Not an easy task here in many cases. Some Churchgoers are naturally very good people in the human sense. So are many atheists. We are all made in the image of God, so a certain amount of “Common Decency” in most people shouldn’t be a surprise. So how do you tell common-or-garden churchgoers from serious Christians?
We are told in the Bible to “work out our Salvation”; a significant part of this must be a journey into greater understanding of truth, and moving away from whatever cultural beliefs have been absorbed prior to Salvation. For people in the UK one of the cultural beliefs people are almost certain to have is evolution. For people in the USA the belief in Christianity-Americanism-Militarism as a single, integrated entity is likely to be very strong. Moving away from such pre-existing value systems is never easy. As already discussed on the Evolution Page here, most people absorb a world-view from their surrounding culture by their early twenties and will take this view with them to the grave. At least some of this “cultural baggage” will be reinforced by whatever church, group or cult they attend or belong to. Almost every church/group/cult presents itself as the “One Route to Salvation” and all others as likely or certain roads to Hell. Also, almost every Church or other group discourages genuine individual study of the Bible. The view presented is that people will not understand it properly, and should rely on their Pastor, Priest, Theologian, Televangelist or whoever to tell them what it really says. This is a far cry from the wish of William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake for his Bible translation efforts, that “every plough-boy should read it”. Since any plain reading points to Jesus as the one and only source of Salvation, and the Christian life as an outworking of a relationship with Him, personal, unaccompanied, unsupervised Bible study presents a potential risk for any Christian leader who is merely a “Hired Shepherd.” Such leaders will not recommend it, and certainly will not make clear that it is essential.
This is why there are likely to be genuine Christians found in all Churches, though they may be confused and hard to distinguish from those who are not. The road from culturally absorbed beliefs to New Testament beliefs is difficult at the best of times; with such blockages as those described above progress may stop altogether. The Lord, however, knows His Own, and on the Day of Judgement, when all things are revealed to everyone, we will all know. For individuals who feel they are Saved, the question they should ask themselves is “Am I moving away from my Cultural Christianity towards more New Testament based beliefs, or do my beliefs merely reflect those of my peers?” One of the marks of a genuine Christian must surely be that they are lovers of truth, so a desire to always delve deeper should be a part of their makeup.
See “Hats for Women in Church? Why?” for an example of divergence between Churchianity and True Christianity. A vastly more serious split is that between evolution over millions of years and a recent six-day Creation. A genuine Christian may well believe in the evolution scenario if he has never been exposed to the alternative, which is the case for many. However, once somebody has been alerted to the fact that evolution contravenes both the Biblical account and science and has had time to check the facts, a continued espousal of evolution is probably evidence that their Christianity is merely cultural.
In short, sorting one from the other is often a tricky business. For those who attend church, self-examination is vital. For those who don’t, not being confused by the bad witness of mere churchgoers, or even by genuine but still immature Christians, is just as important.