In the Bible Jesus is presented as the source and sustainer of life. For all of life and all the time. Jesus spoke of this in John 15:5, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” His imagery of a vine and branch connection certainly didn’t allow for a come-and-go sort of relationship.
But how seriously should we take Jesus here? Wasn’t this hyperbole? After all most Christians live divided lives. We give time to Christ on our religious side; and the rest of our time is devoted to family, work, rest, recreation, and entertainment. And our football watching, movies, videos, gaming, gambling, and shopping don’t qualify for this “vine and branch” bond. Jesus, the true vine, is hardly likely to find most of our private pleasures very intriguing. So we keep our two sides of life separate.
Given that tension I just reread an article in my old Ethics files that stirred a question. A reporter, George Cornell, cited George Gallup Jr. in a 1984 report, “Religion in America.” Gallup wrote, “Religion is growing in importance among Americans, but morality is losing ground.” Indications of moral decline came in responses from those surveyed. Most acknowledged ongoing lying, cheating, and pilferage. With most Christians living like non-Christians. The report signaled a broad decline in morality from prior years. And it was true of all ages and social groups.
There was, however, an exception. These were the “highly spiritually committed” within the church: “the studies find that only 12 percent of the population is among the ‘highly spiritually committed.’ Gallup says these people ‘are a breed apart from the rest of the populace.’” These were family-centered, racially tolerant, generous, and “far happier” than the rest of the sampled groups … a fascinating profile!
I suspect Gallup was seeing the truly Christian segment of the churched population—only a modest percentage of the professing American Christians in 1984. To go back to where we started, these are likely the Christians who were actually abiding in Christ and defined by the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5. Or by the “narrow gate” of Matthew 7:13.
I’m also aware of another change in the 34 years since Gallup’s research was published. By now religion is no longer growing in importance. At least not formal religion. I’m aware, on the one hand, of an increasing interest in meditation and various spiritualties. But on the other there has been a downturn in Christian Bible College and Seminary enrollments. And the prospective students who in the past fed these schools are the children raised in, or soon after, the era Gallup surveyed—the era of morally disengaged Christianity.
So here’s a takeaway. Those who are abiding in Christ almost certainly show up—both then and now—as “highly spiritually committed” believers. Their authentic connection with Christ changes appetites and values in ways that makes them stand out as “a breed apart.” But their population percentage in churches still only floats in the low teens … if even that by now.
Yet it’s not a new problem. Professing believers who have a “form of religion yet without any power” were confronted by Paul in 2 Timothy 3:1-5. And Paul also called on the believers in Ephesus to “walk worthy” of the calling to which they were called (Eph. 4:1). Any lifestyle that is unworthy of the name of Jesus is certain to block spiritual growth.
The solution? It has to be the Spirit pouring out God’s love in our hearts—in changing our desires from darkness to light. This was the contrast offered by Jesus in John 3. Where people “loved darkness rather than the light” he came to offer the new life of the Spirit.
Professing Christians who live divided lives should turn from darkness to Christ who loves us. And ask for his Spirit to graft us into the Vine. To walk with Christ as highly spiritually committed souls. As Gallup noticed, it promises a “far happier” life than anything the world offers!