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Needed: Transformation, Not Reformation

In light of a recent poll revealing that only 41 percent of Americans have “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence” in organized religion, it’s time for something different!

One would hope that institutions claiming to represent Jesus Christ would be among the most respectable bodies on earth. Yet a Gallup Poll released in June revealed that only 41 percent of Americans have “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in church or organized religion.” This continues a steady 40-year slide, with no signs the downhill trend will reverse. 

I suspect similar trends exist elsewhere, particularly in the Western, Judeo-Christian world.

Embarrassing lack of confidence

Until 1985 “the church and organized religion” rated highest among the 14 institutions in Gallup’s annual “Confidence in Institutions” survey. But since then it has slipped to fourth place, behind the military, small business and police.

Actually, the entire survey should dishearten Americans. What does it say about a nation when the large majority of its citizens lack faith in the institutions that guide and govern them? The Supreme Court, public school system, the presidency, banks, criminal justice system, television news and big business fare even worse, and Congress ranks last with only 12 percent!

But those institutions are different from religion—none of them claim to represent God! Why are the religious institutions suffering this embarrassing loss of respectability?

One major reason is the string of horrific sins and scandals—from televangelists’ sexual escapades to priests’ molestation of children to the corruption of church cover-ups—that has devastated people’s trust, support, belief and faith. Religious leaders are supposed to help us rise above—not descend into—the worst weaknesses of human nature!

Jesus’ harsh words for hypocrites

There’s nothing new under the sun, though. Jesus aimed His harshest words at the religious leaders who acted very pious but were, as He called them, hypocrites, “whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones” (Matthew 23:27). Their religious practices were highly organized, but their spiritual lives were chaotic!

And long before Jesus’ time, God’s prophets repeatedly emphasized that while each person was culpable for the sins destroying Israel, much of the blame lay at the doorstep of the religious leaders. The Bible abounds with warnings about the damage done, including credibility loss, when church leaders do not live up to the standards they preach.

If Gallup could survey God

It’s easy then—and not entirely undeserved—to blame church leaders or “organized religion,” as some like to label it. But whether we are leaders, followers or outside observers, we have to take care not to point only at others. God also commands each of us to dig deeply within to examine our own hearts.

So here’s a twist on “organized religion” in the form of questions we need to ask ourselves and honestly answer: 

  1. Is my—or my church’s—belief system truly organized according to God’s Word?
  2. Is my personal life and behavior truly organized according to God’s Word?

Or ask it this way: If Gallup could survey God, would He say He has a great deal of confidence that I truly represent Him and His way of life?

This issue of Discern examines the Protestant Reformation, now marking its 500th anniversary, and shows how religion’s leaders and followers alike have failed to honestly address those core questions. That’s why surveys keep telling us something isn’t working—something yet needs to be reformed—in the institutions and people that claim to represent God.

What we really need is not a human-led doctrinal reformation of a church, but a Christ-led character transformation of each individual. One where we will be, as Paul described in Romans 12:2, “transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

Only then can true Christianity begin to take its rightful place of spiritual leadership in the world.

Clyde Kilough


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Discern Article Series

Christ Versus Christianity
Walk as He Walked
Christianity in Progress
Wonders of God's Creation