If this were a prize fight, organized Christianity wouldn’t quite be knocked out yet, but it would certainly be on the ropes and we’d be way behind on points coming to the bell.
It’s no secret that people are leaving the Church in record numbers and although they may not all be rejecting Jesus, they are surely saying no to the faith that bears his name—and for many good reasons.
I spend a great deal of my time each day listening to many of these good folks and they educate me. Based on what I see from where I am and what I’ve learned from nearly two decades in church ministry, here are some ways we Christians are obscuring Jesus and hurting people, and severely damaging our testimony in the world in the process:
1) Vilifying non-Christians.
In the face of attrition and growing public ambivalence, too many Christians and Christian leaders lazily lean back on attack language and war rhetoric, especially with those deemed outsiders (i.e. non-Christians or Christians who don’t fit within a very narrow framework of appearance, conduct, and belief system). This continued manufacturing of an encroaching enemy is designed to rally the shrinking bases, but it’s also something young people are seeing from a mile away—and rejecting outright. They want and deserve a Christianity that is primarily known for benevolence, not for violence.
2) Marrying Jesus and Politics.
The idea that Jesus could be contained within any political ideology is simply heretical and this generation knows it. They seek a faith that is not drawn along stark political lines and they rightly want a Jesus that can’t be fit comfortably within any Presidential platform or voting block. If our religion is going to truly be as big as we say God is, it has to transcend our man-made political systems and we need to speak about our faith in light of this. If we ever hope to accurately reflect Christ to the world, we have to allow his distinct message to exist independently from our partisan affiliations,.
3) Worshiping Christian Celebrity.
People live on Twitter and they understand celebrity worship. They get cults of personality. They engage in blind hero-worship as effortlessly as breathing, and yet they want the Church to be different. They expect something in faith communities that doesn’t always mirror the culture, and when it comes to wrongly elevating people to place of Deity we’re as guilty as anyone. For all our talk about “Making Jesus Famous”, and “lifting up the name of the Lord”, we shower superstar pastors, celebrity worship leaders, and lauded Christian writers with all sorts of misplaced adulation and excessive notoriety that are all little more than sanctified idolatry. We need to redirect our hearts above the platform and pulpit.
4) Clinging to old biases and barriers.
A few decades ago in America, a Christian could discriminate against people of color and claim themselves Biblically justified in the process without a great deal of pushback. Thankfully, time and society have mounted a pointed challenge and as a result, most churches (at least in the public record) have decried racism. More and more though, people outside of the Church are become intolerant of any form of bigotry in organized religion; whether along lines of color, age, gender, income level, sexual orientation, or gender identity. They are demanding a faith that is as diverse as their home and their neighborhood and their workplaces, and they are jettisoning anything that creates or perpetuates inequality.
5) Making an idol of America.
Young people who seek the Jesus of the Gospels don’t want him wrapped in nationalism and flags and star-spangled hyperbole. They recognize the clear disconnect between a homeless, foot-washing, leper-touching, wound-mending traveling street preacher—and the consumerist, materialistic, Times Squared, “Don’t Tread On Me” version of Jesus that so many churches broker in. People don’t want a God that blesses only America or that celebrates megachuches built within blocks of starving kids. Technology has shrunken their world and as a result right-sized it too. They understand their place in the interdependent global community and they seek a religion without borders and bullies.
6) Defending our misdeeds.
Time and time again we find that not only are those Christians who crusade the most vocally on “morality issues” often the most broken, but we followers of Jesus individually and collectively are pretty lousy about accepting responsibility when we fail—especially when we do so sexually. In response to revealed indiscretions, we invariably see disgraced Christians blaming everything from pornography to the media to immodest dress to the Devil himself, instead of simply admitting that we’re all jacked-up, glass house-dwelling hot messes, and we fall regularly too. The one sentence that could change so much but the one that we so often refuse to say to the world: It’s my fault and I’m sorry.
7) Defiantly refusing to grow.
The way some within the Church resist progress, you’d think they don’t have the Internet there yet. Though the past twenty years has allowed an unfathomable amount of discovery, large portions of Christianity have often either pushed back or turned a blind eye to it all. We’ve learned so much about how the Universe works and how our brains function and the age of the planet and the stuff we’re made of, yet The Church too often seems unable or unwilling to incorporate such things into their theology and instead simply ignores it. If our faith doesn’t embrace Science, and adequately course-correct based on what we now know to be true about the world, it will become obsolete to the world.
8) Letting The Far Right commandeer Christ.
For decades in America, the furthermost reaches of the Republican Party have claimed sole ownership of Jesus and made unsavory alliances with the Church in an effort to support their assertion and gain market share. In the process, Christianity has become a weapon wielded by the most partisan segments of the population to perpetuate the kind of Theocracy that Jesus would simply never have supported. Worse yet, many of the nation’s most high-profile Christian figures have continually reiterated this from their bully pulpits. This generation knows that any God worthy of worship is bigger than FoxNews—and we better too.
9) Being Silent Where We Should Be Loud.
Christians hate gays and abortion and that’s pretty much all we hate: That’s the message coming through to those outside of the Church. Right or wrong, it’s the one overplayed song they hear our choir singing. We don’t seem to hate poverty or racism or human trafficking or people not having healthcare or the planet overheating or the US gun murder rates, or lots of things folks expect the people of Jesus to be concerned with, nearly as much. They see how silent we’ve become in the face of so much that burdens them, and they are declaring our religion oblivious, ignorant, or no longer useful.
10) Misusing The Bible.
When it comes to the amount of damage we’ve done in the world, the Bible is sadly our deadliest weapon of choice. We use it to justify wars and to perpetuate injustice and bloody those we disagree with. We’ve ripped it from context, appropriated it for our own political agendas, selectively enforced it, and brutally bashed people over the head with it—and this generation has grown weary of it all. They view the sacred texts of all faiths as a way of seeking and experiencing God and understanding those who seek, but they do not worship those texts as God. They will not tolerate a Christianity that uses the Bible like a hammer unless it is to build something useful.
As I said, many people aren’t really rejecting Jesus. Even many of the most nonreligious folks finds him admirable, wise, and worthy of great respect. They often respond quite well to his teachings and life example, however they don’t find many touch points between those things and the Church that bears his name. If we continue to make the work of social justice an afterthought project, if we continue to build a Jesus in America’s image, and if we continue to move our religion away from the humility and compassion and diversity we see in the Gospels, people are going to keep saying No.
These are real problems, Christian. You don’t have to agree with these perceptions, but they are the ones held by a growing multitude who have grown weary of a faith tradition that seems to have lost the plot. I still believe when someone purely encounters Jesus that he or she is changed forever, yet more and more that is not who they are encountering when they meet us or read about us or walk through our doors.
May we look in the mirror and abandon any arrogance and pride and fear that keeps us from allowing ourselves to be individually and corporately renovated, until the clearest image of Jesus is revealed in us.