There are 4 important things we need to know about Folk Religion, in general.
First, a definition. Folk Religion, is defined as, “Religious cultures” developed by the common people of a particular religion whose belief and behavior tend to deviate from the orthodox expression traditionally held by the religion with which they associate. Folk religions are essentially a blend of formal religion and popular culture.” At best, these deviations in doctrine or deed are innocent, and in some cases, even silly. And at worst, these deviations distort and redefine the formal religion usually resulting in a distinct religion from its original source. Although retaining much of the same terminology and practices.”
Second, an important distinction. We need to recognize that those who belong to a Folk Religion adhere to a belief system that is an inherently illegitimate sub-set of the formal religion they claim. “Folk religion is usually a reworking of long existing beliefs, but within the confession of the major religion.” In fact, this is what separates folk religion from traditional religion, the followers at least profess loyalty to what they erroneously believe to be the genuine expression of a formal religion. Folk Religion is typically embraced when the authentic (historical and orthodox) version of a given religion is not easily believable or fails to solve the tensions, stresses, and problems of human life.
Third, an explanation. True commitment to the authentic system of belief for that religion was either never established or it was jettisoned out of convenience, comfort, and in the pragmatic hope of something that “works.” Ironically though, the adherents are misled into satisfying their own desires by selectively implementing certain aspects of the historical belief system to their lives. In most, if not all cases, as one author points out, “the participants may not be conscious that what they are practicing is, in deed, Folk Religion.” Regardless of how out of step with orthodoxy it may be, their adherence is marked with deep sincerity regarding their beliefs.
Fourth, a warning. Folk Religion’s indigenous or native beliefs are particularly prevalent in parts of South America, Africa, China, and Southeast Asia. However, the influence of Folk Religion is not limited to the primitive peoples in jungles or under-developed parts of the world. Folk Religion is as alive and well today as it was at any time and as real in our country as it is across the globe. If this is the case, there are those (perhaps millions) in our families and in our churches who claim to be Christian, but who are, in fact, adherents to a moderate, cultural, popular, folk version of Christianity, and not biblical Christianity. And only one leads to Christ as Lord and Savior.
Folk Religion is a very real threat to the visible Christian Church today and is particularly pervasive within modern evangelicalism. “This notion is a tough pill to swallow in America and in fact is typically rejected outright without reflection. The mere suggestion is seen as an act of lunacy.” While the numbers have no doubt continued to level off a bit since, “a Gallup poll in 2012 discovered that “78% of Americans consider themselves to be Christians.” A cursory evaluation of spiritual fruit and biblical proof of what James refers to as saving faith, would reveal that this statistic is misleading. It is a gross overstatement. The inconvenient and tragic truth is that much of the visible Church is not observing genuine biblical Christianity, but a sub-biblical version, Folk Christianity.
Whereas legitimate observance of a Formal Religion requires the adherents to completely subject their worldview to the teaching of that religion, “Folk Religions are based upon the existing worldview (of the adherent), into which the teaching of the world religion is incorporated.” This is not true conversion. This is merely decorating one’s own native lifestyle with religious trinkets. But as the saying goes, Christianity is not about just “adding a little Jesus to your life.” Christianity, biblically speaking, is about repentance, turning from a former lifestyle due to a Godly shame of sin, fear of God, and a desire to please Christ. Next, it is marked by radical obedience motivated by love for Him. Scripture teaches that we are no longer our own, but that we were redeemed (bought back as slaves) with the high price of Christ’s blood. As C.H. Spurgeon once said, “if Christ be anything, He must be everything.”
So, what does Folk Christianity look like where we live?
This question can actually be answered somewhat systematically. To recognize the influence of Folk Religion among a group of people or in a particular place, one must identify the characteristics of the popular culture (politically, socially, and ethically). Next, simply cross-reference those characteristics with the basic categories of folk belief (such as Superstition, Tradition, Sentimentality, Dissatisfaction, and Clichés), and take note of the individual folk doctrines that emerge. Just as in any religious belief system, these folk doctrines will make up its own Folk Religion.
