All of us have run across people who say they are saved but are not. In fact, for most "Christians," the teachings of Christ and the apostles play little to no role in their lives. Polls by George Barna confirm this regularly, from the mouths of church attenders themselves.
So those of us who are serious about the Gospel have looked for ways to see people really saved. We’ve told those who pray the sinner’s prayer to really mean it. We’ve emphasized follow-up. We’ve made our doctrines better. We’ve increased church activities, and we’ve even tried getting a little more worldly ourselves so that these Christians in name only might get a little more committed.
All to no avail.
I was reading a Christian drug rehab site today, and I realized that one problem is that nominal Christians don’t see that there is anything they need to be really saved from.
At a drug rehab center, there’s something to be saved from. You’ve either stopped brewing meth, or you’re still using it. You’ve either stopped smoking crack, or you’re still smoking crack.
If the drug rehab’s "Gospel" isn’t working, there’s no denying it isn’t working. We don’t usually use the word "saved" in reference to their work, but at a Christian rehab center, that’s exactly what’s going on. Either they’re being saved, or they’re not.
Since I don’t know all the details of what a drug rehab center does, nor how successful they are, nor how much follow-up they do, let’s switch to something I know more about.
U.S. prisons have very high "recidivism" rates. A recidivism rate is the percentage of criminals released from prison who wind up behind bars again. Standard statistics vary depending on how they’re calculated, but a 45% recidivism rate after three years is acknowledged by all. A Free Republic article says that if you track all prisoners for 20 years, then it’s 82% of inmates who return to prison.
The article describes a program that successfully reduced that recidivism rate to 61%, a minor but significant success. It involved counseling.
I have now met two men involved in major prisoner reform programs. Both programs take a prisoner from the prison to a counseling program, help them find a job, and follow up with them for at least two years. Both programs successfully cut the recidivism rate in half.
Now that’s salvation! It is at least for the men who never return to prison.
We have no such standard of measure for Christianity today. Anyone who can attend a meeting can be a Christian.
It was not that way in the beginning. To join the Christians was to join a new family. They shared their meals and even their possessions. They met every day in the temple, and they ate together in their homes. Their leaders taught them "night and day, both publicly and from house to house."
The "every day in the temple" part happened only in Jerusalem, but the rest happened everywhere for around 200 years.
An early Christian tract is still extant that made it into two early Christian writings, one the earliest church manual ever written. That tract urges Christians to "seek out the faces of the saints ever day." It tells them that if they share in eternal things, how much more should they share the things that are merely temporary.
As late as A.D. 200, we read about the Christians that "the family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you [Romans], create brotherly bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us except our wives" (Tertullian, Apology 39).
A counselor who takes an inmate fresh from prison and guides him to a new life can tell you whether that inmate was successfully "saved." If the inmate went back to prison, the counselor knows that, at least for now, he’s failed. If the inmate is surrounded by wholesome friends, employed, and has a new life in front of him, then he’s succeeded.
When Christianity is again a family, rather than a set of weekly meetings; when we are again seeking out the faces of the saints every day; when our teachers are again teaching day and night and from house to house as well as publicly; when each saint is expected to stretch out his hand to give as well as stretching it out to take … when these things are happening, we may again be able to tell the difference between the saved and those who merely attend our meetings.
That would require a pretty radical overhaul, but don’t you agree we need it?
One happy note: I have run across a number of churches attempting to make exactly those kind of changes. Some are failing, but some appear to be succeeding.
If you’re in Sacramento or Atlanta, I can already put you in contact with people. Unfortunately, I didn’t get contact information from the elder of one church like this I met, but there are a couple others in the middle of these changes that I know about, too.
David Platt has a rather famous church doing these sorts of things in Birmingham, and if you’re in San Francisco, you ought to look up what Francis Chan is doing. Simple and brilliant.