Lest there be any hint that the separation of church and state is a narrowing gap, the U.S. government makes no attempt at compiling demographic data on religious life in our country.
That's where the Barna Group comes in. That organization, started, appropriately enough, by a man named George Barna, seeks "to partner with Christian ministries and individuals to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States." One of the ways in which this is accomplished is through statistical research and analysis on Christians worldwide. (There's fascinating stuff on the website ... give it a look-see.)
Barna reports that there are approximately 87-89 million born again Christians in the world. Now, we're not talking about "religious consumers," i.e., those people who, for one reason or another, go to church every so often. Let's face it, our communities are full of people who go to church on certain Sundays out of a sense of moral obligation or because "that's what upstanding members of the community do." Going to church and having an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ is not the same thing.
So, the definition Barna uses, quite appropriately, to describe a Christian:
"is not defined on the basis of characterizing themselves as 'born again' but based upon their answers to two questions. The first is 'have you ever made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in your life today?' If the respondent says 'yes,' then they are asked a follow-up question about life after death. One of the seven perspectives a respondent may choose is 'when I die, I will go to Heaven because I have confessed my sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as my savior.' Individuals who answer 'yes' to the first question and select this statement as their belief about their own salvation are then categorized as 'born again.'"
The point? I'm getting to it.
What would happen, do you think, if each and every one of those roughly 90 million people decided, for the next year, to ensure that the way they lived their lives as closely as possible mirrored the way Christ lived His. You know, the classic (and often parodied) mantra "What Would Jesus Do?" If every decision of every day was lived with this concept in mind, how much different would our world be?
Let's take it a step further. How many of us think about the crises of our world at large? How many of us know what's happening in the Darfur region of Sudan? The AIDS crisis in Africa? The still-ongoing rebuilding of Southeast Asia following that dreadful tsunami? New Orleans? Homelessness in our own community?
The biggest obstacle to investing our time and energy into these problems is our old nemesis (or old friend?) human nature. Such is the bane of our Christian walk in that it is always at war with our spiritual man. Paul wrote extensively about this to the Roman church, saying "... if the power of sin keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I don't have what it takes. I can will it, but I can't do it. I decide to do good, but I really don't do it; I desire not to do bad, but I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and get the better of me every time" (Portions of Romans 7, from The Message: Remix). (Click here for a more traditional translation.)
Yet what we are asked -- nay, called -- of God to do is sacrifice what Oswald Chambers calls "the right to self." He writes:
"Are you willing to obey your Lord and Master whatever the humiliation to your right to yourself might be?"
Ah, now that's a problem to our natural sensibilities, and it's made worse by a non-Christian worldview that prides itself on the celebration of self. Anything contrary to that modern paradigm is not only suspect, it's downright dangerous. Our culture literally begs us to ignore any hint of altruism. Indeed, our culture groans with disdain against the very idea of selflessness.
Is altruism dead? Maybe. But regardless of what we think we're getting out of helping others, the singular fact remains that our Christian responsibility must take precedence over our culture's need to feel better about itself. After all, what does it say about John Q. Public that he passes the homeless man with nary a glance in his direction while the next guy stops to say hello?
It's a terrible mistake to cloak charity in a mask of political currency: "well, if I buy this Mercedes, then that spurs our economy and helps the little guy eventually. I get to ride in style, and my taxes go to help build homeless shelters. Everybody wins!"
Why not cut out the middle man? What if all 90 million of us did?
That brings us to the high idealism of Christ's Sermon on the Mount. Oswald Chambers again writes that in every person lies a "central citadel of obstinancy: 'I will not give up my right to myself'" but it is "the thing God intends you to give up if you are ever going to be a disciple of Christ."
And to be that, we must allow Jesus Christ to alter our disposition and put in one like His own. He is the only one who can fulfill the terribly impossible ideal of the Sermon on the Mount.
But by Him living in us -- and our desire to try -- we can change the world.
(copyright 2006, andrew j. beckner. all rights under copyright reserved.)