How come Christians don’t know God?

How come Christians don’t know God? That’s not a stupid question. In fact, it a very important question with a very disturbing answer. It’s all too easy for Christians to now know God! The headline shocked me. 51% of Churchgoers Don’t Know of the Great Commission, according to a Barna survey. I also found it very disappointing. Depressing even.

No wonder the path Jesus tells us about is so narrow. Even many of those who think they’re on it actually aren’t on it at all! They may not even be close!

How come Christians don't know God? They're on the wrong path!

In case you don’t remember
or don’t know,
here’s what I mean by
the narrow path.

The Narrow and Wide Gates

Mt 7:13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Christians cannot know God if we’re on the wrong path

See that picture above? There are two paths there. The well worn one on the left, and the harder to find one on the right. It’s not impossible to find. It is visible. But that picture is representative of the paths leading to the narrow and wide gates, it’s also representative of the fact that most people won’t get to the narrow gate.

In other words, most people won’t get to Heaven. No matter how sure we might be that everyone’s going to Heaven, the Bible very clearly says that’s not gonna happen! It even says most people who call themselves Christians aren’t going to make it there. Why? Because most Christians aren’t on the right path either! They’re on the well-travelled path on the left.

How do we know so many Christians are on the wrong path?

Why do I say most Christians are on the wrong path? Because Jesus told us. It’s right here, in the telling of the 10 lepers who were healed. Please notice as you read it, physical healing is not spiritual healing. Physical healing is not spiritual salvation.

If you’re a regular either here or on then you know I write about it a whole lot. And I talk about it often in classes.

But since not even half of the Christians out there know what it is, maybe I better include it here. Now.

The Great Commission

Mt 28:16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

No wonder so many Christians don’t know God!

Can you begin to see the problem? Why so many Christians don’t know God? Why some Christians don’t know God well? And further, why so many so-called Christians don’t know God at all?

Let’s lay out some of the issues, and then go through them.

  • Just over half of church-going Christians don’t know the Great Commission at all.
    • Only 17% of church-going Christians can say what they think the Great Commission means.
    • 25% of church-going Christians have heard of the Great Commission but don’t remember / know what it means.
    • Only 37% of church-going Christians recognized the Great Commission from a list of five “well known” passages.
  • In general, younger church-going Christians are less aware of the Great Commission
  • Some denominations talk about the Great Commission more than others.
  • Given the general lack of awareness of the Great Commission, how much of it is actually lived out in practice?
    • Baptism
    • Making disciples
    • Teaching potential disciples
    • Teaching disciples to obey everything Jesus has commanded
  • Given that the Great Commission is in fact a command, can you now see why so many Christians don’t really know God?
  • Conclusion – a comparison with the Letter to the Church in Sardis from Revelation.

So with that outline in mind, here we go. I will say right up front though I feel these findings are very sad. We, Christians, are supposed to be Jesus’ representatives here on earth until He returns. But are we doing a good job? I fear not. For anyone who reads this, I can only pray it helps to urge us to do a better job. To be more Christ-like. And to go out into the world to fulfill Jesus’ Commission to us, rather than hiding inside the church and just being happy with that.

Just over half of church-going Christians don’t know the Great Commission at all

Something less than half of church-going Christians don’t know the Great Commission at all. That just sounds bad. It may be slightly less awful when we see the definition Barna uses for church-going Christians:

CHURCHGOERS are defined for this sample as those who have attended church within the past six months.

Like I said – maybe some small comfort from that definition. Depending on when the survey was done, that’s probably referring to someone who went to church either on Christmas or Easter. (The research was published in October, 2018, but the article doesn’t say when the survey was actually taken.) And I know, most of them and some of you consider people like that to be Christians. However, I can’t help but wonder, does God feel the same way? Is that kind of effort really in line with what Jesus said when asked about the Greatest Commandment?

The Greatest Commandment – Matthew

22:34-40 pp — Mk 12:28-31

Mt 22:34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Mt 22:37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Just how much love, as in Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, are we showing when all we can do is attend church once or twice a year?  I invite you to check out Are we supposed to Believe God, Believe in God or Follow God? for more on that thought.

To get more insight into that 51% number, let’s look at some of the breakdowns by how much, or how little, that 51% actually knows about the Great Commission. In other words, some of the ways Christians don’t know God.