Below I have listed folk Christian doctrines based on the following characteristics of our popular American culture…
- Individualism / Privacy
- Patriotism / Nationalistic Pride
- Political Correctness / Niceness
- Human rights / Tolerance
- Productivity / Entrepreneurialism
- Luxury / Materialism
- Efficiency / Results
Superstition / Magic
- A branch of spiritual warfare has emerged among Charismatic circles, within the NAR (New Apostolic Reformation) camp to be specific, that teaches that the Church has a responsibility to put down every demon force that currently controls our world and the kingdom of God will be ushered in. It is at this time Christ will return and rule on the earth. This teaching stems from a dramatic over realization of eschatological events and employs bold, even dangerous, extra biblical strategies of engaging the spiritual dimension. Often referred to as the Seven-Mountain Mandate or Dominionism, the goal is for Christians to transform and take back our nation (world) by destroying demonic rule geographically and by permeating every sector of our society from education and the arts to finance and politics, until we have effectively become a Christian nation (world). Yet, Christ clearly teaches that His kingdom is not of this world and that Christ will return to set up His reign for a thousand years. The earth as we know it will then be destroyed before the creation of new earth and the new Jerusalem, in which Christ will reign for eternity.
- Our culture’s obsession with luxury and materialism has manifested itself in the heretical folk doctrine of Word of Faith or its sister heresy the Prosperity “Gospel.” These aberrant teachings claim that it is God’s will for your life that you be circumstantially happy, inherently denying any semblance of Christian denial. These teachings emphasize the power of the Christian’s words and their faith as over and above the power and sovereignty of God. What is really no more than the mystical teaching of the law of attraction, popularized by The Secret, which teaches that individuals can improve their life in any conceivable way by simply thinking, speaking and believing it. Tragically, this superstition has found a home within popular Christianity and the American church is now exporting its deceitful false doctrines into other countries.
Tradition / Myths
- A common tradition in American Christianity that reveals an affinity for our country is the belief that our founders were all, or even mostly, biblical Christians. Evidence is overwhelming that while there may have been an orthodox Christian among them, the vast majority were deists at best. Over time, with great pride in our Judeo-Christian values, there arose another folk doctrine, that Christians were republican and vice-versa. Until recently, it was taboo to claim to be a Christian and affiliate yourself politically as a Democrat. Despite the reality of separation of church and state, many churches to celebrate our country with a special Independence Day worship service, where an American flag typically accompanies a Christian flag on the stages of these churches while the church continues in worship with an awkward blend of adoration for God and country.
Feelings / Sentimentality
- Not to be helped by the relativism of post-modernity, the American culture, for at least the last one hundred years, has held individualism and privacy at virtues. This has manifested itself in folk Christianity by elevating personal experience over doctrine. While experience certainly has a place in our theology, it has been allowed to go beyond its jurisdiction in much of the Church. Whether it is the wide-eyed and biblical indefensible claims of charismatic movement(s) or simply someone sharing their own flawed, yet sincere, feelings about something spiritual, very little is contested and even less is rejected as false. Within broader Christian culture, it is uncommon that our personal subjective thoughts, feelings, and experiences be treated as less authoritative than and subjected to God’s objective Word.
- Our culture‘s commitment to political correctness and niceness influences folk Christianity in powerful ways when a lost person we love dies. Folk Christians temporarily adopt the heresy of universalism. This shows just how powerful their American worldview is, that it is able to cause a professing Christian to practically deny the reality hell. Obituaries are filled with talk about being angels and watching over from above, presumably in heaven. Funerals led by the Christian family members or even a Christian minister are usually made up of only positive words, lest the dead be dishonored and the living, offended. Rarely, even among true biblical Christians is there a clear plea to repent and believe when the frailty of life and the certainty of death are most apparent.
Dissatisfaction & Discomfort
- There is a subtle yet unbiblical brand of Christian teaching and preaching in the visible church labeled Christian Self Help. When the individualism of our culture is mixed with the classic folk religion characteristic of dissatisfaction with orthodox teaching’s ability to meet felt needs, it is clear to see why this would develop. While unlimited access to so much reading and teaching can be beneficial to Christians today, truly Christian writing and teaching will constantly, faithfully, and accurately point the Christian to the truth of God’s Word. Yet, this particular industry exists because there is a large market of professing Christians who are deeply dissatisfied with what they perceive to be a lack of relevance and practical effect in their personal life. What they believe about Scripture is most likely sub-Christian, as what God has revealed in His Word is evidently not enough for their sanctification.
