Jesus is becoming less and less a figure to whom people commit their lives. A Barna survey earlier this year found that while 65 percent of Boomers made a personal commitment to Jesus, only 46 percent of Millennials had. They are also 10 percent less likely to believe Jesus was divine, compared to Boomers.
Jesus may be losing his luster in our culture of decreasing church attendance and religious beliefs. Still, I find there is a Jesus who everybody loves, the Jesus who modeled what it means to show compassion to the stranger, care for the widow, bind up the wounds of the hurting, and heal the sick. This Jesus continues to attract admirers and followers.
In a recent article titled, "He's Jesus Christ," New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof took his readers to the Nuba mountains in Sudan and showed them a man who exemplifies Christ himself. In this region that is under constant bombardment from the country's air force as they battle a rebel army, it is the civilians who pay the price, and they would have little hope if it weren't for Dr. Tom. This Catholic missionary doctor pulls out shrapnel, amputates limbs, delivers babies, and performs appendectomies among the half million people who live close enough to the hospital to seek services there. And he does this work without electricity, running water, or even a telephone.
The local Muslim community is incredibly thankful for Dr. Tom. The chief praised him by saying simply, "He's Jesus Christ." Kristof writes, "The chief explained that Jesus healed the sick, made the blind see and helped the lame walk -- and that is what Dr. Tom does every day."
Jesus Christ is living in the Nuba mountains and winning the hearts of the local Muslims. That's the Jesus everybody loves. He is as appealing to Americans as he is to Muslims in the Nuba mountains.
In his newest book, A Path Appears, Kristof tells the story of Willow Creek Church, near Chicago, which had just put together more than half a million packages of seeds for Zimbabwean women farmers. A FedEx driver discovered one package in the parking lot. When the driver learned what it was and how those seeds could help fight global poverty, she told the receptionist, "I'm not a member of any church, and I don't think about religion very much. But I think this is the kind of church I'd like to belong to."
Kristof himself -- who says he's "not particularly religious" -- is often captivated by the committed believers he finds doing Jesus' work in some of the most remote places on earth. "Go to the front lines," Kristof wrote in 2011, "in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith."
But this isn't the Jesus Christians usually display in America. An unintended consequence of the culture war is that many Christians are known for what they stand against rather than what they stand for. One Barna study found that younger Americans view Christians as hypocritical, judgmental, old-fashioned, and overly involved in politics. Only three percent of 16-29 year olds in the 2007 study had a positive view of evangelicals.
If Christians are more and more disliked, perhaps it is because we are behaving like those people Jesus so often rebuked. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices -- mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law -- justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." (Matt 23:23) Jesus says issues of morality are important -- they shouldn't be neglected -- but broader issues of justice and mercy are also essential.
Our job isn't to make America look like Jesus. Our job is to look so much like Jesus that America says, "Wow!" The Jesus everybody loves is full of justice, mercy, and faithfulness, not only outward aspects of morality. These Christians feed the hungry and comfort the grieving. They fight for the persecuted, the poor, and the victim.
Jesus said to "let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven." (Matt 5:16) It is time we in the church show the world the Jesus everybody loves. Maybe then, people will be drawn to a faith that looks like the Jesus it professes.