In the community in which I am serving as a transition pastor these days, I have encountered many people who are genuinely Christian in their expression of faith. But there are many others in the same community who, though they are familiar with the basic Christian message, are evidently living a cultural form of Christianity rather than experiencing the real thing. Vanderhoof is known for its many churches — one of the most churched communities in the whole country because of the high Eastern European Christian influence in the area. Years ago, many from the same background also came from the United States to seek a better future for their lives here in Vanderhoof. And so there are a number of evangelical kinds of churches in the region as well as a good number of old-style Christian churches.
Of course, I am in no place to judge the depth and reality of anyone’s faith, least of all the people who live in this community. But, in a greater way than ever, it strikes me that it’s possible for people to have a shell or skeleton of the real thing without necessarily experiencing it on a deeper level. That’s because Christianity has been a major part of their existence for so many years. It’s an important tradition of their ancestry. In short, it’s a culture more than a life-transforming experience.
Christianity as culture isn’t all bad in the sense that it often includes a high standard of morality, industry, and strong family values. But it is devoid of the essence of what living as a disciple of Jesus Christ is really all about. Most often, such a cultural form of Christianity is characterized by some kind of church association. There are regular Christian rituals such as meal-time prayers and large family gatherings. It’s important for such to participate in acceptable rituals like baptism. There is also a communal element to such a culture that makes people want to be with those of their own kind. Working hard on the land (gardening, crop-growing, and ranching) is another important value. In this region such industry also extends to forestry. In this context prosperity is seen as a token of God’s blessing. Helping one another in times of crisis and need us likewise an important value. But Christianity is cultural in that it exists in the background as the religious tradition that informs daily life.
Of course, such a way of life is not peculiar to the people of this town or region. For the natural tendency for all of us who have been part of a Christian or religious tradition through several generations (or more) is to live our lives according to commonly accepted traditions instead a living relationship with Jesus Christ. In fact, if the truth were known, it’s the default way of thinking for all of us. Cultural Christianity is the heritage of all who are led by tradition rather than the Spirit of God. It was certainly true of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. The people of His day were also inclined to live their lives according to the “traditions of the elders.” And so it was not surprising that Jesus’ coming inevitably clashed with the cultural liturgies of His day.
It’s the kind of thing Paul is writing about to Timothy in 1 Timothy 3:5 when he describes cultural religious experience as a “form of godliness that denies its power.” In fact, in that context, Paul has a warning to stay away from people like that. Because their real focus is not about true worship. Instead, it seems, their interest is ultimately all about their own pleasure.
Genuine faith, by contrast, is centred in a daily, moment-by-moment experience of devotion and communication with Christ. It’s described so well by what Jesus said in John 15. It is a life that is led by the Holy Spirit, being conscious of His presence and His voice to obey Christ according to what is written in the Word. It is a continuing confession of faith in Christ’s death and resurrection for sin which is accompanied by joy, peace and love in a way that is self-sacrificing and contagious. One can appreciate how it is a special work of God’s grace for any of us to be redeemed from this “empty way of life handed down from our forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18). But when a person comes to experience the real thing through repentance and faith in Christ, the difference is absolutely phenomenal.
Quite a number whom I have come to know in this community speak of living for years under the dominion of cultural Christianity. But on hearing the good news of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ and of coming to believe, their eyes were opened to the great difference. Because the old way of thinking was not effective in delivering them from the tyranny of sin’s strength. Though they had a form of godliness, it was powerless in its ability to give them true freedom.
There is a great need for the general population of this religious town to hear and understand the true nature of the gospel. But communicating that difference would not be an easy challenge. Breaking through a religious culture, especially a Christian one, with the life-changing gospel, inevitably takes the power of God on a much higher level. But by prayer and God’s grace it can happen. And that’s my prayer for the ministry of any pastor in this place.