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Jesus in America

As Christmas draws near, many find idea of exclusive Savior offensive

By Christina Quick

When Assemblies of God Pastor Gerry Stoltzfoos accepted an invitation in June to lead an opening prayer for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, it came with a caveat: He needed to submit his words of invocation to legislative officials for advance approval.

“They said the prayer needed to be nonconfrontational, nonpolitical and nondenominational,” says Stoltzfoos, senior pastor of Freedom Valley Worship Center in Gettysburg. “That seemed agreeable. I sent them the best prayer I could write.”

However, Stoltzfoos soon received a message from the office of the speaker of the House saying his prayer had been rejected because it contained an offensive phrase. Stoltzfoos could edit and resubmit the prayer if he removed the “offensive” closing statement: “In Jesus’ name.”

Stoltzfoos refused to omit Jesus’ name, and the state government rescinded the invitation. He mentioned the incident to a local newspaper reporter while being interviewed about another topic, and the story became front-page material. Several national news outlets later picked it up as well.

Subsequently, Stoltzfoos has received hundreds of phone calls and e-mails. Most have voiced support for his position, while a few have been angry. He says he is still surprised by the controversy.

“How can the word Jesus be offensive?” Stoltzfoos asks. “I don’t see how it can be a prayer without addressing Someone. That would be like putting a letter in the mail without an address on it. Where does it go?”

Zollie L. Smith Jr., national director of Assemblies of God U.S. Missions, says proclaiming the name of Jesus is the heart of the Christian mission.

“If we are truly born-again, then Jesus lives in us,” Smith says. “How can you deny who you really are? If I deny Jesus, who is in me, by responding to the wishes of non-Christians, then I’m just like them. We have to decide: Does He really abide in us, or is He just another conversation piece?”

Several years ago, Smith turned down an invitation to pray at a public school function after being told he would have to avoid any mention of Jesus.

Smith says Bible-believing Christians must make a distinction between faith in Jesus and the kind of generic deity often touted by celebrities.

“One of the problems we’re facing in the body of Christ is the complacency mentality,” Smith says. “We do not have the compassion for the lost, in terms of eternity, that we should have. Jesus said in John 14:6 that no one comes to the Father except through Him. The ministry is defined clearly in Scripture as the ministry of reconciliation back into a relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ. We need to move from a membership, consumer mind-set to mobilizing Christians to reach those who are perishing — and that can only be done by sharing Jesus Christ.”

A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last year revealed that a majority of Americans who identify themselves as Christians do not consider belief in Jesus a requirement for eternal life.

According to the poll, 52 percent of self-professing Christians say non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life. Among evangelicals who embrace multiple paths to salvation, about a third said Islam can lead to eternal life, while another third said Hinduism may bring salvation. Slightly more than one in four respondents said atheism could be a valid route to eternal life.

“There is a difference between the theology that’s officially espoused by different groups of Christians and denominations and what people themselves believe,” says Greg A. Smith, a Pew Forum senior researcher. “Most religious people, including most Christians, tell us that many religions can lead to eternal life. Fewer people say that theirs is the one true faith and the only one that can lead to eternal life.”

The survey also asked self-identified Christians what determines who obtains eternal life. Roughly 30 percent said salvation is based on works, such as living a moral life. Another 30 percent said salvation is received by faith.

“There is this link between what people see as fundamentally necessary for obtaining eternal life and how open they are to the idea of other religions leading to eternal life,” Greg Smith says. “People who say it’s about actions or actions plus beliefs are more likely to say non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life.”

Zollie Smith says such findings illustrate the need for Christ-centered ministry.

“There can be no salvation, no relationship with God, outside of Jesus Christ,” he says. “Everything we do should be pointing people to a relationship with Jesus so people can receive eternal salvation. Any ministry that doesn’t point to Jesus is a ministry without a backbone, without a solid foundation.”

In a landscape of political correctness and religious confusion, Jesus remains a popular topic of discussion in the United States.

A Harris Poll earlier this year asked Americans to name their hero. Jesus Christ came in second, after President Barack Obama. (In a similar poll in 2001, Jesus was the number one answer.)

Jesus once asked His disciple Peter, “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15, NIV). Two millennia later, many Americans are still pondering that question.

The Internet site YouTube contains numerous video posts in which presumably random people on the street are asked, “Who is Jesus?”

Answers range from, “My Lord and Savior” to “He’s a good guy.”

One young man replies, “The jury’s out on that one. I’m still trying to find my faith on that. I do sing at a church, but spiritually I’m still trying to find my road.”

Zollie Smith says the United States is a vast mission field in which the church must declare the truth about who Jesus is.

“It’s Satan’s mission to steal, kill and destroy everything that’s associated with Jesus,” he says. “If people are kept isolated from Jesus, then Satan wins. Satan knows Jesus is the only way people can be saved.”

CHRISTINA QUICK is a freelance writer and former Pentecostal Evangel staff writer. She lives in Springfield, Mo., and attends Central Assembly of God.

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