What makes you distinctly Christian? What makes our churches distinctly Christian?
I have been wrestling with these questions a lot recently. When I read in the Gospels and Acts about the first Christians, I can't help but notice a disconnect between the then-and-now. When I use the phrase "distinctly Christian," I mean, what separates you (or your church) from, let's say, a Muslim (or a Mosque)? a Jew (or a synagogue)?
Let's face it. There are a million belief systems throughout the world, from Christianity and Islam to moralistic therapeutic deism and pluralism. Almost all of them teach some kind of moral message... love other people, treat the earth kindly, be patient, etc. Christianity is not an exception. Jesus taught his disciples morality. A quick glance at the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) will show many instances. I don't think anyone would disagree here.
But here's where the problem begins to surface. In our attempts to teach Christians about the faith, we often teach much of the morality presented in the Bible while leaving the Christ out of it. Think about it... have you ever heard a sermon preached that didn't reference the cross and Jesus' sacrifice? I bet almost everybody has. If you're 100% sure that every sermon you've heard has referred directly to Christ and the cross at least once in the presentation, I am amazed.
Recently I observed a Friday service at a mosque near Indianapolis with my World Religions class. The "sermon" was in English instead of Arabic so I got to hear what was being presented. The presenter talked a lot about patience and not giving into wrath. He talked about how important it is not to take our anger out in different situations. The emphasis was on self-control. Overall, it was a very nice - as I think that is the only appropriate word for it - presentation.
On the drive back I reflected upon our experience with my professor. We asked the question, could that sermon have been presented in a Christian church too? The obvious answer was yes. It did not teach anything contradictory to the Bible. (I don't even think he mentioned Muhammad.) But this got me thinking... and lead me to writing this blog!
There is something to be learned from this experience. The reason we gather in our churches as Christians is because Jesus Christ died on the cross. Neglecting to mention this in our worship songs, sermons, Bible teaching, etc., is neglecting the only reason we are here.
We cannot be content to teach Christianity to people in our churches without explicitly referencing Jesus and the cross. Don't misunderstand me. We must still teach the morality of the Bible, but we must also explain why we pursue this kind of morality. The "why" is what makes us distinctly Christian. It's what separates us from the religion of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. We cannot take the CHRIST out of CHRISTIANITY.
Moral messages won't cut it in the church. The early church in Acts was enamored with the love and power of Christ. Everything came back to Jesus. If we are to create lifelong disciples of Christ we must intentionally re-introduce the disciples to the person they are following at every chance we get.
With Christmas approaching I have heard the phrase, "He's the reason for the season!" (A big thanks to Bri and the Youth Conference cabinet for that one!) While a bit cheesy and trite, it is so appropriate. Jesus is the reason for the season. But he's also the reason for every other season, especially within our churches! The second we neglect Jesus and the cross, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is the second we lose our identity. If our worship songs and our sermons could be sung or preached in a mosque, synagogue, Buddhist temple, etc., we need to re-think our approach and embrace our Savior Jesus Christ once more!
CHRISTians, embrace your identity!