A well-known theologian, after a tour of local churches, was shocked and appalled at the "deplorable, miserable conditions" he found there. He lamented that the common churchgoer knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach. Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament even though they do not know the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments.

The theologian was Martin Luther. And the occasion prompted him to pen his Small Catechism. Some would say that the "deplorable, miserable" conditions of 16th-century German Christianity match remarkably those of contemporary American evangelicalism!

I don't know that I'd go that far, but it seems that every month a new study suggests that some aspects of our movement are deplorable indeed. In a 2004 Gallup study of 1,000 American teens, nearly 60 percent of those who self-identified as evangelical were not able to correctly identify Cain as the one who said, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Over half could not identify either "Blessed are the poor in spirit" as a quote from the Sermon on the Mount, or the road to Damascus as the place where Paul received his blinding vision. Summarizing a 2009 study on spiritual maturity, Barna Group reported that "one of the widely embraced notions about spiritual health is that it means 'trying hard to follow the rules described in the Bible.'" Barna also found that four out of five self-described born-again Christians concurred that spiritual maturity is "trying hard to follow the rules."

Many evangelicals know better, but many do not. And as each generation of believers comes forth into the world, so grows the challenge to help the faithful gain a solid footing in the historical faith. Without that footing, we will be tossed to and fro by the winds of culture, and quickly exhaust ourselves in serving God and neighbor.

This has been a concern of Christianity Today since its founding. In our first issue 55 years ago, Carl F. H. Henry proclaimed that in CT, "the doctrinal content of historic Christianity will be presented and defended." And, I would add, presented to show its ongoing relevance for the life of faith.

For the next five years, we will take a more systematic and comprehensive approach to the task of forming believers in the faith. You can read more about the new initiative in "Making Disciples Today". If all goes well, we may just cause old Martin Luther to roll over in his grave!

Next month: Wheaton College scholar Amy Black describes what Christian political engagement might look like, Fuller Seminary professor Veli Kärkkäinen outlines what, in light of Jesus, it means to be human, and we'll announce the annual CT book and music awards.

Related Elsewhere:

See the column "Making Disciples Today: Christianity Today's New Global Gospel Project" for an introduction to our new five-year teaching venture, the Global Gospel Project, and read the first article in the series, "Why We Need Jesus."

Check back for more stories from our December issue.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.