Only 17% of church-going Christians can say what they think the Great Commission means.

When asked if they had previously “heard of the Great Commission,” half of U.S. churchgoers (51%) say they do not know this term. It would be reassuring to assume that the other half who know the term are also actually familiar with the passage known by this name, but that proportion is low (17%).

We can’t really take too much comfort in even the 17%. Why not? Because the response for them was that they knew of the passage and that they also knew what it meant. Just how much of the passage they knew isn’t known from the report.

Further, there’s nothing to indicate that knowing the passage meant there was any attempt to live it out. Referring again to the article on whether we are to “believe, believe in God, or follow God”, that distinction is important. Head-knowledge is one thing. Actually believing it in our heart is something else. Living it out is yet another thing.

25% of church-going Christians have heard of the Great Commission but don’t remember / know what it means.

Now, let’s move on to the 25% who have heard about the Great Commission, but don’t remember / know what it means. We should not forget what James said about faith. And if we don’t know what James said, now’s a good time to learn. As you read this, remember, it’s about deeds resulting from faith – not deeds to increase faith, to be saved, to please God, Etc.

Faith and Deeds

Jas 2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Jas 2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

Jas 2:20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

Jas 2:25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

Again, the message from the passage is about faith so strong that it causes us to do things. Just as we looked at belief so strong that it results in us following Jesus. Therefore, unless we’re new Christians, we should be asking ourselves, if we don’t even know the Great Commission, just how strong can our faith be? Shouldn’t we spend enough time learning about what Jesus taught to know more about it? Or even know of it?

only 37% of church-going Christians recognized the Great Commission from a list of five “well known” passages.

Taking a different tack, Barna also presented churchgoers with five different passages from scripture and asked them to identify which one is known as the Great Commission. A little more than one-third of churchgoers (37%) correctly identifies the Bible passage—far more than those who recognize the Great Commission in name alone. Nearly all of the churchgoers who indicate they have previously heard of the Great Commission (94%) also select the passage in Matthew 28. The remainder of churchgoers either does not know which of these verses is the Great Commission (33%) or offers an incorrect answer (31%).

I guess it’s encouraging that 94% of those who heard of the Great Commission identified it correctly. It still leaves the question of whether or not they actually knew the entire passage. Also the larger questions related to understanding and living out the command(s) in the passage.

Here are the five passages presented for identification as the Great Commission, along with the percentage of people who chose each of the five. Of course, there’s the ever-popular “don’t know” survey category as well.

PassagePercentage choosing this passage
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Matthew 28:18-2037%
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Matthew 22:37-4016%
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:68%
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Mark 8:345%
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Mark 12:172%
Not sure if any of the passages are the Great Commission33%
Passages presented as possibly being the Great Commission

All in all, rather disappointing. There’s always the possibility that many responses were from new Christians. However, given the care taken to gather representative surveys, that’s really hard to imagine.

While all of the passages given are important, it’s still rather disheartening to realize the disparity between the survey responses and Jesus’ reminder to Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

In general, younger church-going Christians are less aware of the Great Commission

Age also makes a significant difference in whether churchgoers recognize the Great Commission. More than one-quarter of Elders (29%) and Boomers (26%) says they know the text, compared to 17 percent of Gen X and one in 10 Millennials (10%).

As with other churchgoing groups, people in all generations are more likely to choose the right passage from a set of options than to remember it unprompted.

Roughly two in five people among the three oldest generations correctly identify the Great Commission (43% of Elders, 42% of Boomers, 41% of Gen X). Churchgoing Millennials, however, are about as likely to misidentify (36%) as to correctly identify (34%) the Great Commission.

The next line shows us something that’s not especially hopeful for the future.  

Although not even half of any age group knows the Great Commission well, the youngest adult generation is least likely to recognize it.

I’ll show the age breakdowns for the groups in a moment, but it’s important to note that all respondents are called “adults”. Having said that, there’s no indication in the article as to whether there was an age cut-off for responding to the survey. Since they did say “adult”, there must have been some type of requirement.

And yet, even the oldest Gen Z respondent could be at most 19 years old. It’s also possible that Millennials could be as young as 16, given the survey was probably taken early in 2018.

As such, it seems reasonable to expect a greater degree of concern for being aware of their faith that one expects from a child or teenager.

