Sometimes it seems as if I’m wearing a T-shirt that says, “Tell me your complaints about the church.” My friend Sally works for a nonprofit that seeks justice for prison inmates who were wrongfully convicted. When the cases come up for a retrial, the most dreaded, unfair judge is a man she says is “a conservative Christian.” She asks me, “Why are there so many bad Christians?”
“Why are there so many bad Christians?”
The guy who managed the neighborhood pizza place near my former home on Long Island liked to show me his “wall of shame”—a bulletin board in the kitchen filled with newspaper clippings about pastors doing nasty things. My friend Jenny tells me, “Look, we can be friends as long as you don’t try to convert me. I hate organized religion, especially anything related to a church.” Then on a recent flight, I was having a pleasant conversation with a young marketing executive until I briefly told her that I’m a pastor. There was a long silence followed by, “So can I tell you what bugs me about the church?”
These four people are convinced Christians are mostly bad news for the world. The basic complaint is straightforward: Christians don’t act like Christ. That charge often comes pre-loaded with a litany of specific accusations. Christians don’t care about the poor or the marginalized. Christians are hateful, smug, and self-righteous. The litany often gets historical too. The church led the Crusades, suppressed scientific inquiry, endorsed chattel slavery, supported colonizing native people groups, and has consistently been on the wrong side of history.
What do I say to my friends who hold such raw and zealous anti-church sentiments? Is the church filled with a lot of “bad Christians”? My bare-bones response goes something like this: “Yes, but …” I start by agreeing with them. I say, “You’re right. There are and have been far too many Christians who don’t act like Jesus.” I point to Paul’s call for Christians to exude “a fragrance of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:15). Sadly, sometimes we just reek with prejudice, apathy, injustice, or even cruelty. I resonate with the brilliant 19th-century orator and abolitionist (and follower of Christ) Frederick Douglass, who once lamented, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”
I also remind my church-averse friends that someone else agrees with their quest to expose and vanquish hypocrisy: Jesus. He anticipated and disavowed alleged followers who don’t actually follow His life and teaching. (See Matt. 7:15-27.) Then He listed and excoriated (from the Latin meaning “to strip off the hide”) specific instances of religious hypocrisy. (See almost the entire long chapter of Matt. 23.) Does the church poison everything? Well, no, but when it does, Jesus is likely to turn over tables.
So, with “a broken and a contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17), we should renounce our defensiveness and simply say, “Yes, you’re right. The church has not acted like Jesus—sometimes in grievous ways. Yes, there are ‘bad Christians.’ It breaks my heart, but more importantly, it breaks the heart of my Lord and Savior.”
When I mentioned all of this to my friend Sally, she said, “Okay, that helps, but I want to know about that ‘But …’ as well. What’s the “Yes, but … ?” In light of growing hostility towards not only bad Christians but also basic Christian doctrine, it’s crucial to articulate how and when the church, the embodied and communal presence of Jesus on earth, has also gotten His message right—even beautifully so.
Does the church poison everything? Well, no, but when it does, Jesus is likely to turn over tables.
Sometimes we need a secular ally to help us see the church’s good side. In 2011, the New York Times writer and self-proclaimed skeptic Nicholas Kristof noted that gospel-believing Christians have “been pilloried among progressives as reactionary, myopic, anti-intellectual and, if anything, immoral.” Kristoff calls this “reverse intolerance” or even “reverse bigotry.” After reporting on poverty, disease, and oppression for decades, Kristof came to a surprising conclusion: “Go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith .… I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives in this way—and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties.”
Four years later in another editorial, Kristof echoed his distaste for what he called “liberal caricature of evangelicals.” This time he focused on one follower of Christ—a white-haired medical missionary named Dr. Stephen Foster. This surgeon raised his family in rural Angola and for nearly four decades cared for the poor there—the country with the highest child mortality rate in the world. Again, Kristof extolled the work of Christians around the globe and in the United States.
When I share Kristof’s thoughts with friends like Sally or Vinny or Jenny, I say, “I can show you hundreds of ‘Dr. Fosters.’” I’m not boasting or exaggerating. I’m referring to people and places and stories I know personally. I could start by describing my neighborhood on the east side of downtown Aurora—Illinois’ second largest city. In the mid-’90s, Aurora was reeling from gang-related murders. In 1996 the city tallied 26—three times the national average. U.S. News & World Report claimed that the police were “moving from shooting to shooting so quickly they could hardly keep up, much less close cases.” Then, almost inexplicably, by 2012 the murder rate plummeted to zero.
The basic complaint is straightforward: Christians don’t act like Christ. But it’s crucial to articulate how and when the church has also gotten His message right.
What happened? Of course, there were multiple factors, but many people still point to an unlikely pair of catalysts for Aurora’s healing: a charismatic pastor named Dan and a Catholic priest named David. Dan and David started holding prayer vigils on the exact spot where the murders had occurred. After facing stiff opposition (nobody wanted to draw attention to bloody drive-by shootings), they persevered until people started noticing. The prayer meetings grew. Dave and Dan started proclaiming the good news of Christ, and light finally gained momentum over the darkness.
