Summary: People's experience with those in the church is often their first experience with Christianity. What are we to say when that experience was less than positive? How are we going to respond?
“I don’t mind Jesus, it’s his followers I can’t stand.” “You wouldn’t believe the way that I was treated when I went to that church.” “I’ve seen the way that Christians act when they’re not at church.” “The church is a bunch of hypocrites.”
What’s your first reaction when you hear comments like that? I think it’s only natural to feel defensive. After all, that’s us, they’re talking about. People in church. We might be quick to point out, “Well, that’s not every church or every church member. Don’t let one bad apple spoil the whole bunch.” There’s probably some truth to that statement, but if we’re really honest, I can see why people might feel that way about church, can’t you? I think of the scandals that have rocked churches and caused people to walk away when they discover that church leaders were embezzling money, or that their pastor who they trusted and respected was guilty of some sexual sin, or when their pastor who seemed to be so devoted to Christ posts on Instagram that he has decided to walk away from Christianity. People who WERE part of a church recall their bad experiences with their fellow church members. How they were stared down when their child made too much noise during a church service. Or how they were “welcomed” with a, “Well, look who finally decided to show up at church today” when they were finally brave enough to come back. Those who have never been part of a church look at the way “church people” talk about and treat each other and then think, “Why would I ever want to be part of that?”
Every one of those things is hard for me to hear. And I think that it is especially hard for us to hear those type of comments because we have heard Jesus’ words in Matthew 5, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:5.14.16). Christians are supposed to be a bright beacon of God’s saving grace, drawing people to come and see the great things that God has done for them. But instead of being that type of attracting light, it seems that too often Christians are seen as an annoying strobe light that people want to avoid. So what are we, the church, supposed to do? Is there anything that we can do?
I suppose we could pretend. I think that’s what a lot of churches try to do. Pretend that we are something that we are not. Let’s paint smiles on our faces and pretend that we don’t have any problems and everyone gets along with each other. But that’s not really helpful. That’s living in denial. Like going to the doctor and being diagnosed with cancer but going home to tell everyone that you are perfectly healthy. Denial is not only foolish, but it can be deadly because then you see no need for the treatment that is available to you. Pretending is not the solution.
Honesty is the solution. Honesty begins by saying to people who make comments like the ones you heard, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that the church has disappointed you. I’m sorry that I or my fellow Christians have done or said something that obviously hurt you. I am NOT going to try to defend or excuse it. Instead let’s just be honest with each other.” Honesty is the solution.
Honesty requires us making judgments of what is right and wrong. The fact that people say, “The church should NOT be acting that way!” means that there is a way that the church SHOULD be acting. And that means that there has to be some standard for right and wrong. There is only one standard that takes our personal feelings out of the picture – a standard that is completely objective. It is the standard provided by God in the Bible, which clearly shows us how God wants to us interact with one another and with him. The Bible does not allow for double standards or denial. It is an honest standard meant to be used by every Christian and every church. So what do you see when you apply God’s standard to yourself?
When we hold up our lives to God’s expectations for us, we see just how sick our hearts and lives have become. We have come to call “love” anything that we want to do and makes us feel good. We have come to call “hate” anything that makes us feel bad about what we are doing. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day how guilty are we of using a double standard for diagnosing sin? One standard for other people and a different standard for ourselves. That’s the type judging that Jesus was calling the Pharisees out on in Matthew 7 when he said, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). Has arrogance ever led us to quickly call attention to someone else’s sin while ignoring the sins that we ourselves are committing? The gossipy whispers, the one-too-many beers, the thoughtlessly using of God’s name that we brush aside and ignore. Why? Because it’s not sinful? Remember that both the speck of sawdust and the plank are dangerous to an eye. Both need to be removed. God’s standards helps us to see both the speck and the plank of sin in our own eye or someone else’s. Yes, God’s standard leads us to see that the church is a pretty sick place, and I’m not using “sick” in a good way. But sick in the deadly sense. God’s honest diagnosis of our hearts and lives is not a good one.