What Does It Mean to Be Real?

Nobody likes a fake. Even in our airbrush culture, we despise counterfeits and crave authenticity. Everyone wants to be real.

But what does it mean to be real? No one really knows. Or so it seems.

Try an experiment. Listen to people talk about what it means to be a Christian. Do you know what you will hear? Lots of competing answers and plenty of confusion.

Perhaps you recall when 2012 presidential hopeful Senator Rick Santorum claimed that President Barack Obama’s policies were based on “a different theology.”

Reporters, of course, pounced on this juicy piece of journalist red meat. “Did Senator Santorum,” they asked, “have the audacity, not of hope, but political incorrectness, to call into question the president’s claim to be a Christian?”

When Senator Santorum was pressed, he gave a politically savvy response: “If the president says he’s a Christian, he’s a Christian.” End of story. Next question, please.

His answer satisfied reporters, and thousands of others following the story. It was as if he said, “To profess faith is to possess faith.” And what could be less objectionable, or more American, than that?

But one wonders what Jesus thinks of what Santorum said.

More Than Mere Talk

Is it enough simply to say we’re real, or should we be able to see we’re real? And if so, what should we see? Are there marks of authentic faith we should see in our lives, or in the lives of others? And what about the watching world? What should they see in the lives of real Christians?

Now, more than a decade into the 21st century, the evangelical church faces huge challenges to its ministry and mission—radical pluralism, aggressive secularism, political polarization, skepticism about religion, revisionist sexual ethics, postmodern conceptions of truth.

But perhaps the greatest threat to the church’s witness is one of our own making—an image problem. Many outside the church view Christians as unchristian in their attitudes and actions—bigoted, homophobic, hypocritical, materialistic, judgmental, self-serving, overly political. Several years ago, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons showed this in their book Unchristian, which landed like a bombshell on a happy-go-lucky evangelicalism, causing many of us to do some serious soul-searching.

The evangelical church’s image problem doesn’t bode well for its future. In fact, the data suggests that evangelical Christianity is declining in North America. Despite the church’s best efforts to appeal to the disillusioned, we continue to see alarming trends. Droves of people, especially from younger generations, are leaving the church and don’t plan to return. This has driven some to even predict the end of evangelicalism (see David Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism?).

One True Soil

The reasons for this discouraging state of affairs are complex, not cookie-cutter. But we know one thing is certain: When Christians are confused about what it means to be real, the spiritual decline of the church will follow.

In our increasingly post-Christian culture, where confusion about what it means to be real abounds, and where distrust of organized religion has reached an all-time high, the church needs to get real. We must clarify for ourselves, and for a watching world, what it means to live a life of authentic faith.

While Christians are confused about what it means to be real, Jesus is not. “Thus you will recognize them by their fruits,” he says (Matthew 7:20). You know you’re real if you bear fruit, he tells us. Fruit is the telltale sign of authentic faith because fruit doesn’t lie. “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush” (Luke 6.43–44″ data-version=”esv” data-purpose=”bible-reference”>Luke 6:43–44).

Jesus underscores this point in his famous parable about the sower (Matthew 13.1–23″ data-version=”esv” data-purpose=”bible-reference”>Matthew 13:1–23). The parable itself is straightforward. A farmer sows seed in a field, and the seed represents the good news of the kingdom. It is sown on four different kinds of soil, each representing a different response to the message of the kingdom. Simple enough, right? But here’s the punch line: Only one type of soil bears fruit.

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toddwilson@churchleaders.com'
Todd Wilson (@toddadamswilson) is senior pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois, chairman of The Center for Pastor-Theologians, and author of the new book Real Christian: Bearing the Marks of Authentic Faith.