One of the questions I've struggled with and chewed on for the past few years is why do so many people seem to have shallow faith? Why do many Christians spend their time and energy fighting each other and arguing minutia in theology rather than advancing God's kingdom and helping others. The reason, I believe, is that many people are learning and practicing religion instead of faith.
Recently, I stumbled upon a Christian website with numerous members whose sole activity was to belittle and attack any other Christian or Pastor who has written a bestselling book. They'd take passages out of context and find one line or word in a 300 page book to basically label the author as a false-teacher. They prided themselves in "outing" this author and they claimed to have the "true faith." They seemed to favor a legalistic, rules based type of religion and held everyone else (except themselves) to impossible standards of perfection. My question was "who were these self righteous people and how can they claim to practice the same faith as me?"
I often work and talk with atheists and former Christians and when I ask them to describe their experience with Christianity they describe an environment of strict rules, assimilation, judgement and hypocrisy. One recent comment on this site states "The most rewarding thing I've ever done is abandon the lies and falsehoods of the Christian faith and embrace atheistic skepticism. When you've been captured by religion whether through indoctrination or emotional epiphany you generally don't see the grip it has over you but once you've broken free of it's hold the delusional nature of Christian belief becomes glaringly obvious. You feel at once liberated and yet embarrassed to have been duped by such irrational dogma."
These descriptions of a "faith experience" all seem similar. They seem forced, controlling, legalistic and practiced out of sense of guilt rather than of free-will faith and love. They describe a religious experience where they feel captive and coerced into practicing and believing. They describe their experience with God like it was a horrible job they hated going to each day.
Why is their experience so vastly different from my own? I honestly believe it was because they were practicing religion rather than faith.
Religion is a man-made system of rules, dogma and cultural norms. Religion seeks conformity, obedience and not questioning or challenging the system.
Religious people approach faith like a college course. They think the answers lay in showing up each week and spending a lot of time reading, analyzing and debating the intricacies and minutia of the text. They also throw in some rules and cultural norms which are pleasing to them (but often have no or minimal Biblical basis) and eventually they start developing a judgmental attitude towards anyone who does not fall into line with their opinions or their version of religion.
The problem with this type of religion and churches that practice it, is that they create a "check the box" experience. You can show up on Sunday, wear the right clothes, sing loud, toss some money in the plate and generally be seen as a "good Christian."
This type of religion is academic and image based - in other words - shallow. This type of experience is also the #1 reason cited by many former Christians why they choose to leave the faith and why they never want anything to do with a church again.
We need to stop practicing and perpetuating this fallacy of religion and start living and leading a legacy of faith.
Authentic Faith cannot be earned with good behavior or by memorizing hundreds of Bible verses. It cannot be won by bribing God or by spouting deep theological knowledge on Predestination.
Authentic Faith was paid for at Calvary and is our wonderful gift given by God's grace alone. It has to be freely accepted at a time and place where the Holy Spirit truly moves your heart.
Once Authentic Faith is accepted, it changes your life forever. Authentic Faith is illustrated by dying to oneself and giving to others each and every day. It's caring about your neighbors more than yourself. It's displayed on a daily basis in our actions, thoughts and words. It's the choices we make behind closed doors, behind the keyboard when no one is looking and it's choosing to be obedient to God's plan rather than our own ambitions and pleasures.
Authentic Faith can be broken down into four phases.
Phase I is Experienced Faith - this is where we participate in customs and rituals of the faith tradition with other Christians. Our faith is experienced with our senses through worship, Biblical stories and basic theology. If you were raised in the church as a child, you were assimilated into this type of experienced faith.
Phase II is Affiliative Faith, this faith develops by being affiliated with a Christian community and fellowship. Affiliative Faith involves social, spiritual, and service activities, which provide opportunities for people to deepen their relationships with other Christians. This may also include small groups, Bible studies, retreats and conferences.
