Over the last few years I have seen the American church deteriorate into a very angry, vocal, defiant, bitter, name-calling throng with enough division to kill any chance that the command that we be known by our love will ever be achieved. It not only seems, but is supported by numerous surveys of the American public, that Christianity has become known far more for what it stands against than what it stands for. This troubling occurrence and the continual decline in active church membership as well as conversions to Christ leads me to believe that this is again but one more reason for the slide into irrelevancy the American Church is experiencing
For many years I’ve been disturbed by the numerous conversations I’ve held with youth leaders regarding the young people leaving the church post-graduation. A 2011 study by the Barna Group found that 3 out 5 or 59% of young Christian’s permanently or for long periods of time leave the church after the age of 157. As with many I held to the thought it was youthful rebellion and in time many would return. I’m not so sure that that is true anymore. I’m afraid they are leaving as well as many other who are never will even give Christianity a chance and they aren’t coming back.
I recently came across a growing movement outside the church realm know as the Un-Christians. These are young people who have grown so disgusted by a church that is so indoctrinated in the causes they oppose that they no longer can tell you what they support. Instead they speak in clichés and platitudes, with condescending voices that look down at any one who opposes them or will not conform to their position. Unfortunately they take the same position with sinner or saint alike.
These groups of Christians have chosen to break with mainstream Christianity. They don’t identify with any major denominations. They have a very free style of “service.” Many of these people would feel very unwelcomed in traditional church. They have checked out of Christianity because they can’t see their faith in line with traditional church methods. In its place they formed communities of believers who follow the teachings of Christ. They tend to be highly mission oriented in their communities but just don’t call them Christians. They don’t want the baggage that comes with the label.
Recently the author Anne Rice very publicly announced her decision to leave Christianity. In her statement she continued to say that Christ would be the center of her life but, in her words, “It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years I’ve tried, I’ve failed. I’m an outsider.” Of course by that night bloggers all over the Internet were trumpeting her return to atheism with contempt and glee. The fact that she said the exact opposite was forgotten. Who cares what truth is as long as your agenda is moved along.
It was Mahatma Gandhi who said. “I like your Christ, but I don’t like your Christians.” I would suggest that this has become the response of many when considering Christianity. The image of an all loving creator is almost instinctual believable. Maybe it’s part of our DNA. A hidden gene slipped in among millions of others that craves a return to relationship with its creator. I can’t answer that. It is my experience that I have seen very few people without reservation reject Christ out right but add in the element of His followers to the equation and suddenly the reaction turns decidedly negative.
As a pastor I have made it a point to stay a seeker. I study, seeking to know more about God. I pray seeking to deepen my relationship with Him. I also believe that when confronted with a problem we need to seek answers. This is negative reaction to the messengers is not going away. We must face it head on and seek solutions.
One of the first roadblocks to change is the perception of many Christians that we are in a war with the lost. Somehow the battle is moved from the prayer closet to the streets. We have lost sight of the true enemy because just as it is easier for us to live under law than by grace it is easier to line up an enemy you can see and fire away then one only fought with spiritual weapons.
May we remember the Apostle Paul’s warning?
Ephesians 6:12 (NLT)
12For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.
There are two comments that I have come across in my own unscientific research into this problem that concern me but have also given me a roadmap that I share repeatedly with my church. The first comment was from a man who asked me why Christians always seem so angry. The second was this. Why do Christians always seem to be against things and never for anything?
Within these two questions I believe is a key that can move us back to a place where we as messengers of the Gospel can be received. The message may not be accepted but it will be heard. God never asked us to save people. That is His job. He did ask to spread the Good News. Preach the truth with love and grace but without hesitation be available at any given movement to share Christ.
The perception of Christianity as an angry religion has become an almost normal response when the unchurched are asked about the Christian faith. How many of us have heard that same question. Why are Christians always so angry? As America moves closer and closer to being a Godless nation has there ever been a more urgent time for us to become messengers of light and not darkness? Is it possible that are attempts to fight for a moral nation have been in vain because we turned the fight from the real battleground, the spirit, into a battle of wills here on earth? When we walk in the flesh even if our intent is to do the work of the Holy Spirit the fruit will always be flesh.
There is a scripture in the Gospel of John that I think needs a closer examination. It may help us to overcome this perception with the unchurched if we will look deep into its meaning and then take an even deep look at our actions as Christians.
John 8:12 (NKJV)
12Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”
This passage has led me on a very deep personal journey of discovery. It’s a journey that has cost me church members, friends, and the general acceptance of extremists in the Christian church as I have had to redefine what I see the role of a church and a minister in a community. So often the Bible calls us to be the light in the world. This verse goes even deeper. Jesus tell us if follow Him we will have the light of life. I find myself in a constant changing understanding of what that is.
The easy answer would be to simply say the light of life is Jesus but I believe it is far more complex than that. How many of us have run into professing Christians and been deeply disturbed by actions that were as far from the character of Christ as the behavior of a heathen? In the heathen it can be somewhat excused but in the believer, God help us. Jesus only took out His anger one time and it was in the temple when the temple had been taken over by moneychangers. His anger at the commercialism of the sacrifice was directed at believers and their hypocrisy yet we never see Him react in such a way with the lost. If anything His ministry was tarnished in the eyes of the religious because He would sit, eat and fellowship with those that the holy called unclean.
The more I look at the life of Jesus I see pieces to a missing jigsaw of questions that my experience in Christianity has left me. One glaring difference I see in the modern American church that I don’t see in Jesus is this. Jesus spent very little time focused on what He was against. He in the midst of all sorts of political and religious pressure stayed focused on the things He was for. It was in those things, the poor, the humble, the broken and the hurting that the mysteries of the message of grace would be left for us to discover and emulate.
