Real Christian Life–And Why Americans Are Missing It


Synchronicity is a funny thing.

Been wanting to write this post for a few days, but put it off. Then, on a “lark,” I listened to the podcast of Phil Vischer (of Veggie Tales fame). Having never heard the podcast before, I hoped it might nonetheless prove enlightening, especially since it talks about contemporary issues in the Church. And hey, so do I.  😉

Phil and cohosts Christian Taylor and Skye Jethani discussed a Hell House, the Christianized version of a haunted house, and how kits are now available to help churches use this “evangelistic tool.” Jethani notes that when we see the Gospel presented in Acts and Paul’s outline in 1 Corinthians 15, the apostles “fail” to mention hell or heaven, nor is sin discussed in the majority of presentations, yet what we preach today would focus on all three. Why is our presentation so unlike that of the apostles?

That in itself is a loaded question, but then Jethani hits my issue.

A speaker from Gospel for Asia came to my church Sunday. I support that organization (see the sidebar) because it’s doing a great work getting native missionaries to remote areas in Asia untouched by the Gospel. The numbers the speaker quoted regarding how many are coming to Christ in Asia were staggeringly large. And yet, all the while this man spoke, I kept wondering how it is that America never sees anything like that kind of explosive growth despite having so many “native” missionaries. How is it that we can’t preach the Gospel in a way that resonates with lost Americans?

The podcast clip below starts as Jethani and Taylor discuss what is not working with our Gospel presentation.

Jethani references the late Dallas Willard’s Vision, Intention, and Means concept to explain how Americans Christians are overloaded with means for growing in Jesus. The problem is that we lack vision for who Jesus is and subsequently have made pale substitutions of practical desires.


If we Christians in America do not have a clear vision of who Jesus is, then we cannot communicate that vision to anyone else. As a result, if people already have a means for achieving personal desires, they won’t consider Jesus at all.

And this is the problem we find ourselves in.

Worse, Christians who default to seeing Jesus solely as a means for achieving personal desires (even the desire of heaven) will be unable to communicate the Gospel to people because that means of achieving those desires may not be as effective as the means chosen by that lost person. In short, we set ourselves up for having to be seen as a greater success in life than that lost person or else our “gospel” will fail. I’ve written about this before, but Jethani puts it all into the proper “lack of vision of Jesus” framework.

If the Church can’t communicate a real vision for Jesus and downplay this mentality of Jesus as desire-granter, then we will never understand what the Christian life is genuinely about.

Note that I did not say that Jesus never grants people’s desires. But any desire outside of Jesus as our unequaled primary desire is going to distort and weaken the Gospel message.

The American Church has got to stop with all the self-help and personal fulfillment junk and get back to raising up Jesus and focusing on relationship with Him. Nothing else matters.

21 thoughts on “Real Christian Life–And Why Americans Are Missing It

  1. As far as the sin/hell issue, if you look at the teachings of Jesus they are full of references to sin and to hell. Paul in other places deals with the issues of sin and judgment. For a Jewish audience the issue of sin and the reality of hell would be second nature as they would have heard teaching on those topics from the Old Testament a lot. I don’t think the “Hell House” silliness is helpful but I also think a Gospel divorced from sin and the reality of hell loses any meaning. What are we saved from if we don’t speak about hell? Why does anyone need to be saved in the first place if we don’t speak about sin? If we want to know who Jesus is we must also face who we are and that makes people uncomfortable and leads some to deny the reality of what we were saved from, overemphasizing the life here and now (which some under-emphasize) and neglecting the pivotal doctrines of the faith.

    I think the greater reason we are failing to live the “real Christian life” is our relative wealth and comfort. The real Christian life is marked by suffering, by sacrifice, by persecution. We don’t want any part of the real Christian life. We like to nod our heads solemnly and post stories on Facebook of the persecuted church but the church being persecuted is not part of some clash of worldviews between radical Islam and the enlightened West, it is the natural and expected response of the world to the Gospel. As I have said on many occasions, instead of feeling bad about the church being persecuted “over there”, we ought to wonder why the church isn’t being persecuted right here in America. It is not because America is a “Christian nation” or other such nonsense, but perhaps it is because we are no threat the world that it sees no need to persecute us.

