Flabby, fruitless faith

Do you spend more time talking about faith than exercising it?

Issue: "Summer Travel 2001," May 12, 2001

What if the faith-based ministries of our society, all ready now to enlarge their role in a variety of social and educational tasks in our society, run out of faith on the way to their jobs?

We've heard lots of worries about all the dangers that might accompany government subsidies for such work. We've heard fretting about the government's possible banning of religious expression. And to a certain extent, those are legitimate concerns.

My biggest worry, however, is that people and organizations who think they are full of faith may get out on the highway only to discover they're running on empty.

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For the real inhibitions to fruitfulness for Christians in North America, and all the ministries they're involved in, haven't primarily been financial. The biggest problem has more typically been that we simply haven't been internally motivated and adequately disciplined to get about our task. We've talked a good game about our faith, but in case after case, the works haven't been there to validate what we said we believed. The Bible says that faith without works is dead. And no amount of government funding will bring faith like that to life again.

We're like a baseball team of terribly out-of-practice, overweight, under-conditioned players who think that just because someone scheduled a night for us in a big stadium, we're ready to play. We're energized with a nostalgic love of the game. But we're a long ways from being whipped into shape as a team.

I think businessman Jim Russell of Lansing, Mich., is on to something when he suggests that Christians in North America have adopted a truncated view of the Great Commission of Jesus. We've concentrated on the evangelistic part of Christ's instructions, says Mr. Russell, but largely ignored the discipleship part. The result is that we have a decently knowledgeable but terribly undisciplined army of people milling about, yet not getting a whole lot done for the kingdom. They're all convinced they're covered by "saving faith"-but that faith isn't doing much.

Mr. Russell is eager to see Christian faith activated. "A disciple," he says, "is an obedient follower of Jesus Christ who is actively engaged in making disciples by teaching obedience to everything Jesus commanded in self, family, congregation, and neighborhood." To that end, Mr. Russell and some of his friends have developed an insightful but practical plan called "A Discipled Nation in This Generation." The plan includes a brief list of commitments that every Christian ought to take seriously in the respective arenas of self, family, congregation, and neighborhood. There are fewer than a dozen items on each of the four lists-but if even several thousand Christians in America took those commitments seriously, the country would almost certainly be turned upside down faster than you can say "disciple."

And now that same program (I hesitate to use the word program, because it fosters such understandable cynicism among those who think we're already programmed to death) has been put into a form easily useable by adult Sunday school groups who are "weary of ever-learning but never-doing." The simple curriculum allows such groups to reflect not just on the faith they profess, but on practical means to apply that faith in real-life situations around them.

I have come to trust Mr. Russell through the years because of his

low-key but effective insistence on translating theory into action. On another front, he has almost single-handedly unleashed a powerful journalistic force throughout the world through his annual "Amy Writing Awards," a series of significant cash prizes honoring effective writing by Christians in the secular press. Because of the incentives he has offered, hundreds of Christians have scurried to take their writing out of the evangelical ghetto into a broader marketplace of ideas. The effort has met with notable success.

The "Discipled Nation Plan" curriculum carries the same Russell trademark of modesty, simplicity, and effectiveness in getting the job done. It takes the local church very seriously. I rarely use this space to promote specific products or organizations. But this is an idea I think deserves checking out. You're not being asked to become a donor, or to support a big new staff for a national organization, or to buy bricks and mortar for a new headquarters building. You can get more information by checking amyfound.org on the Internet or writing the Amy Foundation, Box 16091, Lansing, MI 48901.

If you don't pursue the "Discipled Nation Plan," at least check your own fuel gauge sometime soon. Then ask yourself honestly whether you're one of those people who spends more time talking about your faith than you do exercising it.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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