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 Christianity vs. Biblical Christianity
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…
Superstition / Magic
Tradition / Myths
Feelings / Sentimentality
Dissatisfaction & Discomfort
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.
There are other indications of Folk Religion in American Christianity that do not fit as neatly into this grid.
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 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.
 Neighboring Faith - Corduan