Two months ago I met a man named Marty, and he made a lasting impression on me. Standing in front of the NYMBA on 72nd Street in Manhattan, an old man with a cane approached me and asked in a heated voice, "are you one of those Jews who thinks Jesus is the Messiah?" Behind me was a poster with information about the Messianic Jews who met in the building. I told him no, but that I was an evangelical Christian who did believe that Jesus was the Christ. What followed was a long conversation (more of a one-sided rant), where Marty expressed his intense angst with people like me. I've never seen nor been a part of such a spectacle, and it continued as we slowly traversed the remainder of the city block with his loud voice blending into the noise of the city. Though old (and cranky), Marty had a sharp mind, even acknowledging that he had been a Pentecostal preacher for two years, while not believing the message that he preached. He knew the Bible, quoting portions of it, but believed they were the words of man- no different than what could be picked up at a corner news stand. In many ways, Marty is representative of the large city he lives in, and though he was more difficult to talk to than anyone I can remember having a conversation with, I appreciated his honesty about the worldview he held. He knew he was not a Christian. Rather, he boldly stated that he was an athiest, and I believe him. When a person knows who they are, it makes it much easier to have a productive conversation about truth. Well over 90% of New Yorkers are non-Christian, and though this is nothing to celebrate, at least we can speak plainly to each other.
In contrast, those who live in the Bible Belt are born into a culture of Christianity. This has great upside in that the Gospel is well-known and there are places of worship on almost every corner. It's not all upside, though. Here, Christianity can become a rite of passage rather than the counter-cultural message (foolishness according to Paul, 1 Cor. 1:18) it has always been. Parents assume that their children will be believers, as though they only need to acknowledge the lordship of Jesus, as if it were the same as believing 4+4=8. Both are true, but believing one of these requires a miracle from God. We preach, teach, persuade, and plead with men, women, and children to come to Christ and trust in the Gospel, but only God can wake the dead. He alone has power over life and death- many times in Scripture demonstrating his authority, ultimately in the raising of our Lord. His power over the physical realm also reaches into the spiritual. Deadness pervades here unless the God of life raises a man from the grave (Ephesians 2:1-6). Being inculcated in a culture cannot do this. The Jews grew tired of manna in the days of Moses and grumbled, and without any distinctive noise, many hearts in our pews have slowly hardened to a a message of joy because they believe they ate the bread long ago, and have no use for it anymore. Sadly, many will realize they never ate at all, because they put on the outside covering without experiencing inward change wrought by God through faith. We can't assure anyone of their conversion by pointing to one day long ago where they felt emotional about Christ or the Gospel. He himself taught that some who experienced initial joy would fall away for lack of root and pressures from the world (Matthew 13:20-21). Therefore, Scripture seeks to give assurance based on the evidence of one's life (1 John is full of this language) and the endurance of faith until the end (1 Corinthians 9:24-10:14; Hebrews 6:4-9). A new nature will bring forth different fruit.
It's been said by researchers that as many as 50% of our church members are non-regenerate (seems high doesn't it?). Though (hopefully) hearing it every week, they need the Gospel as much as Marty does. Each requires a mighty act of God to come to faith, but at least one knows he's not a Christian.