As a pastor and long-time Christian, one of the greatest ironies I have ever experienced is the chasm that exists between the supposed core message of Christianity- the idea that Jesus came to save us from sin and hopelessness with the free offer of saving grace, and to save us for a life marked by unprecedented love that ends in eternity in heaven- and the perception of Christians that people outside the fold of Christianity have.
A survey by the pollster George Barna found this startling result: Just 16% of young adults in America- people in their late teens and early twenties- have a favorable impression of Christians, that they are a positive influence in society. In the same survey, 87% of respondents identified Christians as “judgmental” and 85% as “hypocritical.”
Lest we simply write off these figures as bias or misperception, one of the researchers on the project had this to say: “Going into this three-year project, I assumed that people’s perceptions were generally soft, based on misinformation, and would gradually morph into more traditional views. But then, as we probed why people had come to such conclusions, I was surprised how much their perceptions were rooted in specific stories and personal interactions with Christians and in churches. When they labeled Christians as judgmental this was not merely spiritual defensiveness. It was frequently the result of truly unchristian experiences.”
As I’ve talked to people over the years, one of the recurring themes I unfortunately encounter in those conversations is bad church or bad Christian experiences- some situation where an encounter with Christians or the church created more pain rather than more healing. More suffering rather than less. More tears rather than wiping them away. Or even more doubt rather than more faith. I truly wish I could say that these conversations seem to be the exception rather than the norm, but sadly, they’re not.
One of the frequent push-backs on this data is that the modern mainstream world is more hostile to Christianity than in past generations. That’s true. But the problem is that much of this hostility isn’t rooted in a reaction to the message of the Gospel of hope or to the person of Jesus, but in Christian bad behavior. By contrast, the early church in the Bible was placed in an even more hostile world, but grew rapidly rather than declining, and was remarkably popular amongst the margins of society. The same was true with Jesus. But sadly, the same does not seem to be true with us.
This creates a real quandary: If the Gospel- which we hold dear- is really “good news,” and if Christians are to be transformed by it to become both its agents and its best advertisement, we have a problem.
Here’s my take on it: I don’t think the vast majority of Christians set out to be the negative statistics we see above. But somehow, they- we- end up there. Lots of Christians talk about grace. Apparently, a lot less actually do it. Very few of us would see ourselves or the others in our tribe as judgmental or hypocritical. But the statistics reveal that at the least, we are direly misunderstood, and at the most, that we have become that way somehow. In either case, this is an issue that we need to face unflinchingly and humbly, because it’s on us to shift it.
Why do I think this is? I think it’s because we misunderstand what the grace of God- given to us by Jesus the midst of our brokenness and sin- ACTUALLY is. We have in some way failed to grasp it or have moved on from it. And we have failed to be deeply transformed by it. Tullian Tchividjian, who wrote a fantastic book on the subject, says this: “Too many people have walked away from the church, not because they’re walking away from Jesus, but because the church has walked away from Jesus.”
We tend to believe that grace is for bad people who need to get it together, but it’s for ALL people, even if they think they have it together. Trouble begins when we think we’ve mastered Christian living and no longer need grace- that we’re good Christian people. We Christians don’t live in grace until we supposedly clean up our act, because our act is never clean. We’re not “holy” because we behave well or check a list of boxes. We’re only holy because of Jesus (Hebrews 10:10), and he offers that equally to the people who think they’re good, and the ones who know they’re bad. This is very offensive to "good" people, but there are no “good Christian people,” because we never graduate from the school of grace. We remain in it, receiving it from God continually, and giving it to others.
Over the next few weeks at Newbridge Church, we’ll be digging deep into the Scandal of what God’s grace really is- how it changes us- how it changes our church, our living, and our world. We hope you’ll join us!