    • Arthur,

      In reading The Triumph of Christianity by Rodney Stark, the one reality that came through is that the Church has always drawn heavily from the upper middle class to wealthy. For the most part, they were shielded from persecution because of their wealth and influence. The Reformation illustrated this, too, since the greatest number of converts to Luther’s cause were nobles, and they actively withstood pressure from the RCC.

      While I agree that the lack of persecution against the Church here DOES make a statement, I’m beginning to wonder if it is as primary as I know I have made it before.

      • No doubt that organized religion has drawn from the upper middle class but I don’t think we should read into that the expectation of reduced persecution. In fact it seems just the opposite is true, that the embracing of wealth and worldly power has corrupted the witness of the church. Even the Reformation is a good example of this, those who dared to keep going when it came to Reformation, i.e. the radical reformers/Anabaptists, ended up being persecuted by others who claimed to be Christians from the ranks of the powerful, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike.

        • Arthur,

          Stark makes a pretty strong argument that the early Church was more wealthy than the general public, yet their witness was not corrupted. Same goes for many of the Christian martyrs in Rome and elsewhere. These were largely NOT poor people. That was even more the case from the latter part of Rome until the Renaissance.

          And yes, if there was persecution after the demise of Rome, in Europe it consisted of Christians sects persecuting whatever Christian sects that weren’t their own. Only in the East did you see non-Christians persecuting Christians for doctrinal and political reasons, usually Muslims persecuting Christians. Persecution in Rome was almost entirely political and not doctrinal.

          You should read that book. Had good insights on the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. Stark painted a strong picture that Protestants were an order of magnitude more ruthless at the time the Spanish Inquisition was going on. If anything, the Inquisition was something of a bust, and the RCC left most “heretics” alone unless they repeatedly kept reverting to the “misdeeds” that had landed them in hot water in the first place.

    • We don’t really know what Jesus was referring to beyond “judgment” in the Gospels, which would have meant a this-worldly, national moral implosion and suffering, much like a Babylonian exile and the events leading up to it. “Gehenna,” the word translated as hell, was the smoldering garbage dump outside Jerusalem. Jesus could have been using it as a euphemism for becoming worthless. We backload our concept of hell into his words more often than not. A Jewish audience didn’t have any concept of an eternal life for humans until after the exile, during the Hellenic period, so there’s hardly anything in their Scriptures that taught them about it. If Jesus wanted them to hear “eternal suffering after you die” he could have been a lot more explicit.

      The biggest problem with hell is not that it’s not real, but that it doesn’t feel real because, like heaven, we’re given a picture of it that has nothing to do with this life. It’s just a bogeyman of religious people. No one is thinking about the possibility of eternal suffering as a real threat until they’re told to. The theology of salvation in the NT really doesn’t have much to do with our current notions of “heaven” and “hell.” What IS real, and what people DO know they need to be saved from, is death and suffering in this world. And it’s not exactly in short supply, as if it’s possible to be unfamiliar with them. These are the things that Jesus most explicitly defeats on the cross, according to Scripture.

      • Nate what exactly does the Gospel offer for the alleviation of death and suffering in this world? When the NT speaks of salvation it has nothing to do with being delivered from death, last time I checked every Christian who has ever lived has eventually died and many of them after suffering.

        We are told pretty clearly to expect the hatred and persecution of the world in this life but with the promise of eternal life to come. That doesn’t negate our calling to serve the poor here but that is not the primary message of the Gospel. Trying to make the Gospel into a way to have a better life here and now doesn’t make any sense given the reality of the life. When Jesus speaks of the state of man, He used terminology to indicate that all mankind was under judgment but that those that believed in Him would receive eternal life. Eternal life has nothing to do with not dying but the eternal life to come in contrast to the coming judgment.

