statistical evidence of Christian church members, we do so with  caution. Our research is fallible, and our discernment is far from perfect.

Our methodology was simple. We asked 315 church members two “diagnostic” questions. First, we asked, “If you were to die today, do you know for certain that you’d go to heaven?” The second question: “If God were to ask you why He should let you into heaven, what would you say?”

Our researchers categorized the responses of the church members into three groups. The first group represented those who clearly seemed not to have a grasp of the Gospel. The third group included those who seemed to grasp the Gospel well, and who had assurance that they had placed their faith in Christ. In between these two groups was a small number of people our researchers were unable to place in the first or third groups. The results: 31% of church members are not Christians; 14% may not be Christians; and 55% of church members are Christians.

If our research approximates eternal realities, nearly one-half of all U.S. church members may not be Christians. This issue is urgent and demands an immediate response from Christians.

Reaching People Like Paul
Paul continues to grow in spiritual maturity. “Thom,” he asked, “why are preachers and other Christians hesitant to share Christ without pulling punches? Why did I have to wait 60 years before I ever heard about repentance? Where are all the Christians? Why are they so quiet?”

Good questions, Paul. These are very good questions.

Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources , one of the largest Christian resource providers in the world. His latest book is Simple Church (B&H Publishing Group), co-authored with Eric Geiger.To dialog with him about this column, contact him at [email protected].