“The Bible? You believe in that?” Ben asked.

Ben walked into our Lifetree Café today—looking for something. I learned he was a successful businessman, friend of Hollywood stars, estranged family man, and hungry to talk.

“You believe in God?” he asked. Before I could respond he barreled ahead. “The virgin birth? The crucifixion? The resurrection? The ascension? Don’t you find all that a little hard to believe?”

He went on. “If God is real, where was he when the fires killed all those people in Texas?” We had a good conversation. I shared my experience with the Lord I know.

I like Ben. He’s familiar with church, and with “you Christians.” But today he sees no evidence of God around him. Though he owns multiple businesses, several homes, and plentiful wealth, he seems empty.

He’s typical. He reminds me of so many I meet at Lifetree. He graphically represents the spiritual emptiness in our country. And I’m afraid the church as we know it . . . has failed him.

The American church is designed primarily as an academic institution. We seem to think that if we can just get Ben to attend our sermons and Bible studies we’ll solve The Problem.

But what is The Problem? It’s quite academic, we think. We sigh and snort when we see statistics that reveal only half of the population can name any of the four gospels. We fume when we read that more than ten percent believe Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc.

We’ve built a machine to address The Problem—biblical illiteracy. But, the more I get to know the vast majority who do not frequent our churches (and legions of those who do), the more I’m convinced that thin academic knowledge is not The Problem.

What’s more, I don’t think that was The Problem 2,000 years ago when God sent his Son to earth. People already had the Word. What they needed was the One who made the Word flesh. They needed to experience the living God in a real way. They needed to find a relationship with the real God. An authentic relationship that went beyond the academics of the scribes and the Pharisees.

Don’t get me wrong. Knowledge is a good thing. Everyone, all of us, would benefit from more Bible learning. But I just don’t believe the lack of biblical information is The Problem. I know it’s not Ben’s problem.

After Ben shared his deep doubts, I asked about his past. “When I was younger I went to church. In fact, I decided to go to seminary,” he said. “Then at the end of three years of seminary, I realized I lost any faith I had.”

Ben doesn’t believe God is real. That is The Problem.

He knows the history. He knows the doctrine. He’s studied the ancient God of the Bible. But he needs help seeing the God who is still living today. He needs to hear the real stories of real people who experience the real love of the living God.

He needs to experience that love firsthand. And that, my friends, is our real mission.