Earlier this year, I launched in this space an occasional series looking back on the unintended consequences of the Jesus Movement. I’ve explored topics including our hand-clappin’ praise songs, the Rapture, our voting habits, and our worship services. Today, I’m picking up where I left off by talking about something that’s not a news flash to most reading these words: the Evangelical focus on decisions for Christ, often at the expense of discipleship. This impulse wasn’t new to Evangelicalism. Charles Finney to Billy Sunday to that other famous Billy were visible leaders in the subculture long before the Jesus Movement hit. But the urge for simplicity coupled with the urge to celebrate the dramatic testimony cultivated an unhealthy focus in our subculture on the “just pray this prayer” decision-making process.
We celebrated news of conversions of famous people as though we were cheering for a number one draft pick being drafted onto our team. (Anyone remember the excitement when Bob Dylan prayed the prayer and became an instant Christian celebrity in 1979?) On a local level, people with dramatic stories of how they “accepted Jesus as their personal Savior” were often given a bit of red carpet treatment in congregations, conferences, and meetings. While there has been a slow-growing pushback in some quarters of Evangelicalism over the “just pray this prayer” model, it is still central to the way most of us Jesus Freaks found out how to talk about faith.
A couple of sidebars are in order here. First, my husband learned about Jesus by reading this tract, then the Gospel of Matthew. No one ever shared their story with him, or asked him to respond. That four-sentence prayer of repentance at the end of the tract led to a commitment to Jesus as Lord that Bill is still living four-plus decades later. Prayers like it have been the real deal for countless others. Second, I have a dramatic story of my own faith journey, and am always glad to share it. I never grow weary of hearing tales of resurrection transformation from others.
But I recognize by putting these repentance stories at the front and center of our subculture, we communicated that the moment of decision matters more than anything else in the Christian life. Or at least serves as this:
Much of the writing and reading I’ve done about second half of life spirituality, coupled with the phenomenon of the Dones, highlights for me a thin understanding of discipleship in many corners of Evangelicalism. Our focus on “all eyes closed…all heads bowed…yes, I see that hand, and that one” decision has cultivated a culture celebrating spiritual sprinters crossing a finish line. Treating a decision (which might be more accurately understood as a response to God’s calling), as the pinnacle moment in a person’s spiritual life diminishes the beauty and eternal value of the mission Jesus gave us.
That finish line is the beginning of the marathon for those of us with a moment of decision story. Others in the Church have grown gently into runners, and can’t point to a day and date at which they crossed the line into faith. In every case, we haven’t been so great on the whole about honoring and celebrating endurance in the Christian life. Our real celebrities aren’t those who can describe the starting blocks of the race, but those who can teach us to finish it. The Jesus Movement made an art out of the beginning of the race in ways that haven’t always taught us to keep running when we hit Mile 21.
When a renewal like the Jesus Movement hits the church, things are bound to get messy. Some of the mess is the work of the Holy Spirit as he reanimates dry bones. Some of the mess comes when a bunch of broken human beings try to touch, help, hinder, or profit from the beautiful chaos. The Church is in a state of transition in the West, though in the global South and East, she is growing like fruit-bearing kudzu. This transition is an opportunity for a bit of spiritual housecleaning in the wake of the hippie-flavored chaos of a generation ago. Part of that housecleaning might perhaps create some space for reflection on the unintended consequences of some of our choices and desires. We reap what we sow.
What we hoped for a generation ago when we focused on encouraging others to pray that prayer:
- Individual responsibility for faith – Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus called individual people to follow him. A “Get Out Of Hell Free” card inked with infant baptism or childhood church attendance was not the way Jesus changed lives.
- Simplicity – We could talk about faith in an easily understandable way. You didn’t need to be a theologian or a pastor to understand the message in the Four Spiritual Laws*.
- Marketability – Too many of us downplayed what discipleship might cost in our excitement to invite others to join our team. (See Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23.) We may have done so because we ourselves simply didn’t understand the cost.
What we’re reaping today:
- Confusion – Stories abound of kids who’ve prayed that prayer dozens of times, insecure about whether they’re “in” or “out”. Others rest in the notion that they just prayed that prayer at some point, and can tuck that salvation card in their back pocket and go on with their regularly-scheduled program. A prayer of repentance is one step in the marathon. It is not the entire race.
- Frustration – Simplicity in presenting the decision was a bait-and-switch for the Christian life. “Just pray this prayer and you’ll be saved” was a gateway drug to “Just send the televangelist your paycheck and you’ll be blessed” for some. Others discovered that praying a short prayer had little to do with the challenges of lifelong fidelity to Jesus. We don’t live it alone, because God himself is with us, but neither is it easy – and may cost us our lives.
- Abandoning of the faith – Shallow roots don’t grow healthy plants. A measure of the statistical numerical decline in Christianity in recent years comes from those who once prayed a prayer and were taught this was the most important thing they could do to sew up their eternity.
What would you add to either of these lists?