“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35). We become Christians in a very personal way. Individually, we put faith in what Jesus did on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and invite Jesus into our lives to begin a personal relationship to Him. However, it doesn’t stop there. We are not known to be Christ’s disciples by how much faith we have in Christ’s death on the cross or how close our personal relationship is to Him. According to John 13:35, all men know Christians to be disciples of Jesus because we have learned to love each other. We receive Jesus Christ individually, but, once we do that, we find ourselves as a part of the Church. The growth in our faith does not come from only understanding more of who Jesus is, but primarily from learning to love the others in the body of Christ. That isn’t easy. Those of us who follow Jesus aren’t as easy to love as He is. Some of us may be the very people you would try to avoid, except for the fact that you keep running into us in church on Sunday. Nothing stretches us in our growth as disciples more than learning to love other Christians.
Some people stunt their growth as Christians by not becoming deeply involved with a group of God’s people. They just keep attending a church until something happens that they don’t like, then they move on to another church, hoping to find one that will operate the way they like. According to I Corinthians 13:4, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” Paul goes on to list other things that define love. If in the church we always saw things alike, we would never have to exercise our love. If we never exercised our love, we would not grow as disciples of Christ. It is important to be a part of a church, not only for the support we receive, but also for how working together stretches our ability to love. That is the best reason I know for joining a church rather than just attending. Joining a church causes us to make a commitment to a group of Christians and that commitment holds us together and forces us to learn to love each other even when it would be much easier to just go somewhere else. That is also why we make a commitment in marriage. Commitments force us exercise our love.
Christian Smith, the Stuart Chapin Distinguished Professor and Associate Chair in the sociology department at the University of North Carolina recently conducted a survey on the religious beliefs of teenagers. Many surveys have been done on today’s teens but most were about how to sell products to them. Dr. Smith’s survey may have been the first to study what teens believed about God. They interviewed over 300 teens from across the country and carefully documented each interview. The results were remarkable and have been published by Dr. Smith in a recent book called Soul Searching.
After the data was compiled, Dr. Smith found that the religious beliefs of teens are remarkably similar. Most believe that God exists, that He was the creator and has ordered the universe, that we understand the world because it has been ordered by God. The purpose of life is to be nice, good, and pleasant. They believe that good people go to heaven and almost everyone is good. They see the goal of life as being personal happiness. They view God as a cosmic therapist and divine butler. They don’t go to God unless they are in trouble. When they do go to Him, He acts as their therapist or gets them the things they need. After that, He just quietly goes away and does not stay involved in their lives. The survey found these beliefs to be remarkably consistent across denominational lines. Even Muslim teens held pretty much the same beliefs. The teens had very little content to their faith. When Dr. Smith did a computer word search to find out how many times teens used the word grace in their responses, he found that most used it in referring to the TV show Will and Grace and hardly any used it in a theological way. You might wonder where teens got these heretical beliefs. Is there some conspiracy to lead teens away from the tenets of their faith? The survey showed that the teens primarily got their beliefs from their parents.
When thinking about this, I have to agree that those are the dominant beliefs of the people in our culture. Folks will talk about spirituality and even about God but few will talk about Jesus, because that is too particular. That would imply that Jesus is the way to God and other ways are wrong, and that isn’t nice. It is no wonder why few people share their faith. If the primarily goal of life is to be nice, sharing faith in Christ might be interpreted by many as not being very nice. To be a biblical Christian in today’s world, one of the first obstacles to overcome is the need to be nice. If the Apostle Paul were dropped down into today’s world, most would not think he was very nice. I don’t think even Jesus would pass the niceness test. According to the Bible, many nice people will end up in hell. If this bothers you, it may well be that your belief system is the same as that of today’s teens. We go to heaven when we admit ourselves to be sinners and trust that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for our sins. That is called God’s grace. That seems to be a very hard thing for today’s people to believe. It is still true.
SERMON ON THE NORTH SLOPE TRAIL
(A Twentieth Century Paraphrase and Interpretation of Matthew 5-7)
(Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom of God is called the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, the sermon on the Plain in Luke, and probably was the subject of his teaching as he walked the roads of Palestine with his disciples until they were imbued with its content. Since my favorite place of fellowship with the Lord is the North Slope Trail of the Pisgah National Forest, I have pictured a group of us walking with Jesus there and being taught again, and in twentieth century setting, the same principles and thrilling overtures. In the course of the conversation and the walk, the imaginary, but not so imagi-nary, and familiar-sounding words from Jesus, Son of the Father…). More