        • In Luke 4, Jesus kicks off his ministry announcing the words of Isaiah in reference to himself:

          “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
          because he has anointed me
          to proclaim good news to the poor.
          He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
          and recovering of sight to the blind,
          to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
          to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

          It’s not a better life theology. I didn’t say there wouldn’t be persecution. The question is, what do Christians believe happened in the work of Jesus Christ? Christians empty the Gospel of power if they neglect the Resurrection. How do YOU think a church that witnessed the Risen Christ experienced the alleviation of death and suffering? If you can’t imagine, Acts has something to say about it. If Jesus is King, and his Kingdom is “at hand,” that suggests something has happened in reality, not just to our legal standing, or for a future life we’re awaiting. We don’t have to assume Jesus failed in his vocation simply because there is still suffering, which is where your logic leads us. Did he rise from the dead bodily or just “psychically?” Did Jesus ascend to a throne, or did he simply dissipate into a ethereal future world that we wait to go to someday? “On earth as it is in heaven”- It’s the central principle of the central Christian prayer. We can de-historicize the Kingdom, theologize it into some “inner life” sensation, or gnostic, not-really-creational thing, or we can assume Jesus actually maintains the incarnate, cosmic, political authority implicit in the word “kingdom.” If this is the case, and if he really rose from the dead, we are faced with a new reality: one in which death’s currency- fear- has become worthless. Likewise one in which the evil of men, which ancient Jews described as “the wrath of God,” the power of tyrants, the power of satan, and the power of sin have all been absorbed into a single Man who now has “all authority in heaven and on earth.” The salvation offered by God in Christ is our inclusion into his people- a new society with an new order to it- in which Jesus is in command, and the church is built around him, one in which suffering is alleviated, sin is forgiven, enemies reconciled. And yes, that eventually implies a final resurrection of the dead, of a bodily life that goes on forever, with a purification that is yet to come. However the “yet to come” aspect is not the primary meaning of the word “eternal.” Eternal means “of a quality that conforms to God’s plan.” Qualitatively as much as quantitatively. It is the life of God within his very creation. Which we know is already true, if we take the Incarnation seriously. On earth as it is in heaven suggests that “Eternal life” is the future age of the kosmos- the one in which God’s reign is no longer hidden, and his justice is brought to bear on the whole earth, in which death and sin are expelled. It hasn’t yet “appeared” in it’s fullness, but it has broken into the present, because Jesus has risen from the dead, and where his people are, there his Kingly jurisdiction is making itself known. If this is not proclaimed, then the Gospel is not proclaimed. Hell can be, and often is, left out of Gospel proclamations. The Resurrection and the Kingdom can’t be. Again, Acts is the reference point here for how the church proclaims the Gospel.

          • Nate,

            Definitely agree on Acts. One of my biggest complaints is with those who are always crying “descriptive” because they don’t want to deal with the possibility that Acts is prescriptive.

            That passage is one of the ones that every Protestant sects comes to and wants to finagle it to say what they want it to say. I keep hoping that someday the big “C” Church takes that passage at face value and stops over- or under-spiritualizing it.

            In addition, the Kingdom of God contains the cross, the rolled-away stone, and the tongues of fire. We must encompass all three because there’s a point to all three. Again, the sects want to focus laser-like on one or two of those, but never all three. We have got to stop ignoring the parts that don’t fit into our theology; the theology must get bigger.

            • Very good points. Yeah Acts is the kind of book that protestants seem to want to ignore because it supposedly doesn’t have any “high theology” in it. Which, besides being untrue, is beside the point because the narrative is the meat of scripture, and Acts is such a rich narrative.

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  3. Great post, Dan. I think you (and Jethani) put your finger on something very important. A few weeks ago I published some blog posts on the issue of “favour” and the way that many Christians seem to be obsessed with seeking it. This, to me, is a symptom of the kind of desire-driven approach to faith that you describe.

    So yes, churches need to drop all the fulfilment nonsense and get back to brass tacks.

    • Rob,

      I pray for favor for myself and my family every single day. I don’t think this is an either/or.