- Not only does biblical Christianity not fulfill folk Christians’ expectations for their own lives, to them, it does not adequately meet the demands of society. There is obviously much to be said about the impact on society that the Church is to have, and there is plenty of room for that discussion. That said, there is a folk Christian doctrine known as the Social Gospel. Once again, moderate Christianity is convinced that there must be something more than what the Church is called to do in Scripture. Making disciples, preaching the biblical Gospel, loving and serving one another, being salt and light in the world, and loving our neighbor does not quite satisfy. While the true Church, properly gripped by the Gospel, will undoubtedly have a social and societal impact, that is not its concentration. Matters of social justice as well as causes such as alleviating suffering and fighting for human rights are simply ways that the Gospel message of Salvation by faith in Christ (the Church’s preeminent focus) works itself out. Yet, it remains more popular, noteworthy, even pious to emphasize the restoration and redemption of finite circumstances of life over the eternal salvation of the soul.
- The pragmatism as a philosophy of ministry that is so prevalent in churches today is evidence of the dissatisfaction with biblical ecclesiology. Unfortunately, the desire of many church leaders to see more results than what Scripture alone may generate pairs well with our highly results-oriented culture. Here, we see the practical denial of the sufficiency and perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture. In the name of reaching more people, making more money, or increasing participation, effective methodology is studied more seriously than God’s Word and man’s wisdom trumps the wisdom of God. This is typically seen in the attractional nature of corporate worship, punctual and practical life-lesson sermons, and a casual, of not lenient, commitment to personal and corporate holiness.
Clichés / Folk Doctrines
A lack of instruction and discernment leads to silly and dangerous Folk Theology within the visible Church. These biblically untenable doctrines frequently result in clichés that end up on bumper stickers and coffee mugs. Clichés and Folk Doctrines are not necessarily their own category as much as they are the quotable or memorable form of expressly theological misunderstandings that make up many of the above categories.
- “Personal relationship with Jesus.” While our relationship with Jesus is certainly personal. This cliché generally communicates the professing Christian’s belief that their status as a Christian is so personal that it is in fact private. It is also misleading, because it is typically over simplifies salvation, glossing over the weightier elements such as faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and downplay the Christian’s corporate identity with the Church and their responsibility for personal evangelism.
- “God bless America.” On the surface, this seems so positive and spiritual. The reality is this cliché reveals a nationalistic pride that suggests either that our country is uniquely bless-able or that we are not all that interested in God blessing other nations, or at least not as much. At best, its is intended to communicate that due to our supposedly Christian founding, that we are essentially like the modern day nation of Israel, God’s chosen people. And at worst, such “Christian patriotism” presumes upon God’s mercy and mocks His patience. This is because our country has long condoned and even funded inexplicable evil both publicly and privately. America will escape judgment no more than did Sodom or Gomorrah.
- “Catholics are Christians.” This Folk Doctrine is relatively new in America, since perhaps the 60s, thanks in part to the John F. Kennedy administration. Since about that time, what was syncretism, when uniting Christianity and Roman Catholicism, is now deemed merely ecumenism. The protestant reformation has become a foregone and irrelevant event to the American Church, largely because to challenge someone’s faith and to correct someone’s doctrine, is seen as mean-spirited, even if they reject (among other things) salvation by grace alone through faith alone. This is due to both the visible Church’s obsession with politeness and niceness as well as a lack of biblical instruction and discernment.
- “Only God can judge me.” While it is true that only Christ has been given the authority to issue the final verdict, this theological cliché is generally used to deflect Christian accountability within the Church. There are several places in Scripture where Christians are exhorted to guard against sin within the Church, both for the sake of Christ as well as for the sinning believer. This is often when the term “Pharisee” is misused to the same ends. Biblically, a Pharisee is a leader who counts man’s extra-biblical laws as though they are as authoritative as God’s laws. The unbearable burden they put on God’s people were manmade minutia which stripped their obedience of any awe or love for God, making it all about perfect observation to the letter of hundreds of laws God never gave.
- “Preach the Gospel and when necessary, use words.” This pious sounding folk doctrine of evangelism, whether it is a genuine quote or not, has been quick to take up residence among a visible Church who, like our culture, is terrified of offending anyone with the Gospel and its implications about being a sinner and deserving wrath. While our lives can hinder or confirm our witness of Christ, our lives are not the Gospel. Only Jesus’ life is the Gospel. And He was fare more offensive than even many true believers care to really read about in their Bibles. Scripture says that faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ, not by just watching us live our lives. Nevertheless, this has become the evangelism model for many professing Christians.
