I have attended church, quite literally, ever since I was born.
My mother used to take young me and plop me onto a blanket; I played and rolled over and ate and slept while she taught Sunday School. I can’t remember a time when I was not in the pew of a church on Sunday.
I always knew, growing up, that this was obligatory – the attending-church part, anyway. There was no question of staying home. But I also knew, very early on, that being a Christian and having a relationship with Jesus was something else altogether: a distinct decision that had to be made by each individual. Unlike attending church, I was aware that this was something my parents could not make me do, nor was it something they could do for me. It was something only I could do, and a choice I had to make for myself if and when I felt the time was right – and eventually I did.
Looking back, I realize how fortunate I was. I was blessed by teachers and congregation members who taught me what it meant to develop my own spiritual walk and who gave me control over it. I was made aware, by both pastor and parents, that becoming a Christian was something that I had to do on my own and that my spiritual walk was mine to maintain, to grow and to cherish, even when it had their input. Simply put: I was given the gift (and, more importantly, the choice) of an individual Christian identity when I was very young, and have had it ever since.
I am not sure others are so lucky.
One of the subtle scourges of belief is what I call “inherited” Christianity: when people claim Christianity not because they’ve ever really developed a relationship with Christ or taken steps forward to walk with Him, but because they’ve always sort of been at church and thus assume that’s just what it means to be a Christian, or because since their family is so committed and Christian they assume they naturally are, too. It’s a relationship based on exteriors rather than on interior change or relationship.
In fact, I find the hallmarks of inherited Christianity to be as follows:
- “inherited Christians” often have a family that has been committed to church for a very long time, and likely grew up in or around church
- they have a deep understanding and knowledge of church history, church happenings, and members of the congregation
- they are likely familiar with testimonies of family members, but have no particular testimony of their own or no sense of a moment when they committed themselves to Christ or decided to become a Christian
- they participate a great deal in Christian “culture,” i.e. music, appearances, events, the exteriors of a Christian life, without cultivating any internal Christian experience whatsoever
- they have an exceedingly shallow or non-existent individual relationship with Christ and no interior Christian life to speak of – nothing they can claim as “their own”
The problem with inherited Christianity is that a) it backfires, and b) it prevents people from developing real relationships with Christ.
I’ve lost count of the number of churchgoing-kids-turned-into-adults that I’ve watched drift away from church over the years, and for many of them it’s because they were never really there to start with. They were attending church and participating in church culture, sure – usually at the behest or expectation of their families – but they’d never chosen Christianity for themselves or thought about what an individual walk with Christ might mean. There was no anchor to hold them to what they “inherited”; how can we be surprised they’d walk away and never look back?
Worse than that, I think, are those who remain in the church but never develop a relationship with God that is individual and personal because for them somehow participating in church/Christian culture is enough. For so many, if they’re behaving well (i.e., doing good things, or not doing bad things) and if they’re participating in godly activities, or if they’ve been around this Christian thing for a while, or if they listen to enough Christian music, there’s a temptation to think that they’re arrived: that they’re Christians.
The honest truth is that “inherited” Christianity appeals to many people. Read some devotionals, learn the right answers to questions, participate in a bunch of stuff, and that’s it – you’re participating in a faith without ever really building an individual, personal connection to it. But the real ask of Christianity – the real demand – is a person’s individual relationship with Christ and their individual love of God, worked out through love for their neighbor. It’s something you choose, and then something you have to cultivate through reflection, through prayer, through study, through maintenance over years. And that’s something you can’t just absorb through a devotional, through participating in church activities, or by emulating your family.
We’re deluding ourselves if we pretend otherwise.