“We have seen the enemy and they are us,” spoke Pogo.
“The behavior of Christians, especially Christian leaders, makes the evangelizing of America impossible for the foreseeable future,” says a recent blogger.
In church circles, it is usual to put the blame for a decline in church attendance on the forces of secularism, degenerating morals in society, “leftists,” even, tellingly, on competing forms of entertainment. But in the Devil’s workshop, these are small and primitive tools. The big wrecking bars are all well within the Church. Let’s have a look.
First, and perhaps most defining, is mission drift. This goes in two directions. One is to ignore Christ’s mandate, that we are to go everywhere baptizing and teaching in Christ’s name (Matt. 28:18-20). Jesus commanded us to do very few things. But this is one, and he saved it to be among his very last words to the disciples before the Ascension. In other times and places, Christians have carried out this mandate. It resulted in a Church now worldwide, to the far corners. But the mandate is met here with apathy, “it’s not my job,” and with some trepidation and confusion by people who, while defining themselves as Christians, have no idea what that really means and therefore no clue how to tell anyone about it.
This brings us to the second mission drift. The message of “the Church” or “Christians” to America is often muddled, even sometimes counter to Christianity;
- Pedophilia is not unique to Christians. But it’s existence in the Church, and frequent protection by church leaders, has been so repulsive that any chance for the Church to provide moral leadership or gather seeking followers has been severely impacted. For anyone to do this to children is terrible. For someone in a position which represents God’s care and love to do it is beyond words. Actions taken to minimize damage to church institutions may seem appropriate in the moment. But the only valid leadership action is the swift permanent removal of pedophiles from the ranks of those who have contact with children, and transparent cooperation with both law enforcement and parents in preventing and ending the scourge, along with preventative screening. Because this epidemic has been focused mostly, even if not at all exclusively, on Roman Catholics, there has been some Schadenfreude among others. These need to know that we are all in the Body of Christ, and the whole body suffers the pain of a part. As well, in the public mind, “the church” is involved, without denominational distinction. This may not be what we wanted “ecumenical” to mean, but this is how people see it.
- The actions of the so-called “Christian Right” have an equally damaging impact, especially in the current political scene. Jerry Falwell, jr. has called the current U.S. President a “dream president.” Yet this incumbent lives a life contrary to all the personal moral standards Falwell himself has proclaimed. His serial adultery, prevarication, cheating and hurtful business deals, tendency to urge violence, lack of any Christian connection and massive disrespect for others means that Falwell, Franklin Graham and other Christian-Right leaders have also lost the opportunity to ever proclaim the real Christian message with any credibility. As with pedophilia among Catholics, there may be Schadenfreude among some on this. But the same principle holds, perhaps even more strongly. In the public mind, these leaders represent Christians in America.
The Christian message is of God’s love. The historic centrality of the Cross and Resurrection are because these actions achieve that love. The mission of Christians is to make sure absolutely everybody knows that. The only message Christians have for others is the good news, the Gospel, of that love and how it has been achieved for us. The message of the Church in America at various times has been about various things: drinking, gambling, dancing, abortion, immigration of Muslims, prayer in schools. Some of those issues are simply not part of any authentic Christian message. None of it has any meaning without God’s love.
If there is an impression of a Christian message in the American public mind other than that of right-wing politics at any moral cost, it is that you should be a good person. That Christians believe we are all sinners has been distorted into “Christians think they are better than others, but most of them aren’t, they are just hypocrites.” The message of the sacrificial overwhelming love of God for us has been trivialized into “be a good person.”
In the current mission drift, the Church does not need enemies. She is being self-destructed by those who proclaim themselves to be her leaders. As younger people increasingly vote with their feet to ignore the distorted message, we increasingly lose the opportunity to proclaim the real message to those still listening. The mission drift is not new even if some of the specific issues are. So many people within the Church have the same distorted view as the general public, so the job of Christian formation starts on the inside as much as the outside.
Action needs to happen now. It will not be easy to change public perception of the Christian message, but every year that goes by without change makes it even harder. We have tolerated the false prophets who spew junk instead of proclaiming the love and grace of God to us sinful Americans.
The only hope is to speak clearly and simply of God’s unmerited grace, making clear that if anyone speaks another message from God, they are, in a word, wrong. Unfortunately, a polite evasion of the distinction in the mission message leaves the hearer muddled. Jesus is not muddled. The New Testament is not muddled. It says clearly “God is love.” Jesus notes there are two basic commandments: love God and love your neighbor. We have nothing else to say to people. Only when we are sure that people are clear on this do we dare talk about the details of implementation. Those details have nothing to do with the message of the self-proclaimed current Christian leaders.
God loves us, saves us, resurrects us. How can that message be dug out of the current mean-spirited, judgmental, defensive spirit of so much American Christianity. Note that the opposite of this legalistic Pharisaical religion is not its liberal opposite message of “let’s all just accept whatever and be nice.” Instead, the Christian message is very clear on the reality of the sin of humans in its basic manifestations of greed, hatred, violence, oppression, and destruction of God’s earth and its creatures. It is equally clear that we cannot fix this ourselves. It is ultimately clear that God has chosen to fix this through his love, which has meant a real crucifixion and a real resurrection.
Until we have communicated this, the rest is a waste of time.