- “God helps those who help themselves.” This cliché could not be more opposed to the biblical Gospel that states while we were sinners, utterly helpless and dead in our sins, Christ died for our sin. Yet, many moderate and cultural Christians truly believe that God is waiting to see enough good living out of Christians before He really intervenes to help us, provide for us, or before He saves us. This work-based religion comes ultimately from the human heart; however, it is perpetuated by a society bent on ever-greater productivity. It is difficult for us, perhaps more so than for others, to not find our identity in what all we can accomplish, but instead in whom we belong.
- “Churches are businesses.” This Folk ecclesiological doctrine, like most, has a kernel of truth in it. It is true that a church shares a few similar characteristics with business and most other organizations. It has money and people in particular positions of leadership, etc. But even the characteristics that churches share with businesses work themselves out in qualitatively different ways. For example, a biblical church has no concept of earning a profit, its leaders are far more like servants, and its success (or failure) is determined by Jesus and not the market.
- “I am blessed.” There may not be a more overused or more frequently misused word within folk Christianity. To be clear, God blesses and I believe loves to give good things. Once again, the disconnect occurs when moderate Christians use it only to describe how they feel about their positive or much improved worldly circumstances. It seems that even those unsure of their relationship to God are quick to declare they are “blessed,” simply because something in their life went their way. The biblical truth is that Christians are truly blessed (properly translated “happy” or “known as happy”) not when things are good, but despite the difficulty when things are not. Also, we have a spiritual enemy who would love nothing more than for us to be so blessed by our things and the comforts this world can temporarily afford, that we no longer desire to trust and depend on God.
There are other indications of Folk Religion in American Christianity that do not fit as neatly into this grid.
- “I’d like to thank the God / man upstairs” (generally by celebrities)
- “In God we trust” (on our money that we clearly trust in more)
- “Asking Jesus into your heart” (not a biblical idea and misses the point of salvation)
- “Where two or more are gathered to pray, then Jesus will be with them.” (This is actually about church discipline and the authority of the elders.)
- “Every sin is equal in the sight of God” (This is not the case, though just one sin does prove you are a guilty sinner.)
- “Money is the root of all evil” (The love of money is.)
- “Drinking alcohol is a sin” (Primarily in the south)
- “Satan rules over hell and is red with a pointy tale and pitch-fork”
- “Christians will be in heaven forever” (as opposed to the new earth)
- “The Apostle Peter stands at the gates of heaven with a guest list”
- “Jesus was a handsome and rugged long-haired American man”
- “We will live in heaven forever at our prime age”
What do we do about Folk Christianity in the USA?
Two introductory thoughts.
First, there is no such thing as a Folk Religionist, per se, only those who are, to whatever degree influenced by the popularized belief and/or behavior of Folk Religion. Secondly, both belief and behavior, doctrine and deed, are in view here. While both need to be addressed, they must be taken together as they are intimately interrelated. In fact, if the right one is resolved, it will properly resolve the other. If belief is corrected, then the appropriate behavior will follow. This does not work the other direction quite the same way. Behavior modification is may have some merit, but the root of right religious deeds is always right doctrine. And right doctrine, as we know, is only found in God’s Word.
Second, the Bible is the objective standard against which every folk belief and behavior can be judged. However, even those in hot pursuit of biblical Christianity dismiss this in search of something subjective and unhelpful. For example, “Jesus wasn’t merely focused on helping people get their facts straight about God, but actually seeing their lives changed by him. So more appropriate question is, ‘What is authentic Christianity in you?’ Authentic Christianity is not merely an abstraction, but a faith that changes you completely. The expression of authentic Christianity can essentially be boiled down to knowing Jesus and living for his kingdom.” “The proof of authenticity is found in the whether or not the beliefs, practices, and traditions actually line up with knowing Jesus and living for his kingdom. This is how we are able to differentiate between authentic Christianity and Christian folk religion.”  Addressing and effectively extinguish Folk Religion will require far more than the mere use of the words “authentic Christianity.” It will take a profound commitment to the historical, fundamental Christian Faith handed down once and for all to the saints by God’s, His objective Word. It is said of Folk Religions that “they often have no formal creeds or sacred texts.” And while the adherent may object, claiming that they believe the Bible, this is at least true on a practical level.
