Last week I attempted to outline the daily life and duty of every Christian rooted in the two “great commandments” of Jesus and the kingdom principle of restoration. I wrote:
We enter the world each day as ambassadors of Christ and his kingdom-sensitized to the effects of sin-loving others by seeking their welfare through the proper ordering of things and relationships. We look for and respond to opportunities to bring relief to those who are suffering. We seek the good of others and when possible, we create systems and institutions that serve the common good and promote human flourishing. We work for remedy in the daily situations and when necessary, the reformation or abolition of whole systems that oppress. We disciple people in the Truth, showing them the way that leads to a life that thrives through having a right relationship to God, to self, to others, and the rest of creation.
However, to do this will require many of us to reexamine our attitudes and conduct toward the world and those outside the church. Too often, our attitude toward the surrounding culture and those who make it up is judgmental and condemning. We thoughtlessly criticize anything that isn’t distinctly Christian. When met with opposing ideas, we draw cultural battle lines and those on the other side are considered the enemy. We vilify and ridicule the representatives of “godless culture” and rather than engage with and love the lost, we take offense and withdraw into our Christian enclaves. Practically speaking, many Christians live as if they really don’t like the world or anyone in it!
We are often doing precisely the opposite of what Jesus did. He did not come to condemn the world but to save it (see John 3:17). Sinners didn’t offend Jesus! These were the very people to whom he was drawn and engaged with-the dirty, the broken, the vulgar, and the immoral. Zacchaeus the tax collector was the Bernie Madoff of his day, a traitor cheating his own people (Luke 19). The Samaritan woman at the well was the town “slut” (John 4) and the woman the Pharisees were preparing to kill was actually caught in the act of adultery (John 8). Jesus didn’t condemn these, he engaged them, ate and drank with them, defended them against their accusers-he loved them and because he first loved them, they in turn repented and followed him. Jesus wasn’t afraid of getting “dirty” by consorting with sinners.
In contrast, Jesus was offended by the self-righteous: the religious zealots who sought to keep themselves “unspotted from the world” by having nothing to do with sinners. The Pharisees criticized and condemned anything and everyone who didn’t conform to their standards. If we don’t see that we, too, are sinners-no better than others-then we are Pharisees judging others while deceived about our own condition.
Not only are we frequently judgmental, our thinking has become so clouded by political rancor and the cultural struggle that we refuse to acknowledge any contribution to what is true, good, and beautiful by non-Christians.
I recall publishing an article several years ago in which I praised Katie Couric, who, when asked by reporters if she would travel to Iraq, said she would not, “because a single mother of two had no business taking such risks in a chaotic war zone.” I simply shared in the reporter’s praise of Ms. Couric who “put the well-being of her two daughters above her career.” I received reactions from many Christians who expressed anger at me for praising a “left-wing liberal feminist” like Katie Couric. This attitude is contemptuous and self-righteously conveys the notion that only distinctly Christian conduct is worthy of praise. This is sheer nonsense lacking in grace; for Christians to diminish the good done by non-Christians makes us look narrow-minded, petty and hateful. This certainly isn’t consistent with the attributes of love that are listed in 1 Corinthians 13.
The consequence of this posture is devastating to the church and its mission. As a result, we increasingly find our message and ourselves unwelcome. In short, many Christians are not only rejecting Christ’s command to obey God by loving others; because of these attitudes and conduct, we are increasingly unlikeable! Sadly, this is becoming the predominant view of Christians by those outside the church.
In 2006, researchers at the Barna Group surveyed 16 to 29 year-olds and discovered that 38 percent claim to have a “bad impression” of Christianity and only 16 percent reported having a “good impression.” A full 49 percent reported having a “bad impression” of “Evangelical Christians” with only three percent claiming to have a “positive impression” (Kinnamon & Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity [BakerBooks: Grand Rapids, MI, 2007] 24). Only ten years earlier, a similar study revealed that 85 percent of those outside the faith held a “favorable” impression of Christianity. For the Christian who spends any effort trying to engage the lost, you are no doubt well acquainted with this sentiment.
Fortunately, there is a new movement of Christians rising to counter this condition (you may be among them); one hopes they will change this perception. Gabe Lyons refers to these as “restorers” in his recent book, The Next Christians: How a New Generation is Restoring the Faith. This growing group of believers has taken their impetus from their rediscovery of the gospel of the kingdom. Rather than withdrawing from the world waiting for evacuation, they take seriously Jesus’ command to occupy until he returns. They understand the extraordinary implications of God’s redemptive kingdom come into the world and so they work to infuse the world with God’s love, beauty, grace, and justice. They live, act, and speak as if they are for people and the world because Christ is. Where others take offense and withdraw, they are provoked to engage and remedy. Where others are prone to judge and condemn, they offer grace and mercy. Where others only see the profane, they choose to find the beauty that expresses the creative image of God. As Christians, we should look for common ground rather than focus on differences; we should build bridges that bring us together rather than walls that keep us apart!
Those compelled by their love for Christ and his world are shattering negative stereotypes and seeing the restoration of people and places. They are reaching a new generation through serious dialogue without moralism and judgment and drawing them into authentic communities of faith in Christ. People are in need of hope, not condemnation. As those who follow Christ, we know where and from whom this hope-our only hope-can be found. We are living in a potentially pivotal moment in history. If we are faithful to Christ and that which constitutes true Christianity (see Matthew 25:41-46), we can, once again, become the people of God animated by love and known for who and what we are for rather than who and what we are against.