USA Today has a cover story today that ought to generate a lot of conversation about a new study out of Baylor University that breaks down American views of God into four categories: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical and Distant. Based on response to survey questions, they categorized people on how they understood God. The article, Americans' views of God shape attitudes on key issues, is a fascinating look at American religious attitudes and a troubling one. Americans are somewhat unique in the world, especially the Western world, because we are such a religious people but as this survey demonstrates being religious is a far cry from being a Christian.
What I found odd, or perhaps not, is that none of the four predominate views of God are terribly accurate. More importantly, there are aspects of each that are more or less Biblical. Is God a God of wrath and judgment? Certainly but not in the way that some people see it and especially not as it applies to nation-states. Is God a God of love and compassion? Yes but not in a weak way that says He loves everyone just as they are and without a whiff of judgment toward anyone (except judgmental people of course). Is God critical in the sense of preparing to mete out justice in the time to come at the Judgment Seat? Of course, although I wouldn’t see it as entirely a rich versus poor thing or that the downtrodden in this life are going to have Cadillac’s in eternity.
The only one that didn’t have any resonance at all is the distant God view, the view that God wound up the universe and let ‘er rip. That is completely incompatible with the Biblical record that shows a God that is both in contact and in action with mankind on a regular basis.
What I think is instructive for Christians from this report is that in spite of our assumption that most Americans are Christians and that America is a Christian nation, at a minimum most Americans, including church goers, have a fatally flawed view of who God is and what He is all about. Most Americans claim to believe in God and a great many of those people are somehow associated with a “church”. I am firmly convinced that many if not most of the vaguely religious people in America, the cultural Christians, are as lost as a Muslim in Saudi Arabia. I know that statement rubs many people the wrong way, i.e. “who are you to judge” but I am afraid to say that having your name on a membership roster at a local church is not going to cut it. This country is full of people who need Christ and to compound the problem a lot of the time the “church” is a hindrance to that effort because people associate being a generally moral person and occasional church attender with being a Christian and take umbrage at suggestions that what they are is religious, not redeemed.
To reach the lost in America is going to require we step back from the church on the corner with a marquee out front model and get to know people outside of suits and tie Sunday life. Simply inviting people to religious services is by and large not getting it done. Even in a “good” church, the focus has to be going out there instead of getting them in here. Americans are becoming more and more comfortable with eschewing “church” and those to do go are rarely getting even a watered down Gospel message. We need a proclamation focused mission view instead of a church focused view. By that I mean that we need to be focusing on going out to the lost and “preaching the word” like the early church did in the days of persecution (Acts 8:4 ) instead of waiting for them to come to us.
Christ did not sit around in heaven and wait for the lost to come to Him, He became flesh and dwelt among us. We likewise as His followers cannot wait around for the lost to “come to church” because frankly they aren’t coming and even the ones that do, as evidenced by this survey and many others, don’t know who Jesus is and what He has done and commanded. The way to show we are serious about proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ is not by spending more time in church and listening to more sermons. It is taking the Gospel to the lost even when it is hard and inconvenient and scary. This report from Baylor should wake us up to see just how great the need is all around us in spite of all of the church buildings and religious people in America.