According to a recent survey, the percentage of Americans who claim to be Christian is somewhere north of 75 percent.
Really? Three out of four people are followers of Christ?
Let's see, if the population of the United States is about 311 million and 75 percent are Christians that brings the number of Christians to somewhere in the neighborhood of 233 million. That's a lot of Christians. I don't see nearly that many Jesus fish on car bumpers. I don't know, maybe all the Darwin fish ate them. I'm just saying something about that percentage is off. Because if there really are that many Christians, then why will some 35 million people in America go to bed hungry tonight, including 13 million children? If 75 percent of Americans are Christians, then how is it possible that 40 percent of the homeless are under the age of 18? Why are there more than 120,000 children waiting to be adopted? I could keep going, and that's just in the States. The numbers don't add up. Jesus said the evidence that someone is one of his followers is love. So 233 million? The evidence just isn't there.
What's the explanation for such a discrepancy? A number of years ago I read an article about the new vegetarians. These new vegetarians don't eat meat -- most of the time. One of them explained that she was a vegetarian, but she really liked bacon. A vegetarian, by definition, is someone who doesn't eat meat. Umm, yeah, but isn't bacon a meat? Is it really accurate for her to identify herself as a vegetarian? If enough people who eat meat started calling themselves vegetarians wouldn't that throw the numbers off? The discrepancy was solved by coming up with a new term to describe vegetarians who aren't committed to abstaining from meat. They now identify themselves as "Flexitarians."
A Christian, by definition, is a follower of Christ. So, I'm thinking that what might help make sense of the 233 million number is a new word to describe people who identify themselves as Christians but have little interest in actually following the teachings of Jesus. Perhaps instead of "followers," it would be more accurate to call them "fans."
The word fan is most simply defined as, an enthusiastic admirer. And I think Jesus has a lot of fans these days. Some fans may even get dressed up for church on Sunday and make their ringtone a worship song. They like being associated with Jesus. Fans want to be close enough to Jesus to get the benefits, but not so close that it requires anything from them. They want a no-strings-attached relationship with Jesus. So a fan says, I like Jesus but don't ask me to serve the poor. I like Jesus, but I'm not going to give my money to people who are in need. I like Jesus, but don't ask me to forgive the person who hurt me. I like Jesus, but don't talk to me about money or sex that's off limits.
Fans like Jesus just fine, but they don't want to give up the bacon.
Fans tend to identify themselves as Christians not because they are committed to following Jesus, but for a number of other reasons. They might point to their family heritage thinking that being a Christian is in their DNA. Like a pug nose or a unibrow it was somehow passed down from mom and dad. Fans might identify themselves as Christians by pointing to religious rituals they've kept and rules they've followed.
Ultimately, defining what it means to be a follower of Jesus isn't nearly as arbitrary or subjective as we've made it. Jesus very clearly lays it out in Luke 9:23. He says, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me." These words tend to separate fans from followers. Followers are to deny themselves and take up a cross. Instead of giving a theological explanation of what that means, it's probably more helpful to show what it looks like. I've spent the last year collecting stories of fans who have become followers.
- Bowin and Lindsey each ran their own successful business. They had a Mercedes SUV to handle their four kids. For them, following Jesus meant selling nearly everything they had and moving to the Island of Hispaniola to bring clean water to thousands in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
- For Rachelle, following Jesus meant showing love to the women working in strip clubs. She and some of her friends started making big homemade meals and taking them to the women in the clubs. As a result many of the women no longer know Christians as just the group of angry picketers out front who, from their perspective, are trying to take away their job and have started to know Christians by their love.
- Jennifer and Tom had a car they rarely drove. They decided that they really didn't need two cars and would give one of their cars to a single mom who needed transportation. One car was a 2001 model, the other was a 2004 model. They gave her the newer one.
That's just three stories of followers. I'm praying that there would be around 233,249,997 more. They may not be as dramatic or inspiring but my prayer is that Christians would be known not by a fish on their bumper -- or the profile on their Facebook page -- or by going regularly to their church, but they would be followers of Jesus who are known for their love.
Survey conducted by Book Tracker, the PubTrack Consumer Buyer Panel. January 2011.