Recently, Barna Group completed a study of self-identified Christians with a view to discovering whether or not they are Christ-like, a quality that presumably is at the root of the persecution the church endures around the world. I found it quite interesting, and I recommend that every Christian read the results. Some may agree with me that a study of people who self-identify as Christians and then self-assess themselves in regard to Christ-like behavior is flawed from the outset, but it is hard to imagine who could conduct such a study until Christ returns. Pending that great event, Barna offers a lot of food for thought.
It was worth noting some of the items in the study that supposedly looked like Christ. For example, to listen and learn about others before talking about oneself seems very Christ-like. To influence others to follow Christ sounds Christ-like. Even taking the initiative to get to know people who are not Christians sounds Christ-like. On the other hand, I would have trouble saying that this item describes me: “I regularly choose to have meals with people with very different faith or morals from me.” Unlike Christ, I do have a place to lay my head, and I do have a family. I don’t seek out meals with anyone but my family on any regular basis, considering that my family is my most precious earthly relationship, one I won’t casually displace in my priorities. When I do eat anywhere else than home, I find myself in the company of all sorts of people. When I meet people, I never screen them for moral or social or even political agreement with me. I think the willingness to enjoy people the way Christ did is at the heart of the item, but its wording focuses on a practice I actually disparage as unChrist-like, the notion of breaking into family meals with regularity. In my humble opinion, this item does not measure the Christ-like openness to all people appropriately. What do you think?
The study looks at attitudes as well as actions, and there again, not everyone will see the test items as the Barna Group does. Most Christians could agree that to see God at work everywhere in all people without regard to their status as believers is Christ-like, but some might pause to think twice about the item that says: “It is more important to help people know that God is for them than to make sure they know they are sinners.” In my understanding of the faith, these two considerations have exactly equal importance. I talk with lots of people who believe that sin is an antiquated idea. They can easily believe that God, whatever they think that is, loves them, because they don’t think they have ever done anything wrong. It isn’t possible to tell the truth about the Gospel without telling people they are sinners. At least, I cannot find any way to do it. What do you think?
The study also looked at self-righteous attitudes and actions – the hallmarks of the Pharisees. We will all agree that the Pharisees spent an inordinate amount of time telling other people, and even God, how righteous they were. If they knew they ever did wrong, they never admitted it. They were quick to point out the tiniest infraction of what they thought was immutable law, and they focused a great deal of attention on building social barriers between themselves and less righteous individuals.
However, It was hard for me to read that the Barna Group considered it Pharisaical to say, “I try to avoid spending time with people who are openly gay or lesbian.” To classify this statement as Pharisaical is to imply that Christ sought out opportunities to spend time with gay and lesbian persons. He didn’t. Neither do I. I don’t interview or filter the people I meet on that basis with a view to seeking time with them or avoiding them. I am deeply convicted that homosexuality is in complete opposition to God’s plan for people, but I feel sorry for homosexuals. I don’t filter them out of my life, but I don’t try to find them. I think each of us has a calling and a work to do. Outreach to homosexuals is not my calling. My calling as a cultural observer often involves commentary and analysis of the political and social agenda of homosexualism, but to reject the agendas is not to refuse to love the people. Christ calls each of us to love all people, and I can only feel compassion for someone ensnared by the satanic lie of homosexuality. Still, my life goes in a different direction than seeking and finding homosexuals. I don’t feel guilty or unChrist-like because of it.
Even though I take issue with some aspects of the study, and I take a little more issue with some of the statistical manipulation, the fact is that as a baptized child of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever, I know that I need to be regularly reminded that claiming Christ’s name is only the beginning of being a disciple. Ruminations over this Barna study should probably be coupled with the results of a study done a couple of years ago. That study asked if people who claimed to be Christians actually have any spiritual depth. Rightly recognizing that being Christ’s disciple evokes an expectation of spiritual transformation, Barna Group in 2011 asked self-identified Christians to answer questions that rated them on issues of commitment, repentance, activity (including sharing the faith) and participation in spiritual community. That study revealed the sad truth that many Christians are not living evidence of transformation by the Holy Spirit.
It is possible that many people who heard Barack Obama talk when he was running for president in 2008 did not pay any attention to his statement that he thought the USA needed to be fundamentally transformed. However, nobody needs to have heard that statement in order to know that this is what he believes, because the evidence of that commitment is everywhere in the cultural and political landscape of the USA. After five years under his leadership, the country is unrecognizable when compared to its cultural and political contours as recently as that campaign year of 2008. The country is undergoing a transformation, and it is obvious.
The spiritual transformation of a Christian from self-centered, self-serving slave of emotion and appetites into a selfless, Christ-like servant to God and man should be just as obvious. We don’t really need the Barna Group to tell us that too many Christians claim Christ’s name without ever undergoing any sort of transformation. That isn’t judgment; it is observation. We who claim that Christ is our Savior and our all in all ought to stand out. There are times when I can see that somebody did exactly that. When someone who denies the existence of God and uses Christ’s name solely for invective screams that Christians are pressuring his space by expecting to live their faith, then we have the evidence that some people are demonstrating the transformation that is a hallmark of our faith. In Iran, people are snatched off the streets and rushed into brutal, cruel imprisonment for showing the evidence of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. I don’t want to experience that kind of identification, but I pray that I might deserve it if I were there. If we expect our culture to be more Christ-like, then we who bear his name must show the same evidence of Christ’s transforming power. Transformation is its own best testimony. I know what Barack Obama believes because I can see what he does. Does anybody who watches me know what I believe?