There is a classification of religious critique from within religion – particularly the mainline liberal Protestant tradition that I lump into a giant bin called Hypocrisy. This classification will invariably observe that people leave the church not because they do not like the Christian faith but because churches more clearly follow the values of the dominant culture (individualism, consumerism, dominating power, personal righteousness) than the movement of Jesus followers counter-culturally centering faith and values that are communal, non-violent, servant-led, forgiveness-embracing, and empowering of minority voices.
We are hypocrites. We play power games. We are judgmental. We center our worldview and comfort.
This is hardly a newsflash. It’s been true since… well the original disciples? (Which of us is greatest… should we stop ‘those people’ from doing things in your name?) Acts 6? (Bread to our people first, then maybe to “those” people.) Constantine? (The adoption of the ancient church into Imperial religion.) I have no issue with this classification of critique. And I agree with it as being part of the 21st-century flight from, and disinterest in, organized religion. I don’t have time to develop that thought here but even restricting ourselves to a cursory glance at the American church as it moved from the “idealized” 1950s, struggled with racial and gender biases during the Civil Rights movements, with great notoriety, ran headlong into the very public financial and sexual abuse scandals of the 80s and 90s, followed closely by yet more denominational splits over, well… everything, but most particularly LGBTQIA+ equality. The memes and tweets in question are absolutely right on. And who can blame a person for checking out of that!
I have a single problem with these memes and tweets: I also think they are out-of-date… by about 30 years. I work next to a high school… I get to interact with high schoolers a fair amount. They mostly have zero experience of the church. None. Their parents left for these reasons, and more (or less), but they will largely tell you they don’t go and have never gone – unless its with their grandparents. They didn’t leave the church – they have never been. And when they say things like “hypocrisy” they are mostly just parroting what they have heard their parents say. In fact… today I find many of those same high schoolers are highly curious about the church and faith – but almost like Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the night – they don’t want to be SEEN being curious… or going.
This is why I think one of the greatest callings in 2023 of the church(es) needs to be a return to the evangelism of Jesus (that is evangelism, sharing of good news, done ‘the Jesus way’). I often call it “restorative (or reparative) witness”. The world needs to know – the church is hypocritical… but not more (or less) than they are. And we know that! Furthermore, we are committed to wrestling with that toward a future in which the way in which we are the Body of Christ more clearly reflects who Jesus is in the world. We tarnished that image – and we are called to repair the breach we created. And I think – more than that, I have committed my life – to the idea that not only is the church wrestling with its hypocrisy and seeking to restore its wholeness (our wholeness) a worthwhile thing but that it is an essential reality. The world without the ecclesia (the community… the church) is a much sadder, harsher, and more unjust place than the one with it. And if that doesn’t feel fully true – then make it so!
In the ever-haunting good words of Flannery O’Connor:
“I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it, but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.” (page 90, Habits of Being – from a letter to Elizabeth Hester on how Flannery’s Southern gothic writing is not “in spite of” her faith – but because of it. “If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In and out of the Church it’s the gas you breathe. If I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now” (HB, 97).