But then something else happened. During that dark season, dozens of Christians left the security of the suburbs and moved into the haunts of violence near downtown Aurora. They became public school teachers or social workers or pastors. They started nonprofits focused on former felons experiencing homelessness. They planted churches. As a result, gang members came to Christ. Now, over 20 years later, I routinely meet men—like the guy who plows my driveway in the winter for free or my neighbor who works full-time while caring for his family and studying for pastoral ministry—who share similar stories. I was a bad man. I was angry and violent. But then I met the Lord Jesus. He changed my life. Now I sing in our church’s praise team and drive my plow truck around after snowstorms and help my neighbors.
So, yes, with a broken and sympathetic heart, I’ll tell my skeptical friends, “You’re right. There are mean, hypocritical, self-righteous Christians out there. I’ve met them. I’ve been one of them. [That last sentence is crucial.] I’ve spent over 40 years trying to follow Jesus, and I’ve learned at least one lesson: It’s hard. I fail often, and it’s likely that you will too if you sincerely try to follow Him.”
I tell my skeptical friends, “You’re right. There are mean, hypocritical, self-righteous Christians out there. I’ve been one of them. But there’s much more to this story.”
However, at some point I also want to add, “But …” As in: “But there’s much more to this story.” After I walk in the world of my anti-church friends, I invite them to walk in my world. I want to say, “Come with me to the west side of Aurora, where every Tuesday night Christian volunteers spearhead a dynamic ESL class for 125 refugees and immigrants.” Or “Come with me to my church on the third Friday of every month, where our Replanted ministry provides encouragement and respite for over 50 adults who have made the heroic choice of adoption or foster care.” Or “Come with me on Sunday nights to the DuPage County Jail, where Christian volunteers cram into jail pods to lead Bible studies or parenting classes for men and women awaiting trial or sentencing.” Or “Come and meet my friends, the Bishop Benjamin and Gloria Kwashi in Jos, Nigeria—daddy and mommy to over 60 children, some formerly called orphans.” Or “Come with me to Kudjip Nazrene Hospital in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Let me introduce you to eight Western-trained doctors who have waived lucrative salaries (some for their whole career) so they can provide excellent medical care in one of the most under-resourced countries in the world.”
History documents thousands of these “Yes, but …” Dr. Foster-like stories—followers of Jesus saving children from infanticide, freeing slaves, giving dignity to God’s intent for sexuality and singleness and marriage, pursuing scientific discovery, caring for the dying in plague-infested cities, and converting brutal warriors into peacemakers.
Here’s one example. Before his premature death in 363, the Roman emperor Julian was confident he could quash Christianity and reinstitute traditional pagan religion. He just had one roadblock—the church’s compelling moral vision and practice of caring for the poor. Julian grumbled that “the impious Galileans (followers of Jesus) support not only their own poor but ours as well.” He couldn’t beat the “impious Galileans” on their home turf of loving the poor.
The good news of Jesus offers something that the secular perspective can’t—a foundation that breaks the human cycle of hurting and oppressing others.
Shortly after Julian’s early death, a Christian Bishop named Basil founded a new kind of institution to care for the destitute. According to one contemporary historian, Basileiad, as it came to be called, became “a place of refuge that grew so large that it became its own city. It welcomed and housed immigrants, provided medical care for the sick (e.g., lepers), and trained the unskilled for jobs … [It] was the first hospital founded in the Western world. Romans had their physicians and healing centers … but only for the elite. But they had nothing like the Basileiad, which served all who had need, especially the sickest and the poorest.”
It’s important to note why these “Yes, but …” stories exist in the first place. The good news of Jesus offers something that the secular perspective can’t—an ideal, a story, an absolute and unchanging foundation that, properly lived, breaks the human cycle of hurting and oppressing others. The Jesus story as presented in the biblical narrative tells us of a God who has, first of all, created us in His image, with inherent dignity. This God also radically identifies with the poor and the oppressed. Jesus, the Word who took on flesh, was born into a poor family. At a young age, He became a political refugee. He ate with sinners. He upheld traditional views on sexuality and marriage, yet He displayed enormous tenderness towards those who fell short of those standards. After an unjust trial, He was crucified between two thieves. And now He offers to save us on the basis of His free grace, not our righteousness (in other words, smugness won’t help you).
So, yes, Christians (like virtually every other group of human beings on the planet) have weaponized their beliefs to hurt others. But as writer Tim Keller argues, What if the absolute truth and the final story of reality is about the man who was also God, who died for his enemies, loving and forgiving them unto his last breath? Keller asks, “How could that story, if it is the center of your life, lead you to take up power and dominate others?” I would add, How could that story and that Person, if He radiates from the center of your life, not lead you to lay down your life in love for your neighbors and even those who hate you?
Illustration by Adam Cruft