American Christians Confused About What it Means to Be a Christian

pray salvation Christian

Before His crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, but through Me.”

He claimed to be the exclusive way to salvation and eternal life with God. But according to Pew Research, most American Christians believe they have found a different path.

Self-identified Christians were given a list of items and asked which ones were essential to being a Christian, which ones were important, but not essential, and which ones were unimportant. For most weekly church-attending American Christians, the essentials of being a Christian means doing some good things, believing in God, and … that’s about it.

In addition to believing in God, a majority of highly religious Christians (those that go to church weekly and pray daily) say it is essential to pray regularly, read the Bible, attend church services, be honest, forgive others, spend time with family, help the poor, and being grateful.

When you talk to Americans who call themselves Christians, but don’t go to church regularly, they come to a similar conclusion—except do even fewer things. Less than a majority include praying, reading the Bible, attending church, and helping the poor as essential parts of being a Christian.

Many of the beliefs and actions Pew Research listed as options for what it is essential to being a Christian are good and worthwhile, but they miss the very core of what it means to become and live as a Christian.

When Pew asked an open ended question to see if they had missed any other essential, the answers revealed more problems. More people volunteered some form of following the golden rule (15 percent) than said trust or belief in God (13 percent) or salvation through Jesus (11 percent).

Yes, it is problematic that Pew did not include salvation through Jesus as one of the choices listed, but do we honestly think it would make that much of a difference?

In essence, only 1 in 10 American Christians agrees with Jesus on what it takes to be one of His followers. If you are curious why the church in the U.S. often reflects the broader culture, that’s why. Christians don’t even know what it means to be a Christian.

Apart from Christ changing us from the inside out and the Holy Spirit living inside of us empowering us to follow Jesus and live according to the Scriptures, we have no shot at being substantially and consistently different from those around us.

If you have any position of leadership within a church, you should recognize the discipleship deficit that most likely exists within your congregation.

People are seeing lists of good actions as essential to being a Christian. For them, the core of our faith is living a certain way to please God.

Regardless of what they say, they don’t understand that Christ has already lived that way, pleased God, and offered His life as a sacrifice for our own. We don’t have to be perfect because He has been perfect on our behalf.

Your small group, your friends, your family, and your church need to be assured and reminded that their effort cannot save them. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Until Christians understand that truth, it will be hard to move on to anything else.


  1. The problem with many surveys is in the wording of the questions and in the options for answers.I don’t know if it would have made a difference it this case, but it’s easy to interpret “being Christian” in several different ways. I might read it and only think “the only essential is faith in Christ,” but I can see how people would read it and read, “as a Christian” it’s “essential” that I “believe in God” et al, especially if nothing related to salvation through Christ alone was listed as an option among the answers. There are lots of things we might consider essential in our walk with Christ that aren’t essential to our salvation. In this survey, that’s where it seems like most people took it.

    • I have no real issue with considering numerous things as “essential” to the faith, if a person understands that as “If I’m a Christian, I really need to believe in God, pray, read my Bible, etc.” But you would think they would then say when given the chase, what is essential to salvation.

      My issues lie in the fact that barely anyone chose to volunteer salvation through Jesus in addition to those other things and we as Christians have done such a poor job communicating what it means to be a Christian that Pew, a very well respected research organization, failed to include that as a listed option.

      I think different polling and questions may result in numbers that are somewhat different, but I still believe they will expose a discipleship gap that most churches fail to recognize and address.

  2. Kenneth Chia

    “Apart from Christ changing us from the inside out and the Holy Spirit living inside of us empowering us to follow Jesus and live according to the Scriptures, we have no shot at being substantially and consistently different from those around us.”

    You hit the nail on the head! This is the essence of following Christ. It took me many, many years of church attendance, dropping out, trying out other spiritual practices (non-religious types) only to arrive at this truth which in fact is what the whole mission of Christ was about. It turned my life around,

    And I still wonder why there are so many other doctrines being emphasized by all the churches when only this single one will do the trick. The Holy Spirit will teach and lead us into all things good and blessed. We do not even dare to preach the gospel unless the Holy Spirit has empowered and led us. This in fact was the command on Christ for His disciples just before His ascension that they wait for the downpouring of the Holy Spirit before they are allowed to do anything for Him.

    Getting the Holy Spirit is to experience greater and greater peace and the other qualities spoken of by St Paul, and only secondarily about speaking in tongues, power to heal, so forth. That spiritual peace is the healing force itself and when it heals us it will heal others around us and throughout our living environment. But it takes time if one has not been relating to Christ for many years.

    And then I came to the conclusion that praying continually (well no need to even lift the hands, kneel or whatever but just as often as possible talking to God in thought) for more of His Holy Spirit is the only thing needed. Not for a show of outward power but an experience of greater peace that counters the stressful energies (what in olden times were probably reckoned as evil forces) in a modern society.

    There is therefore this constant psychological battle the we are fighting with the indispensible help of the Holy Spirit and angels that can definitely overcome the negative forces. Praying continually is also about asking for God’s leading and guidance in all things, for His wisdom and not depending on one’s own judgement. How is that to be differentiated? Well the act of submitting to God’s will and wisdom brings this about – circumstances change to move one into the right direction.

    People lose faith in Christ because they cannot feel his power. Same for me for many years until I reckon that in fact every thought acts instantaneously and powerfully on the spiritual level to move spiritual forces. I have much to write on this matter and I feel there is lack of teachings to show people how to grapple with the spiritual dimension. Subtle are the works on that level but how powerfully they impact on people for good or ill.

    Just think of how a negative feeling of guilt unreleased to Christ or bitterness can cause a person’s life to go topsy turvy ; in contrast a feeling of security and peace and forgiveness can definitely work wonders to the quality of a person’s life and en masses on the whole society and the world. These are the spiritual realities to begin with.

    The evil spirits exist and their reality is perceived by us through the negativity we experience. The Holy Spirit and holy angels also exist and their reality is experienced by us through the positivity we experience. We need to keep praying to bring the Holy Spirit and angelic forces into play only because the choice for either good or bad springs from our act of free will that God has granted to us.

About Author

Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.