3 practical steps to take.
Step #1: Parents and Pulpits. Because our beliefs are not our own, the corporate context of the local church and the home is the first line of defense in the battle for Truth, the battle for biblical Christianity. Pastors and teachers must be willing to confront the lies and the half-truths of the moderate, cultural Christianity around them. It is not enough to simply affirm that which is in accord with sound doctrine. Pastors in the church and parents in the home are also responsible for confronting and correcting what contradicts sound doctrine. We must engage in polemics as we content for the faith. See Jude 3 and Titus 1:9. While many leaders and pastors in the Church are simply incapable of discerning error, even many of the discerning ones are unwilling to call it out or correct it. This is the equivalent of a basketball team playing offense, but reusing to run down the court to play defense. The reality is we have an opponent, indeed an enemy, whose ultimate goal is theological deception and whose ultimate weapon is a lie. Our spiritual enemy knows how critical belief is, Scripture teaches of the importance of sound truth, and therefore it is necessary that the Church be convinced that doctrine matters. Because our beliefs are not our own, the corporate context of the local church and the home is the first line of defense in the battle for Truth, the battle for biblical Christianity.
Step #2: Prepare to Proceed. Next, we must prepare to engage with individuals in our sphere of influence by identifying whether the person is a misled Christian or a self-deceived professor. They may simply be in need of discernment and instruction. Or they may have never truly understood their need for Christ, and have only adopted a popularized version of folk Christianity. In this world, there are really only those who are Christians and those who are not Christians, Christ’s sheep and goats. Doing this is important, because it will help determine if a person has put their hope in a false system of Folk Religion or if a person who has put their hope in Christ is being influenced by folk doctrines. It is the difference of evangelism and discipleship. This difference, however, is not always easily identified. And we must keep in mind that we are in the theological predicament we are in precisely because so many are deceived as to the truth of their salvation.
The value of this assessment is that we might know what to expect from their response, how we can pray, and what needs to be said. With believers who have saving faith, but simply lack discernment and instruction, we should be able to expect less resistance and can more easily appeal to their trust in God’s Word and love for Christ. And with those who have truly put their hope in this cultural, moderate, folk version of Christianity, we can expect far more resistance when addressing even the smallest element of their folk faith. Additionally, with those who are lost, we ought to be taken with an urgency we do not have with those who are saved. It is tempting, in this scenario, to be discouraged by their sincerity. After all, they are too. They will most likely be deeply offended because their sincerity is not enough and that someone thinks they know so much more than they do. This is a text book deflection by someone who lacks a true desire for truth as well as a love for Jesus Christ as Lord and savior. In this way, it is beneficial to know whether we need to treat their folk belief and behavior like a symptom or the root of the issue.
Step #3: Engage. Finally, we must engage people with the truth. This should be done in humility and with gentleness and respect, yet without compromising the truth in anyway. The attitude with which we engage these individual is so important that while strategy can certainly be helpful, it is easy to overthink it and end up not actually confronting of correcting the error. With the true Christian, we may start a conversation by affirming the truth of the Gospel with the intention of moving more specifically toward addressing and correcting a particular folk doctrine. This can be an unsettling, yet freeing experience for the growing Christian, and an extremely rewarding process for the teacher.
On the other hand, with someone who lacks evidence of saving faith, we may start a conversation by discussing the origin of a particular folk doctrine and move on from there to investigate their grasp on the biblical Gospel. Regardless of how much humility with which we approach them, and even if we accurately assess their need for evangelism, we run the risk a offending them. We can hardly guard against this. If they are truly unsaved, it will mostly likely be a jarring awakening, not to mention requiring a truck-load of honestly and humility for them to come to grips with the fact that their claims have been wrong for so long. This may be a rare occurrence, but it does happen.
A Final Word.
We ought to remember that not all will be saved, because God has not shown this mercy to everyone. And while many people will perish in open rebellion, many will perish in a state of deception, believing to a certain degree that they will be saved. Further, only God can save by nature of His sovereign calling. This means not even the most gracious, respectful, and strategic conversation will open the eyes of some whose eyes have not been opened by the Lord. This reality ought to lead us to a place of deep dependence on God for wisdom, and prayer that God would work in heart and mind of those with whom we speak.