About three weeks ago, my wife and I were driving down the road, and I was talking about some of my concerns with the hypocrisy that is all-too-easy to find in the church. As that part of our conversation wound down, my wife said, “Joshua, look, I know you’ve got a lot of valid points, but you really just need to guard against becoming cynical.”
I would like to have shrugged off her advice, believe me; but here’s the problem: my wife is usually right. So I acknowledged that she had a point, told her I would commit to praying about it, and then I uncomfortably changed the subject.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm about being challenged by my wife, not too long after our conversation, I stopped and really asked myself why I find it so easy to be cynical about the general state of the American church.
To be clear, it’s not my favorite hobby to pick American Churchianity apart, and, in fact, I’m actually a hopeless optimist about the ultimate fate of Christ’s bride, the universal Church. But there are many aspects of church culture that rub me the wrong way and stoke my cynicism. For example, I get annoyed by the fact that many of the church growth strategies out there sound like they were developed by M.B.A. grads from Oral Roberts University; and my brow furrows at the weird, authoritarian, church management structures that look like a blueprint for a dysfunctional, condominium association.
More than anything, though, I think my cynicism is, a lot of times, rooted in a skeptical attitude toward some of the guys who are at the helm of these church communities. They’re the kind of guys who oftentimes would make good litigating attorneys or politicians or CEOs, the kind who love a crowd (extra large, please), the kind who know how to get things done now, the kind who get very testy with those who question their decisions. But it’s not those qualities alone that scare me – in fact, I think they can be good qualities, some of which I share and believe to be valuable, if used appropriately.
I think the thing that really scares me about church leaders is, well, they remind me of myself. Like many of those guys, I like being in charge, calling the shots, and being responsible for executing the big plan. I thrive in a crowd, especially in front of a big crowd. Therefore, I’m sort of terrified of what it would do to me if I were given: (a) mostly unquestionable authority; and (b) a large, religiously captive audience on a weekly basis.
In an interview with Men’s Journal, Hollywood producer David Cronenberg said, “If you’re always being observed, and your presence changes everyone’s behavior, you lose the ability to observe things in their natural state. That’s why huge stars, surrounded by sycophants and hangers-on, end up with a distorted worldview. They never see what’s real anymore.”
I fear that the same could be said of so many religious professionals. I’m even more afraid that Cronenberg’s description would be an accurate one of me if I were a preacher – that I would lose touch with reality as I became a religious celebrity to so many of those in my audience – I mean, my congregation.
Then again, if Scripture is accurate, what seems more likely to be the real issue here is that I have a distorted view of those in ministry, one that is due to a giant two-by-four protruding from my own eye (Matthew 7:4).
If that’s true, there’s a good chance that I have failed to see that most of these guys may, in fact, be like my dad and my brother Caleb: sincere ministers who, like me, are imperfectly learning how to love people and pursue God’s calling. Either way, I get the feeling that going on a witch hunt for the fakes and phonies is a trap I need to avoid for three, very good reasons:
- As I’ve already noted, so much of the criticism and skepticism I have about religious leaders is more of a reflection of my own weaknesses, not necessarily theirs. Scripture makes clear that, more important than ferreting out people’s motives for preaching the Gospel, is to simply be thankful that they’re preaching it at all (Philippians 1:15-18).
- Being a religious critic is not a spiritual gift, and in my life, the fruit of it has usually been to leave me feeling smug, hopeless, or frustrated.
- As I let God be the judge, and I choose to see the best in those who, like me, are feeling their way around in the foggy areas of the Christian faith, I feel myself lightening up a little bit. I find that it’s freeing to give others the same grace that I need as I grow in Christ. Even though we’re called to point out biblically errant teaching or ministry (2 Tim. 3:16), life is too short for me to assume it’s my job to clear up the remaining, iffy areas for everyone.
Now, this is an ongoing work in progress for me. Quite frankly, I’m probably still going to roll my eyes at book jackets that look like advertisements for how to be the most glossy and successful evangelical you can be; and I think it’s okay to tip over the sacred cows of Churchianity and its sometimes-bizarre subculture.
However, as a believer, when it comes to the vast, gray area of figuring out how to reach believers and non-believers with the unvarnished love of Christ, I think it’s probably high time for me to cool my jets, stop trying to become an expert speck plucker, and get my eyes back on Jesus (Matthew 7:5, 14:25-31).