      My pastor forced me to rethink this issue, both from a positive and negative perspective. ALWAYS pray for favor. And in cases where bad stuff is happening, never stop praying that it will go away. You never stop praying for the outcome you desire.

      So I don’t think the desire is necessarily bad. I think God changes our desire as we grow in Him, but I think there’s a faux spirituality that makes peace with the crap of life. I’m especially perplexed by the cult of suffering I’ve seen erupt in some sects within Christianity. I frankly believe that pro-suffering mentality is anti-Kingdom of God. Instead of making peace with suffering, never stop praying for God to relieve it. Never stop. Ever. I really think any other response is a lack of faith. Sure, you may have to endure suffering. But you never stop praying for relief from it.

      • Dan,

        Thanks for your thoughtful comments, with which I think I agree. I was referring more to a type of thinking under which everything good (from a promotion to a parking spot) is seen as direct favour from God, and everything bad as of satanic origin. My view is that we should indeed see every good thing as a gift from God (thus cultivating an attitude of thankfulness); my problem is when we come to feel we deserve such favour, or that the fact we are so blessed must be because we’re doing especially well at pleasing God. That’s what my posts were taking aim at.

  4. So this is really long, but I couldn’t help it…

    “If we Christians in America do not have a clear vision of who Jesus is, then we cannot communicate that vision to anyone else.”

    “We make him a device.”

    That’s the ticket, and I don’t know why it isn’t clearer to more people by now. Jethani has his finger on the pulse in this one. Along the lines of Willard’s VIM theory, Scot McKnight in King Jesus Gospel presents a case that if our primary message is that which happens for non-Christians to become personally saved, we’re actually “salvationists,” not evangelicals, and it will become remarkably easy to shrink Jesus to fit into the need to get people personally saved and, as Jethani talks about, the giver of what we always wanted.

    At least four vision-issues have eroded the foundations of what the western church thinks Jesus did, and thus our “Gospel” presentations (and our ability to be “ravished” by it as Jethani puts it):

    1. The devolution of the hope of Christians into “heaven” (or “that place I’m going when I die”) instead of the “the New Heavens and the New Earth.” And it’s alternative, the threat we were under without Christ- hell/eternal suffering. These words are nothing more than caricatures of themselves, like halloween costumes. Like you said, this is probably why the New Testament doesn’t really emphasize them. The promise/threat is very real, but it has to do with Jesus’ Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” and it’s current presence in the world. The discontinuity we’ve erected between eternal life and the current one is inexcusable. Rather than “a far off world that we drift off to on some future day,” Heaven is the Bible’s way of saying “God’s ruling seat.”

    2. Missing the Jewish context of Jesus’ work. It’s been said that Jesus could not have died in a logging accident in British Columbia. It HAD to be in the context and as the fulfillment of the Jewish Torah and Prophets. This should inform our basic meaning when we use words like “sin,” “salvation,” “kingdom,” “savior,” “eternal life,” and even “God.” Instead, we work with people’s street-level western definitions and assume that they mean what the Bible means by them, and then extract the death of Jesus out of history in order to “make it relevant” for the hearer, usually leaving behind critical bits of the story that are actually what makes his death meaningful and saving. While this might be an honorable goal, it usually results in a kind of evangelism that is foreign to the New Testament. (i.e. “Have you ever broken any one of these 10 laws..?)

    3. Hyper-individualization of salvation. The Old Testament notion was the salvation was for a nation, not “for me” so that “I can be with God.” This definition, not ours, is what Jesus and the apostles were working with. You’ve written pretty thoroughly about that here.

    4. Elevating Paul as the primary “Gospeller” in the NT instead of Jesus, thus overloading on imputation, justification by faith, penal substitution, and the legal framing of Jesus work. None of these exist in the Gospel presentations of Acts, with the possible exception of a reference to Jesus as judge. Yet nowhere do these sermons fail to mention the Resurrection of Christ. Per #2, ALL of them re-tell Israel’s scriptures, even in the sermons to the gentiles. I count more references to the Ascension of Christ in Peter’s first sermon alone (one), then in EVERY Gospel presentation I’ve ever heard by a modern Christian, including the ones I’ve heard about second hand. The whole story of Jesus is Gospel. Yet we have no clue about the significance of anything he did outside of his death, because we’ve spent all our time over-theologizing it to the point where it may as well not have been a real physical death. When Paul himself sets out to spell out the Gospel (1 Cor 15), he never mentions these doctrines (“for our sins” is as far as he gets with his death), instead he recounts a summary of the life of Jesus, and how it fulfills the Scritpures.