Sadly, many Christians never get past these first 2 phases. They spend the majority of their lives repeating Phases 1 and II on a weekly basis and simply look for "new" or "different" experiences of these first 2 phases. They are often attracted to the experience that is the most entertaining for them.
Phase III is Searching Faith, this is the phase where faith is questioned and challenged. Sadly, many Christian youth raised in the church come to this point and when they ask hard questions about the faith, they are given weak answers. Many Christian adults reach this phase when they become dissatisfied with their experience and instead of asking hard faith questions to someone trained in Apologetics, they instead turn to the internet or friends who will tell them all the reasons why what they believe is wrong. Instead of objectively looking at all sides of Christianity or the mountains of peer reviewed scientific, historical and anthropological evidence, they will take whatever answers seem more appealing and pleasurable and choose to accept them as truth. Sadly, many people walk away from their faith at this point. I think both the Church and the individual share the blame for this failure. It takes time and effort to truly search for objective faith answers from both sides and most people don't take the time. The Church also does a very poor job of answering and handling these questions too, so both are at fault. For a brief synopsis of my own personal journey through this stage, read My Post Here.
If Phase III was done objectively by the participant and the Church did a better job of equipping it's followers, many people would come out of Phase III with a renewed sense of strong faith that can handle any objections and challenges. This is the point when followers realize and internalize their faith as absolute truth.
Phase IV is Owned Faith, this is the phase where followers experience great enlightenment in their lives. This is the stage where faith becomes less about oneself and more about God and helping others. In this phase, faith becomes about living your life congruent with your faith and beliefs. In this phase, other followers can hold you accountable to practice and live what you claim to believe. This phase involves submitting your life to God's will and plan and letting God lead you in your decisions in life. This phase brings about a spiritual maturity that ends judgement, gossip and destructive, irrational decisions. Owned Faith breeds confidence, humbleness, calm and clarity and childlike trust in God. Owned Faith is an absolute joy in your life and never feels like a chore or burden. I've honestly never met anyone with this type of faith who one day up and left their faith or the church.
So how do we get to Authentic Faith?
1. Be Proactive. Each person must walk through this journey of their own free will. The Church nor anyone else can hold your hand and get you out of your comfort zone. Start by looking at your current Faith Phase. What phase are you in? What phase are you struggling with? Start by working on that phase and developing your own plan to work on and through that phase.
2. Surround Yourself With Authentic Faith. Some of the biggest growth in my life has happened when I stepped out of my comfort zone and started associating with people who were at the level I wanted to be at. Find someone you believe has authentic faith and ask to take them out for coffee. Ask them about their faith, their practices, their daily lives. Maybe even ask them to mentor you or be an accountability partner for you. If you can find a group of people like this and stay committed and accountable, you will grow and better yourself. Read The Law of the Lid.
3. Take Decisive Action Now. What would your authentic faith look like? Start committing to living that way today. Volunteer for a missions trip or to work with the youth in your church. Start spending just 5 minutes per day reading the Bible. Start doing random acts of kindness around the house, at work and in your community. Start leading your wife, kids, family in a weekly Bible study. Start acting and living like Jesus was by your side every single day. Don't think or sleep on it, just commit to it and take action to put the wheels in motion. I often shoot off emails to leaders committing to things before I have a chance to talk myself out of them, it's a way to keep myself accountable.
If you're reading this and you've yet to experience an Authentic Faith, I pray that you'll take the steps and take action to make it happen. It's a wonderful and life changing place to be in and you'll never regret the journey. If you've left the faith because of a bad religious experience, I challenge you to find someone with Authentic Faith and have a conversation with them. Heck, shoot me an email. I won't try to convert you and I love challenging questions or faith debates.
Wherever you are, I pray that you will know that Jesus Christ was the ultimate example of what we should be living every single day. No one is perfect but the more we follow His example, the closer and happier we become to living a life of Authentic Faith.
Esse Quam Videri