Being A Christian In America

“Christians traditionally have been worried about getting Jesus wrong. American Christians are not so worried. There isn’t the sense that this is a life-and-death matter, that you don’t mess with divinity. There’s a freedom and even a playfulness that Americans have…the flexibility of the American Jesus is unprecedented. There’s a Gumbylike quality to Jesus in the United States. Even turning Jesus into a pal among born-again Christians—that kind of chutzpah is unknown historically.” -Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a Cultural Icon

I recently gave a series of messages where I attempted to answer this question: What does it mean to be a Christian? I talked about the Christian as the convert, the believer and the disciple. Those messages are available as archived audio at the Word of Life site.

What I said in those messages was a general treatment of the subject dealing with broad truths pertaining to what it means to be a Christian irrespective of time or place. But as we actually attempt to live out a Christian life we don’t do it in a vacuum, but in specific times and cultures, and each age and culture presents its own particular challenges to living the Christian life, whether it’s as a 4th century Roman, a 7th century Byzantine, a 13th century Italian, a 17th century Russian, or a 21st century American. So let me share a few thoughts that are pertinent to what it means to be a Christian in the specific context of contemporary American life.

These thoughts have been formed as I have traveled among churches and Christians around the world for many years and have thus been able to gain something of a global perspective on American Christianity. And I have developed these thoughts, not just through travel and my own thinking, but through a dozen or so serious conversations over the past two years with European, Australian, Russian and Indian Christian leaders on the topic of “American Christianity.” Here are my thoughts:

Consumerism is the drug in the American culture that we eat, drink and breathe.
There’s no avoiding this. And if we are serious about living authentic Christian lives we must acknowledge the elephant in the room…or shall I say the Leviathan in the mall. At its heart the American Dream is a consumerist dream — the dream of owning and acquiring certain things as the presumed way to happiness. Of course this flies in the face of the most basic truths taught in the Old and New Testaments regarding morality, values, how we should live, and what will ultimately make us happy. If we make the mistake of twisting the gospel into an endorsement of our cultural assumptions we have committed a grievous error that will distort the gospel as severely as did medieval superstition. It takes a concerted effort on the part of the American Christian not to be seduced by the ubiquitous lure of consumerism. It takes real conviction not to allow Christianity to be commandeered into a spiritual means to a materialist end. Consumerism is our antichrist, our beast, our false prophet and it takes tremendous moral and spiritual courage to oppose it.

America is a great nation and great nations tend to get confused about God.
It was Dostoevsky in his spiritual/political novel, Demons, that helped me to first see this. Dostoevsky (in the voice of various characters) explains that every great nation must believe that God is their God — that they have God on their side. The necessary sacrifices for continued greatness required of citizens by empires, especially as it pertains to war, can scarcely be made unless the name of God can be invoked as their God — whether that makes God Greek or Roman or French or English or Russian or German or American. Great nations inevitably make a proprietary claim upon God. They make him their God so that God’s chief duty is to maintain the interests of the nation. Of course this immediately appears as preposterous, unless it’s your nation we’re talking about. America is just as susceptible to this kind of delusional thinking regarding God as the other great nations that have gone before us. On a related note: American Christians tend to think, if not actually, then emotionally, of America as a kind of Israel. So that the prophets’ messages to Israel in the Old Testament are generally applicable to America. But I would suggest that America is more analogous to the Roman empire in Paul’s day than the kingdom of Israel in Jeremiah’s day. The inheritor of Israel’s vocation as stewards of God’s kingdom is the church, not any political state. I remember the time that an important European pastor asked me not to teach on the kingdom of God, because, as he said, “You American Christians all think America is the kingdom of God.” Though I protested that I did not think this, I understand how he arrived at that opinion.

Political partisanship has stolen the prophetic voice of the American church.
I recently had a lengthy discussion with several Australian Christian leaders who had just returned from a conference where the topic was how the Australian church could best position itself to speak into the politics of the nation. They concluded that the model of the American religious right was a perfect example of what not to do. The mistake the American evangelical church has made is not in being involved politically, but in becoming openly partisan with one political party. The end result of that action is to steal our prophetic voice. One party presumes our loyalty as their de facto religious wing, while the other presumes our hostility and regards us an enemy. Consequently neither party trembles at our voice or seriously questions among themselves, “but what will the church say?” When the church as an entity becomes a lapel pin wearing partisan of any particular political party it sacrifices its prophetic mantle. The church has a dismal historic record when it comes to its use of political power. God has given the sword of political authority to the state, but the keys of spiritual authority to the church. We should be very wary of trading our spiritual keys for the political sword.

Making Christianity popular in America is not the same thing as making Christians out of Americans.
We Americans are easily impressed by all things big and successful. We find it almost impossible to gainsay that which has massive popular endorsement. So the assumption is that if a particular message can fill churches and arenas and propel books onto bestseller lists, then it must be a good thing. But there is always the danger that we are using Christianity to endorse the cultural assumptions of the age by simply creating a Christianized version of what is already popular, instead of engaging in the more difficult work of transforming the culture through the rigors of a costly and demanding Christianity. Jesus was quite willing to sacrifice popularity for the sake of genuine discipleship — we must be willing to do the same. The metanarrative of the gospel is, in fact, quite different than the metanarrative of American dream — though as it is often told in popular American Christianity you may not know it. Vigorous Christianity has always been a subversive and transcendent counterculture movement.

It is still the American scene in the drama of world history and the opportunity begs for authentic Christianity to take the stage.
China and India are waiting in the wings, but it is still America’s hour to shine on the world’s stage. That means that what the American church does, for good or bad, is amplified around the globe. Just as Paul’s letter to the Romans in the 1st century takes center stage in the New Testament epistles, so the “American Epistle” will have tremendous influence upon the global church in the first part of the 21st century. I still have great hope for the American church. We have our problems and our blind spots, but I am hopeful as I see these issues being increasingly acknowledged and courageously addressed by a new generation of Christian leaders. I pray that God will give grace to the American church to model a more costly, and thus a more authentic Christianity to the global Body of Christ over the next few decades.

Anyway, these are some of my thoughts regarding being a Christian in America.



I plan to speak further upon this topic this Sunday at Word of Life and again at the Leadership Conference at Resurrection Life Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan this Monday and Tuesday. Then on Tuesday Peri and I will be traveling from Grand Rapids to Kanpur, India to conduct a leadership conference with P.G. Vargis for several thousand pastors, leaders and church planters. Please pray for us. Thank you.