One writer recently observed that a certain portion of American Christianity is in danger of transforming Christianity into a “Lifestyle Brand,” as opposed to a true religious movement; that is, to identify as “Christian,” for a growing number, is more about affirming particular cultural markers as opposed to affirming a particular set of doctrinal positions.
The possibility of such a thing happening should not be ignored by those for whom Christianity, as a Faith, is a very serious proposition.
Consider a couple of semi-related points.
The Jewish faith is one of the oldest in the world, but for quite a few who claim to be Jewish, that identity is almost entirely cultural rather than religious. In 2020, Pew Research found that about 76% of American Jews say that being Jewish is an important part of their lives. At the same time, over half of those Jews surveyed stated that being religious wasn’t important at all to them, and more Jews thought having a good sense of humor to be a better marker of their cultural identity than knowing the Law of Moses. According to the Pew Research, this seems to reflect, that being Jewish for many who were part of this data, is a ‘lifestyle brand’ and it is not a religious calling.
Looking abroad at Christianity elsewhere, we might consider the case of Hungary, which considers itself a “Christian Nation.” Yet, when we examine various polls taken of the population there, some interesting anomalies appear. Approximately 76 percent of Hungarians identify themselves as Christians. Yet, only about 44 percent of the population firmly believes that there is a God. If you do the math, that must mean that at least 32 percent of those who call themselves Christians, if not more, don’t actually have a firm conviction about God, which would strongly imply they can’t have a firm conviction regarding the identity of the Son of God. Clearly, for such Hungarians, identifying as a Christian is more about culture than doctrine, for them it is a “Lifestyle Brand.”
The situation in the United States is not quite so bad yet, but for more and more who claim to be Christians there is some indication that particular cultural markers are swiftly becoming more important to their sense of religious identity than any actual set of doctrinal positions regarding Jesus Christ. They seemingly find greater satisfaction in eating at the right chicken sandwich place than they do in having the privilege of sitting down at the Lord’s Table in Communion. They worry more about which political candidate they are supporting than whether their minister is preaching the pure Gospel of Christ. They would rather argue over how to maintain America as a “Christian” nation than they would over the importance of Baptism, Faith, Repentance, or any other such Biblical principle. They are so busy trying to fight various cultural battles that they don’t have much time to partake in the great spiritual battle to which Christ actually calls them (cf. Ephesians 6:12)
To some extent, all Christians must guard against such impulses.
When American missionaries travel abroad, they must be careful that what they are carrying to other countries is not the American culture, but the Gospel of Christ. Which means that we must be able to discern between various cultural inclinations and the actual message that Jesus preached: a message that, though it originated in Jerusalem and Judea, was not confined to the culture of that region but transcended culture so as to be applicable to all the world (cf. Acts 1:8; Mark 16:15).
The message of Christ declares that He has all authority and that He is worthy of our worship, praise, adoration and, quite importantly, our obedience (cf. Matthew 28:18). He calls us to repent of our sins (cf. Luke 13:3), eschew material treasures (cf. Matthew 6:19), love and pray for our enemies (cf. Matthew 5:44), consider others as being more important than ourselves (cf. Philippians 2:3-8), and seek after the Kingdom of God first and foremost in our lives (cf. Matthew 6:33). Such a set of doctrines has and will continue to be, in every place and time, counter-cultural, for they are opposed to the mindset of the world which almost universally prioritizes materialism, self-gratification, and self-interest, or to use the language of Scripture, the Lust of the Eyes, the Lust of the Flesh and the Pride of Life (cf. John 2:15-17). We cannot serve two masters (cf. Matthew 6:24), and if we seek to be a people of our world and our culture, we will never fully be the people of God. Christ is not cultural. He transcends culture, and though His followers will ever dwell in one culture or another, they are well reminded that this world is not their home, they are but sojourners traveling to that place to which they are called.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.