My first year planting a garden was a catastrophe. I bought my plants, excited to watch them grow throughout the year. I added some soil to the little plot in my backyard and, shovel in hand, dug out a few spots for cucumbers and zucchini.
A few weeks later, my plants were withered and dead.
Years down the road, I know the first mistake I made when planting my garden: I planted at the surface. See, I didn’t dig down so the roots could expand; I didn’t make room for growth and development. Instead, I just stuck the seedlings in the top layer of soil and hoped for the best. Because of that, the best never came.
The Shallow Christian
Christianity has a surface level too. It’s that top layer of Christian stuff we’re all familiar with: Reading a quick devotion, attending church or youth group, throwing a Bible verse in our Instagram profile, only dating people who say they’re Christians. It’s enough to be different-ish from the world, but not enough to facilitate real growth. In a word, it’s shallow.
The actions themselves are not the problem. Reading the Bible is an essential practice for spiritual growth, as is church attendance. Many shallow Christians don’t even know they are living on the surface; they’ve never been taught there’s more to the walk of faith! No one has opened the door to theology, making it interesting and understandable to them. And no one has told them that knowing God deeply and intimately is the true key to the Christian life.
Recognizing Shallow Teaching
Thus the greater weight of responsibility falls on teachers who continually produce surface-level materials for these believers to consume. The sooner we can recognize shallow teaching, the quicker we can about-face and find something that truly facilitates our spiritual growth. Here are some things to look for:
- Shallow Christian teaching revolves around personal development, character growth, and evidencing fruit of the Spirit without articulating what the Spirit does or how He works.
- It downplays God’s character and concentrates more on our character, focusing on how we benefit from God instead of on the whole redemption story.
- It uses the Word to support a personal, politicized vision for humanity as opposed to teaching us about Him. Granted, knowing Him well should result in a transformed vision for humanity. But if you start with humans and their problems instead of starting with God, you’re going to draw unbiblical conclusions.
How does this affect Christians?
Surface Christianity is often subconscious. We fall into it easily by reading the Bible to learn personal application, instead of the primary way to learn about God and how we can relate to Him. This makes Christians quickly bored by any Bible study that takes effort, and leads them to gloss over “difficult” books that don’t seem to apply immediately to life.
It can also twist their view of God and, therefore, how they understand and relate to Him. They have a hard time understanding the role of the Holy Spirit to lead them into holiness and godliness, because they don’t know what following His leading looks like. Personal growth is primarily by their own strength and self-improvement.
In short, surface Christianity is catastrophic to a life of true faith!
How do we fix it?
By now, we know surface Christianity is more common than we thought. Because it contains pieces necessary to a robust life of faith, many assume this material is enough to “go on”—a solid spiritual diet, if you will. Little do they know it’s spiritual junk food.
To get beyond skin-deep theology to true discipleship, there are several essential steps:
Return to diligent study of Scripture—even the hard parts.
I’m specifically thinking of the Old Testament here. Did you know, when the authors of the New Testament epistles (and Jesus) referenced “the Scriptures,” they were talking about the Old Testament? Everything we know under the new covenant in Jesus’ blood was predicted and planned in the old. And everything in the old was pointing to the new.
There is extensive crossover between the two, to the point at which you can’t actually understand the New Testament unless you study the Old. Remember also that the Bible is ancient Hebrew and Greek literature, meaning it takes work to study. If it doesn’t come easily, that’s to be expected! But the amazing thing about studying the Bible? It’s the only piece of ancient literature inspired directly by God, progressively written and canonized, and designed to draw you into communion with your Creator. That’s incredibly worth the work!
Emphasize the person of God and how to know Him.
Surface Christian materials focus on life application, because we want quick, quippy solutions to our spiritual problems. This isn’t how Scripture is written, and based on how we see God move in the Word, it’s not how He works. The Bible is not a manual we pick up as needed; it’s the key to a lifelong exposure to the heart of God. By emphasizing the person of God in the Word and in His Spirit’s presence, we encourage believers to cultivate an actual relationship—not religious rites or therapeutic deism.
Learn how to listen for God’s voice and obey Him.
The natural outcome of studying the Word is a heart tuned to God’s voice. The Holy Spirit declares truth to us—it’s one of His roles (John 16:13). This doesn’t mean He’s just parroting Bible verses we memorized, though He does bring those to mind. He also specifically leads us to speak, act, and choose according to the principles we learn in Scripture. As we ground ourselves in truth, we learn to discern God’s voice and follow Him into obedience. This in turn results in sanctification (1 Peter 1:2).
Be accountable to a church body.
One of the means of identifying shallow Christianity is an aversion to, or lack of reverence for, the community of faith. Partially in reaction to legalistic churches, surface Christian teachers will encourage seeking God apart from the Body. But this was never God’s intention! From the beginning, faith was to be lived in community (Adam and Eve were the very first faith community: Genesis 1–2. This was followed by Israel, which was a religious state). There are seasons when church attendance isn’t possible (chronic illness, postpartum, and the like). But this should not be our norm. The accountability and discipleship of the church equip us to be witnesses in our world, and keep us accountable to the sanctifying work God is doing in our character.
Growing Beyond Surface Christianity
Half-gospels will be preached as long as we are on this earth, but believers don’t have to settle for them. Instead, use your foundation in Scripture to filter the Christian messages you hear. Teach fellow believers how to discern the true motive for changed character, and how God is the one who works it, not us.
The more women who rise up in dedication to the Word, speaking truth with grace and sensitivity to their hearers, the more people will hear the true gospel and experience the power of God for salvation.
We don’t have to settle for status-quo faith. Jesus died for so much more.
Your Friend, Phylicia
Phylicia Masonheimer is an author and speaker teaching women how to discern what is true, discuss the deep stuff, and accomplish God's will for their specific lives. She holds a B.S. in Religion from Liberty University, where she met her husband, Josh, and now lives in northern Michigan with Josh and her two daughters, Adeline and Geneva. Find more of her work at her blog and on Instagram.