Many churches will move Sunday morning services out of their sanctuaries and into nearby auditoriums and even sports stadiums. Others will add extra services to accommodate an enormous increase in attendance. But only for one day. Easter Sunday.
Many who would not normally darken the door of a church will feel compelled to attend services on April 15. Some will seek spiritual fulfillment. Others will come out of love for tradition and fond childhood memories. Most would identify themselves as Christians. Yet, for many, the account of Christ's death and resurrection is no more than an inspiring story to provide comfort and hope in times of distress. The word to describe this kind of once a year Christianity" is "nominal," which means in name only, without a corresponding reality.
Missions statisticians like Lyle Schaller and Patrick Johnstone speak in terms of one thousand seven hundred thirty four million professing Christians throughout the world (or a total of 32.8% of the world's population). But how many of these professing Christians are nominal?
The African nations of Nigeria and Rwanda have a long history of missions activity. Phenomenal successes have been reported and no doubt there have been many genuine conversions. Yet recent accounts of horrific bloodshed and genocide in Rwanda among the Hutu and Tutsi tribes (many of whom claim to be Christian) do not reflect the Good News. One Nigerian evangelical, when asked about the large number of conversions reported in his country, compared them to the many rivers in Nigeria—a mile wide and an inch deep.
In the U.S. pollsters report that some 65% of Americans consider themselves born again. Moishe Rosen once said, "If 65% say they are born again then most must be still-born, because there's no sign of life."
It is easy to claim a name, a label. But it is not so easy to follow Jesus, which is the corresponding reality that makes us more than nominal. Jesus told us, "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).
Christians have never been the "moral majority." We are a minority and we are not always as moral as we should be. But real Christians do know what sin is. We know the price Jesus paid that we might be forgiven. Our lives reflect a reality, to a greater or lesser extent, that comes from knowing Him. It saddens us when people use the name "Christian" and do not seem to know the One whose Name is above all names.
Yet, regardless of why "once a year Christians" come to church this Easter, true believers have a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the real meaning of the resurrection of Jesus. Why not invite your friends and neighbors who might be willing to come to church on this one day?
This year the weeks of Passover and Easter coincide. It may surprise some to learn that the problem of nominalism affects the Jewish community as well. Many people, when they think of Jews, imagine bearded men with hats and dark suits praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In other words, they picture the Orthodox community. Yet only 8% of world Jewry is Orthodox.
The vast majority of Jews, from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, are thoroughly secular and rarely attend a synagogue. Yet this month the ranks of those Jewish people observing religious ritual will likewise swell with the celebration of Passover. Many Jews who do not consider themselves religious will travel great distances to observe the traditional Seder with their families.
Some will chant the Hebrew prayers from the Haggadah and retell the story of the Exodus. Others will have the most perfunctory ceremony possible in a race to the traditional meal (something like a Jewish Thanksgiving). To them, the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea are inspiring stories to unite us as Jews and sensitize us to other oppressed peoples. Few see Passover as a marvelous revelation of the power and reality of the God of Israel who is the same today as ever. Fewer still see God's wonderful plan for worldwide redemption through the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Most of my people have never heard of that "Passover-Easter" connection. Just as Easter presents great opportunities to give nominal Christians a glimpse of the risen Savior, so we Jews for Jesus have a great opportunity to declare God's redemption to our people by demonstrating the meaning of Passover. Just as that narrow gate stands open for some to pass through this Easter Sunday, the same gate is open to my people at Passover.
Each of our branches is holding a Passover Seder, which we hope unbelieving Jewish people will attend. In years past, some have always come and responded to the message of the Passover Lamb. If you live near one of our Jews for Jesus branches why not take the opportunity to invite a Jewish friend or neighbor to join you in attending our Passover Banquet?
Many of our missionary staff are also presenting "Christ in the Passover" in churches around the world. Invariably, Jewish people come to these church services, often at the invitation of Christian friends. Some put their trust in Messiah. Perhaps one of our missionaries will be in your church or one nearby and you could invite your Jewish (or Gentile) friends to attend with you. Maybe one will say, "Yes," and open his or her heart to the gospel. Together we can witness and we can pray that your friends will be among those few who find that narrow gate.
In the meantime, we know that most who receive this newsletter are committed Christians. But an article on the narrow gate would not be complete if we did not speak to those few people who agreed to receive our newsletter merely out of curiosity. If you have always considered yourself a Christian, but have never had a life-changing relationship with God through Jesus, if you have never claimed God's forgiveness through the blood of the risen Lamb, won't you take a moment now for a spiritual inventory?
Christianity is not a culture or a memory or an annual trip to church. It is not even being a good person. A Christian is someone who follows Christ, trusting that His death and resurrection have made it possible for us to have forgiveness and peace with God. The purpose of that forgiveness is to draw us into a loving, trusting and obedient relationship with God.
The name of Jesus is wonderful! God forbid that any of us would ever claim it without also claiming the cross, the narrow gate and the difficult way mentioned in Matthew 7:13-14. Does the reality of your life correspond with the label "Christian"? One more thing about that difficult way. Jesus paved that way and He shines His Spirit as a light on that way. With Him as our guide, there is no reason to fear and every reason to rejoice—because our destination is with the One who conquered pain and death forever.