Jesus understood something about human nature. Mankind is draw to unite with those things that stirs passion. For passion to be sustained it has must be a positive emotion. Negative emotions will always end up consuming the one who chooses to live in them. Jesus understood His followers would be drawn to Him, stand with Him and even die for Him not for things He was against but for the things that He was for. His passions were rooted in what He stood for not what He stood against. His followers could see clearly the decision before them and make it based on a belief in what was right not what was wrong.
In America we have become consumed with what is wrong. As an observer and participant of the American church it amazes me at what we find ourselves frequently exerting tremendous effort and resources into. Things that pertain so little to a life of sacrificing for the sake of the Gospel and more and more with our attempt to control everything around us that makes us morally uncomfortable. The unchurched knows all too well what we are against and is rapidly losing interest in ever hearing if we might be for anything.
The price of being for something and not just another voice of dissent doesn’t come without a price. For me it has opened the door for criticism and ridicule by many in the church community I’m a part of. I had an individual come to my office one day and insist that our church become a vocal opponent of the Muslims in our community. He had spent time with some Christian friends and they had watched a video about Sharia law and how it was taking over our country. Because he was a leader in our church at that time I gave him the time to sit and watch the video. For an hour I watched as the commentator detailed the offensives that Muslims were committing against America and how the American church must raise its voice against these atrocities before we were all living in an Arab state. After it was done I sat quietly for a minute and asked this individual what he expected me to do. His response was that we had to get militant. Have special services. Hold community wide prayer services that God would defeat this evil. We needed to take to the streets and have our voices be heard. I knew at the moment this leader was not going to be with me very long after what I was going to say.
I told him this church would not be part of that agenda. This was a red herring meant to distract and in the end cause more division. I asked him to show me through the New Testament that Jesus or His disciples had ever participated in such actions and He protested that times were different. If Jesus were here this is what He would do. I pointed out that Jesus had plenty of issues He could have dealt with in His day but the only thing we see Him really coming against was religious hypocrisy and unfortunately if I followed his suggest this would make a hypocrite out of me. As for this church we would not be joining the mob. He and his family left the church two weeks later.
Being true to what you stand for has hurt at time but I feel more compelled than ever before to be able to articulate and walk out the things that I believe. It is all too easy to become one more angry voice screaming the gospel of hate. I believe that if Jesus was here He would lump these angry, hate filled voices with the hypocrite religious establishment that He worked so hard to reform in the Gospels. The messenger has to stop getting in the way of the message.
I wonder how many of could compile a list of their beliefs. A list that details what you stand for not just what you’re against. After making your list then ask God to help you filter it through the lens of grace. Do your beliefs bring people to the cross where Jesus can restore them to life or do they push people from the cross leaving them more alone in their desperation than ever.
Andrae Crouch wrote these words so many years ago.” Jesus is the answer for the world today. Above Him there’s no other. Jesus is the way.” Maybe like never before in history is this true. Jesus is the answer. He holds the keys to our happiness, to a life of hope and promise. We live in a day in age where people are afraid. Nothing seems stable. At any given moment the wheels can come off the bus and the lives that we try to desperately hold together can fall apart. It is into this world the message of hope found in giving our lives to Christ resonates today the same as it has for 2000 years.
Part of solution I believe with all my heart is a rejection of the Gospel of Hate. The cause of Christ is not advanced through a church that is defined by the things it’s against and despise. It is advanced when we can show the world that our convictions have God’s grace and mercy wrapped hand in hand with those beliefs.
We must learn the power of this truth. We can accept without giving approval. And to the things we can’t approve we can and will walk filled with the love of Christ seeking to be peacemakers not warmongers.
What do you believe in? The world is waiting to hear.
The “What I’m For” List
I’m for the sinner, the broken, the wounded, and the defenseless. I’m for the hungry, the poor and the destitute. I’m for the homeless and the wealthy. I’m for the criminal, the soccer mom and the cantankerous old man who drives to slow and always seems to be in front of me. I’m for my president and elected officials even if I didn’t vote for them and maybe never will. I’m for my critics and will bless those who curse me. I’m for social justice as well as the preaching of the Gospel. You can’t truly have one without the other. I’m for little boys getting in fistfights because someone said something about their momma on the playground. I’m for Democrats and Republicans and those who bravely try to stay independent. I’m for the single parent, the divorcee and parents who work so hard so that their children don’t have to know just how bad things really are. I’m for smooth jazz, love songs and slow dancing with my wife under the moonlight. I will pray for the peace of Israel but I will also pray for peace for their Arab brothers. I’m for religious freedom even for those who don’t worship the same god that I do. I’m for long dinners spent with old friends. I’m for women being used in lead roles in all five positions of the five fold ministry. I’m for not touching God’s anointed, because I’m not the one to judge who the anointed are, and God’s not telling me who is. I’m for loving the homosexual, the sexually confused and the adulterer who has destroyed theirs and the lives of their family by their sin even while not accepting that their choices are right. I’m for the black man, the brown, the yellow man, the red as well as white because the Gospel is for all people and is bigger than the cultural walls that divide us. I’m for the words of Paul. There is no score card when it comes to our sin. Sin is sin…there isn’t one bigger than the other…So I’m for God’s grace. I can’t live without it.
Today I reject the gospel of hate. The angry self-righteous words of those who scream for conformity over unity, ideology over discourse, and homogenized groups over any diversity that may challenge the norms of what they think they know. Most of all I’m for the one named Jesus. The one who when handed the opportunity to render judgment on a guilty woman caught in a horrible sin, chose not to pick up a stone but instead reached down into the dirt and restored her dignity and hope. In spite of the religious community that was trying so hard to take them from her. Today He is still giving that empowering grace. That’s my Jesus, that’s my God, and that is what I am for.