I’ve been a pastor for about 10 years now. In that short (albeit eventful) decade, I’ve decided that for the most part, Christians in our churches can be divided into two basic groups: those who think their faith is central to their lives, and those whose faith actually is central to their lives. I’ve tended to think of these two groups as the “Almosts” and the “Alreadys,” respectively.
The Almosts—those who think their faith is central to their lives—are generally well meaning. They’re clear that they think of themselves as Christians. If they date or marry someone, it will probably be important that they find someone who professes the same things they do. They will put “Christian” as their religious beliefs on Facebook. There’s even a good chance that they are familiar with church jargon. But for some reason, they just can’t make the jump into the second group. There’s something that just hasn’t tipped yet, a switch that hasn’t flipped. These are the people who are always saying they need to “do a better job” of praying or reading the Bible or what have you. They want to move further in their faith. But they don’t. They continue on, year after year, no different than they were the year before. True change is almost theirs, but they never quite get there for some reason. The problems they deal with today will be the same problems next year and in five years. They’ll continue to show up for church and may even serve or join a small group, but we all sort of know that they probably won’t be changing any time soon. They are the Almosts.
Then there’s the “Alreadys”—people whose faith actually is central to their lives. These people are the ones who keep me on my toes as a pastor. Not because they are always critiquing sermons (those folks often belong in the first group) but because they simply want more. They are self-motivated, so their insatiable hunger for the things of God has little to do with me. I just try to toss them alley-oops and watch them throw down dunks. Often, they’re the ones throwing me alley-oops. They lead me, even though I’m supposed to be the pastor. While they don’t always need me to pastor them, when I get to, it’s a joy. Of course, these people don’t have perfect lives, and stuff happens. But when it does, it often drives them even deeper into God.
What’s crazy is that the two groups can look identical on paper. Almosts and Alreadys may both attend church, serve, get into a small group, and maybe even tithe. But there’s still something that is difficult to describe that seems to make all the difference between them.
So here’s the rub: for some reason, it can be very, very difficult for an Almost to become an Already. It’s like there is a hard drive that has to be deprogrammed. In fact, I might go so far as to say that it’s easier for someone who isn’t a Christian to move into the second group than for someone in the first group to move into the second group. Sadly, it just doesn’t happen very often.
So how did we get here? How is it that our churches are (arguably) filled with Almosts, who want to be Alreadys, but can’t seem to do it? We could debate this all day, but I’ll offer three reasons why I think this phenomenon exists.
1. A consumeristic gospel. I’m not talking about overt health and wealth type stuff here. I mean the more subtle forms of consumerism in our gospel presentations. It happens when, As NT Wright says, we turn the good news into good advice. “Here’s how you can get to heaven, have a fulfilled life, have peace with God,” what have you. These things may be good and true, but when they are used as the primary reason why someone should become a Christian, it threatens to propagate a “what’s in it for me” sort of faith. For the earliest Christians, the gospel was not advice or an opportunity, but a fact: God has initiated His rule of the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and everything else (forgiveness of sins, peace with God, etc.) follows from that. For them, it was not simply about what they might receive, but about the fact that the only sensible thing to do in light of this information is to get in line behind the guy who came back to life! For a telling example of this, read Paul’s exposition of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15.
2. A small gospel. By this I mean the notion that becoming a Christian can be boiled down to praying a prayer of forgiveness that does not require complete subordination of one’s life to King Jesus. If the gospel entails the notion that Jesus is Lord, then we’ve simply made him into a really nice loan officer who forgives our debts. In no way am I reducing the importance of the forgiveness of sins. However, we must acknowledge that if the gospel entails more than this, then we have a responsibility to acknowledge it as well.
3. An American gospel. “Syncretism” is the term that we use to describe ways that people conflate the gospel with the surrounding culture. Syncretism is difficult to see and evaluate within ourselves; it’s sort of like how a fish doesn’t know it’s wet. But it contributes to the fact that when we read New Testament commands to love enemies (Matthew 5:44), or do good to persecutors (Romans 12:14), we easily dismiss them. We’ve been conditioned in another direction—namely, that the rights of the autonomous self are supreme. With an American gospel, if anyone threatens my rights, or even my preferences, then all bets are off and I’m free to respond with whatever vitriol I deem appropriate. With an American gospel, we are free to pick and choose what affirms our individualistic sensibilities and what doesn’t.
When someone simmers in these false gospels week after week, year after year, for an entire lifetime, it can become difficult for them to imagine anything else. When an entire church culture has simmered in it for decades, it can seem downright impossible. But we cannot grow cynical or lose hope. After all, the power of our gospel is not based on us.
But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
1 Corinthians 1:23–24