    On the heels of 4, It’s become possible to present the Gospel without any mention of Jesus’ ruling office, King/Kingdom, even though that was Jesus’ first description of his ministry in the book of Mark, and his most talked about subject. We have managed to ignore the fact that Jesus is King, that all kings owe him allegiance, that his realm is our world, and that he has done battle with evil on a cosmic scale and emerged, blood-stained and victorious. The central theme of Scripture recedes into the fog because we’re convinced it can’t really be true yet, it must be for a future age. The cross? Oh, that’s just my personal escalator to heaven.

    So the end result is a gnostic Jesus who basically effected some magic transaction in the sky so we could escape a bad old creation that has no God-history, to go to an unknown, disconnected place where we “live forever” with a God no one is sure of, in an almost Buddhist fashion, a psychic droplet in the cosmic ocean of eternity, having escaped an unformed, disconnected suffering that we’re promised exists for unbelievers somewhere.

    Do I sound cynical about today’s “evangelism?” Probably. I’ll become more optimistic when I’m able to talk to a non-believer and find evidence that they know what the Gospel is, even if they haven’t believed it.

    • Nate,

      Great thoughts. Thanks for the effort!

      I’m going to fix something, though: ” I’ll become more optimistic when I’m able to talk to a BELIEVER and find evidence that they know what the Gospel is.”

      It bothers me greatly when I hear Christians automatically exclude parts of the Gospel because what the Bible portrays as Gospel hasn’t been personally experienced by them.

      I will also quote something you said at least a year ago or more, that we can’t make the Gospel into nothing more than “sin management,” and yet apart from justification (which is inflated by some), it seems like it’s all that is left for the Christian to do through 60 years or so of discipleship. I can’t believe our teaching has been dominated by that thinking, ESPECIALLY on the Web, where it is the predominate philosophy.

      • Well yeah, you’re certainly right. I was thinking about all the times I’ve heard non-beleivers talk about what they assume Christianity to be, and it has nothing to do with the Gospel. They got it from somewhere!

  5. Linda

    Hi Dan,
    The definition of the gospel seems to be ‘good news’. What good news? Your sins are forgiven by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The Saviour of the world (all people) as determined and planned by God. God provided himself a ‘lamb’ the Bible says. Faith is the requirement for receiving the good news. Being ‘born again’ is necessary for salvation, Jesus says to Nicodemus.
    This is ‘individual’ not ‘national’ new birth. Does a new believer or a non-believer need to know the whole or the ‘meat’ of Christianity? No, Paul says that ‘milk’ is what is fed to new believers. Paul states that new believers cannot bear ‘meat’ at this stage in their walk with God.
    John the Baptist was preparing the way for Jesus. He was water baptizing for repentance by each person and a confession of sin from each person. The soldiers said ‘what can we do’? John basically said to them ‘be fair and just’ to others. John gave direction to others at his water baptism as well, as recorded in the gospel books in the NT.
    Romans 7 describes what happened when Jesus died on the cross as a substitute. We were freed from the judgment of the Jewish Law given by God to Moses. The Law is righteous but became our enemy because it convicted of sin without being able to provide essential holiness (sinlessness) to people. It condemned us to damnation and eternal death because of the Law’s perfect righteousness.
    Jesus rose from the dead and was taken up into heaven, the gospel books say in the NT. Where did he go if he did not go into Heaven? Paul says that he (Paul) was also taken up to the ‘ third heaven’ in a vision or perhaps even physically in his body. Paul says that he is not sure himself. He just knows that he entered into this third Heaven.
    How can there be continuity in our earthly life into eternal life? We die. In order to continue in this life on this earth we need a body. We will not get a body (after our death) until the first resurrection occurs. This first resurrection has not occurred. We know this because our dead ones are not around. We cannot find them on this earth at present.
    Jesus was different from the average person. Mary was a virgin. The Holy Spirit (God) fathered him. The only begotten Son of God. A sinless man, sent from God to redeem mankind back to himself, the children that God has given to me, Jesus says, through faith in Jesus.
    Jesus has an eternal priesthood (Hebrews). What does this mean? The Bible says eternal means without beginning and without end. An eternal life. We can only enter into eternal life through Jesus, who was, is, and will continue to be, eternal with the Father. (Gospel of John)
    The church is built on the foundation of Christ, Paul says. Christ is the foundation and not the center of the church. The enemies of Jesus, the Bible says, are destroyed and defeated, not reconciled.