Generation “name”birth years
Gen Z1999 – 2015
Millennials1984 – 2002
Gen X1965 – 1983
Boomers1946 – 1964
Eldersbefore 1946
Birth year ranges for the various generations in the Barna survey.

A bit later, we’ll see that the topic of the Great Commission is brought up to varying degrees in different denominations. While there may be some age differences as far as who tends to attend a church of any given denomination, this may tend to offset that to some degree.

In any case though, it doesn’t bode well for younger Christians. Or for growth in Christianity either. Not knowing that the Great Commission is important may tend to limit just how much Christians talk about their faith to others. That could very well mean fewer new people in church. Statistics seem to bear out the reality of lower church attendance, but not necessarily the reason why.

Ultimately though, I still have to return to the seeming lack of knowledge about Christian faith, beliefs and practices. A dwindling appreciation for some of the core beliefs must come with a corresponding drop in our love for Jesus.

Does too much comfort prevent us from knowing God?

I’m guessing some of you don’t want to hear that too much comfort might actually keep us from knowing God. And yet, history tells us it’s so true. Here’s something from the preface of Surprised by Suffering: The Role of Pain and Death in the Christian Life, by R. C. Sproul.

Those of us who live in Western nations are blessed to a degree previous generations would never have believed possible. For the most part, we enjoy good health, comfortable lifestyles, and security. We do not face imminent threats each day to our existence or even our sense of well-being.

These blessings, however, tend to lull us into a false sense of invulnerability. When we are spared from difficulties over time, we begin to expect that we will always escape hard things. Therefore, if suffering in any of its various forms—disease, injury, grief, loss, persecution, failure—comes upon us, it tends to catch us by surprise. Thus the title of this book.

My purpose in writing this book is that you would not be surprised when suffering comes into your life. I want you to see that suffering is not at all uncommon, but also that it is not random—it is sent by our heavenly Father, who is both sovereign and loving, for our ultimate good. Indeed, I want you to understand that suffering is a vocation, a calling from God.

Sproul, R. C. (2010). Surprised by Suffering: The Role of Pain and Death in the Christian Life (p. xi). Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing.

That expresses my feelings quite nicely. Way too often, we reach out to God in times of trouble. When things are going well, we figure we can handle things on our own. Even when things aren’t too bad, we can convince ourselves we don’t need God. We can handle things.

The problem is this. Those “little” things are our preparation for the bigger things. Our chance to learn to reach out to God.

Let’s get real here. We know it’s true that the bigger our problems are, the harder it often is to reach out for help. It’s too embarrassing. We don’t want to trouble our friends. It’s so bad, no one would want to help anyway. Everyone would just walk away from us, so just keep things hidden.

I’ve had all those feelings. Oh – and the feeling that I’m not worth it, so why ask.

Too much comfort really can keep us from knowing God

So you see, too much comfort really can, and does, prevent us from knowing God.

Sometimes it prevents us from knowing God at all. We figure we don’t need Him. And those who are at least semi-Christian don’t really feel the need to spread the word, because of similar feelings. And if we don’t feel like we really need Jesus, why should we take the time, effort, and risk embarrassment by telling others? So we don’t.

And when we don’t tell others, there’s the very real risk that some, or many, of those others will never know God at all.

That’s tragic. Jesus told us to tell others the good news. The Gospel. But too often, we don’t. And so way too many people think they’re living a Christian life, but they really aren’t. Sometimes, thanks to us, for not telling them anything. But sometimes for not telling them everything.

Conclusion – How can Christians not know God?

Ultimately, who loses when Christians don’t know God? Certainly those who never hear of Jesus. Potentially, even those who think they’re Christian, but really aren’t. For sure, there will be some surprised “Christians” in the end. We know that, because Jesus warned us.

The Sheep and the Goats

Mt 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Mt 25:34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Mt 25:37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

Mt 25:40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Mt 25:41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

Mt 25:44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

Mt 25:45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Mt 25:46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

These days, we think of a GOAT as being the Greatest Of All Time. But Jesus doesn’t look at things that way.

Who Is the Greatest?

9:33-37 pp — Mt 18:1-5; Lk 9:46-48

Mk 9:33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Mk 9:35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Mk 9:36 He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

So don’t be a goat.  Which also means don’t set out to be a GOAT.  Instead, be a sheep.

Image by Maxim Moiseenko from Pixabay

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