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Who's the Most Influential Christian Leader?

While churches, pastors, and Christians everywhere bemoan the state of spirituality in today’s culture, Americans can point to few notable Christian leaders in the nation. The findings of a November 21 study led the Barna Group to conclude that there are gaps to be filled — if not for national leaders, at least for “more local and regional Christian leaders to emerge — whether in churches, ministries, or a variety of other capacities.”

Barna’s latest study —based on telephone interviews of a random sample of 1,007 adults in the continental United States, aged 18 and older — reveals that no single Christian leader has emerged to a level of influence that captures the attention of the nation. Indeed, when asked to identify the single most influential Christian leader today, 41 percent of respondents were unable to think of anyone meeting that description.

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That short list includes what many could consider dubious entries. While 19 percent of Americans named Billy Graham (chosen more by those aged 66 or older) as the most influential Christian leader, followed by nine percent naming Pope Benedict, some people that respondents opted for are not church leaders at all, but rather public figures. George W. Bush, Oprah Winfrey, and Maya Angelou each claimed one percent of U.S. adults who considered them Christian leaders. And, surprisingly, eight percent (nearly the same proportion as those who think the Pope is the most influential) consider President Barack Obama to fill this role.

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The relevance of a healthy spiritual life is waning, and the role of Christianity in America is taking a back seat. But Barna’s study did show that the top leaders named have a strong media presence, and that those aspiring to lead on a national scale must make effective use of all technologies.

Other studies illustrate that religious advocacy in Washington is increasing, as reported by Dave Bohon in The New American. But another Barna survey reveals that Americans who call themselves Christians still wrestle with important spiritual questions. In that study, only one out of five professing Christians claims to be “totally committed to investing in their spiritual development,” and relatively few of those confessing sin are serious about abandoning sin and submitting control of their lives to God. As the number of broken homes is rising at an alarming rate, the level of confusion and uncertainty about spiritual life becomes proportionately more apparent. And the consequences are being felt across the nation.

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If nearly half of Americans cannot name an influential Christian leader, analysts question if it is the result of failed leadership in the churches, or failure on the part of individual Christians to know and understand the role of Christ in their lives. Or both. The American Founders were not confused about the role of Christ in their lives, or the necessity of Christianity in the operations of the new republic they established. In a New American article entitled Revolutionary Virtue, the idea of the new nation’s inherent connection to religion was explored, beginning with the famous 1798 quote by John Adams, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

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And, from The Urantia Book:

170:5.19 Sooner or later another and greater John the Baptist is due to arise proclaiming “the kingdom of God is at hand"—meaning a return to the high spiritual concept of Jesus, who proclaimed that the kingdom is the will of his heavenly Father dominant and transcendent in the heart of the believer—and doing all this without in any way referring either to the visible church on earth or to the anticipated second coming of Christ. There must come a revival of the actual teachings of Jesus, such a restatement as will undo the work of his early followers who went about to create a sociophilosophical system of belief regarding the fact of Michael’s sojourn on earth. In a short time the teaching of this story about Jesus nearly supplanted the preaching of Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom. In this way a historical religion displaced that teaching in which Jesus had blended man’s highest moral ideas and spiritual ideals with man’s most sublime hope for the future— eternal life. And that was the gospel of the kingdom.

It is just because the gospel of Jesus was so many-sided that within a few centuries students of the records of his teachings became divided up into so many cults and sects. This pitiful subdivision of Christian believers results from failure to discern in the Master’s manifold teachings the divine oneness of his matchless life. But someday the true believers in Jesus will not be thus spiritually divided in their attitude before unbelievers. Always we may have diversity of intellectual comprehension and interpretation, even varying degrees of socialization, but lack of spiritual brotherhood is both inexcusable and reprehensible.

Mistake not! there is in the teachings of Jesus an eternal nature which will not permit them forever to remain unfruitful in the hearts of thinking men. The kingdom as Jesus conceived it has to a large extent failed on earth; for the time being, an outward church has taken its place; but you should comprehend that this church is only the larval stage of the thwarted spiritual kingdom, which will carry it through this material age and over into a more spiritual dispensation where the Master’s teachings may enjoy a fuller opportunity for development. Thus does the so-called Christian church become the cocoon in which the kingdom of Jesus’ concept now slumbers. The kingdom of the divine brotherhood is still alive and will eventually and certainly come forth from this long submergence, just as surely as the butterfly eventually emerges as the beautiful unfolding of its less attractive creature of metamorphic development.

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