    What is the Christian life? We walk in faith with God. The Holy Spirit, the Bible, our prayers to God. We must love justice and righteousness. We refuse to follow anyone other than God. We trust God implicitly. We experience God in our lives. He delivers us, he helps us, he cleans us, he molds us, he makes us into vessels of honor. Righteousness and peace, joy, hope, love, wisdom, faith, etc. are dispersed to the believer by God. Gifts are given to men, to the church, to build up and encourage God’s people to stand strong, to believe God. Our future will be shown to us as his people. We don’t have all the answers yet, but as God’s people we know one thing, we love goodness, righteousness, loveliness, justice, holiness. We turn from our sins. We abhor sin, our own and others’ sins. We love God. We are faithful and true to God. Another’s voice and teaching we will not hear. We will follow him, Jesus says. “My sheep know my voice and they will follow me”. Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life”. “No one comes to the Father except through me” ” “I give you eternal life”

    • “What good news? Your sins are forgiven by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.”

      Just because I’m a nitpicker 🙂 and this is my favorite nit….THE Good News is that Jesus is King, Lord, and Judge and that he has defeated all his enemies. It’s that he lived announcing God’s Kingdom on earth as in heaven, died for our sins, rose bodily, ascended to heaven and was glorified. (1 Cor 15) This is how Paul defines the Gospel. This is how they preach it in Acts. Jesus himself defined it as the “Gospel of the Kingdom.”

      It’s certainly good news that our sins our forgiven, but strictly speaking “by grace through faith” is not the Gospel. Nowhere does the BIble define it that way. That’s a theological tool the church is given to protect itself from legalism.

      The Gospel of the Kingdom provides some insight into the “national” vs. “personal” nature of salvation. Israel awaited a Messiah- a king for their nation, not a personal Savior. Jesus fulfilled this role. In order to become part of this Kingdom one must be personally born again.

      • Nate & Linda,

        Recently, I heard someone say that when Jesus stated He was proclaiming the Gospel, it was yet to include His death, resurrection, and bestowing of the Holy Spirit, as all those events were still come.

        Ponder that for a moment.

        The King has come and ushered in a new Kingdom. At the time of Jesus’ preaching, He considered that the Gospel.

        Somehow, we tend to gloss over the entire concept of the King and Kingdom in favor of language that focuses on sin, hell, and heaven. Now, I’m not saying we ignore those latter three when we talk to others, but it is a little unnerving to think that we “underpromote” a big chunk of the Gospel Jesus actually preached!

        • “Somehow, we tend to gloss over the entire concept of the King and Kingdom in favor of language that focuses on sin, hell, and heaven.”

          Most definitely. You can actually here otherwise sane, learned, professional preachers tell you that Jesus didn’t preach the Gospel! It’s a strange age we live in, as far as perceptions of the Bible are concerned…

    • I think you may be referring to my lengthy above comment with this: “How can there be continuity in our earthly life into eternal life? We die. In order to continue in this life on this earth we need a body.”

      My point was not that we don’t die, but that for Christians, the life we live after the Resurrection has continuity with the life we lived before it. 1 Corinthians 15 bears this out (especially the last verse). It’s like being asleep, and then waking up (that’s the metaphor the Bible uses.)

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