Bishop William Temple once said, “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” It’s a nice sentiment, isn’t it? Perhaps attempting to echo the teachings of Jesus from places like Mark 2:17 (“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”) and his many parables about the Kingdom of God (like that of The Great Banquet – Luke 14:12-24), this quote reminds us that the mission of the Church is to go out into the world to make disciples. In so doing, more and more people will have peace with God and be made whole.
So why does it seem like becoming a part of a church can often be so, well – difficult? In his recent book The Second Mountain, author David Brooks describes what some might call a conversion to Christianity, or what others (myself included) would call a spiritual journey toward embracing Christianity. When it came to actually interacting with Christian people and Christian institutions, Brooks describes his journey in this way:
“I was on a journey toward God, and I found out pretty quickly along the way that religious people and institutions sometimes built ramps that made it easier to continue my journey, or they built walls, making the journey harder. I found that many of the walls in the Christian world were caused by the combination of an intellectual inferiority complex combined with a spiritual superiority complex. I found that Christians, especially of the Protestant evangelical variety, are plagued by the sensation that they are not quite as intellectually rigorous or as cool as the secular world. At the same time, many of them are inflated by the notion that they are a quantum leap or two more moral.”
Yikes! In a future post I will explore some of the ramps he found that made it easier to interact with Christians and their churches. In this post, I want to explore the four walls – or barriers – that Brooks discovered in his experience and discuss some of the applications it might have for our churches.
- The Siege Mentality
“Many Christians notice that there are widening gaps between their values and secular values, especially on matters of sexuality. This can slip quickly into a sense of collective victimhood…We have to withdraw into the purity of our enclave…Pretty soon Christianity isn’t a humble faith; it’s a fighting brigade in the culture war. “Evangelical” stops being an adjective and turns into a noun, a tribe. Pretty soon the ends justify the means – anything to defend the tribe.”
Tribalism is actually the dark twin of community. Community is connection based on mutual affection, while tribalism is connection based on mutual hatred. Community is based on common humanity, tribalism on a common foe.
What is the difference between a community and a tribe? Brooks gives an excellent definition earlier in the book that helps us understand this first barrier. He says that tribalism is actually the dark twin of community. Community is connection based on mutual affection, while tribalism is connection based on mutual hatred. Community is based on common humanity, tribalism on a common foe. He summarizes it this way:
“Tribalism is always erecting boundaries and creating friend/enemy distinctions. The tribal mentality is a warrior mentality built on scarcity…The ends justify the means. Politics is war. Ideas are combat. It’s kill or be killed. Mistrust is the tribalist worldview. Tribalism is community for lonely narcissists (page 35).”
This first barrier is significant for how Christians and churches need to think about cultural engagement. What is our collective witness and response to culture? Positive? Neutral? Negativity and complaint? If we are known for pointing fingers, misrepresenting others, and allying ourselves with people whose character is an atrocity but whose politics agree with ours – what is the message that we are sending?
Anything for the tribe.
If the only thing your co-workers knew about your church was how you carried yourself at work and by what you posted on social media, what would their perception of your church be? Would they be made to feel that they need to join your tribe (and so agree with your party politics, social views, etc.) before they could attend your church?
Anything for the tribe.
That’s a huge problem – and a nearly insurmountable barrier.
- Bad Listening
“There are a certain number of religious people who come into each conversation armed with a set of off-the-shelf maxims and bumper-sticker sayings. Instead of actually listening to the questions from the people in front of them, they just unfurl the maxims regardless of circumstances.”
I imagine that the context of Brooks’ second barrier is when Christians or churches are asked questions about the Christian faith. Rather than actually trying to enter into a dialogue, we give packaged responses or answers to questions that people really weren’t asking.
But the real work of evangelism in our culture means entering into the sinful messes of life where we cannot always find neat answers to every question.
The biblical category that I think is most often neglected by Evangelicals today – especially in our polarized culture – is wisdom. We want black and white answers to everything, which is why pre-packed responses and short quips make us feel good. But the real work of evangelism in our culture means entering into the sinful messes of life where we cannot always find neat answers to every question. We must pray for a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12, James 1:5) and seek wisdom in gospel community through much study and mutual edification.
- Invasive Care
“Some people use the cover of faith to get in other people’s business when they have not been asked. They tell themselves they are just showing compassion and care…But really they are just wandering into ground they know nothing about, and where they are not wanted, under the pretext that God wants them to be there.”
It’s easy to forget that gossip is listed right along with many of the other sins in the Bible (ex. Romans 1:29-31, 2 Corinthians 2:20). It’s even easier to use spiritual language to mask our heart for gossip (“I just really want us to pray for Jack and Susie right now, because…”). Many Christians keep themselves busy with the business of others simply to avoid dealing with the problems in their own life. This is what the Apostle Paul condemned as the sin of being a “busybody” (1 Timothy 5:13).
It’s easy to forget that gossip is listed right along with many of the other sins in the Bible.
This can easily create a very “fake” and hollow culture in the church. It doesn’t take long to discern underlying motives. Christians must be careful before getting involved in the business of others when they’ve either been uninvited or when the information they have is secondhand. A church of gossips is a church of deception and mistrust. This includes pastors and church leaders who can often mask gossip under the guise of “doing ministry.”
- Intellectual Mediocrity
“When Yale professors discuss one another’s manuscripts, they are brutal. But they are brutal in search of excellence. Sometimes Christians are not brutal to one another. They want to be nice; they want to be affirming, and that softens all discussions. So the jewel of truth is not hardened. Vague words and mushy sentiments are tolerated because everybody wants to be kind.”
Mark Noll famously said, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” To be taken seriously in our highly educated Western world, we are going to need to be seriously engaged with the ideas being produced and discussed around us.
We satisfy ourselves with cheap information (that comes at no cost or effort to us) while not really becoming equipped to engage seriously with neighbors, co-workers, and friends
I once heard Herb Silverman, founder of the Secular Coalition for America, lament how the first time Christians hear the views of an atheist from an atheist and not another Christian is when they watch a pastor debate an atheist on stage. Christians too often dismiss original sources and just take another Christian teacher or leader’s comments about the beliefs of others as accurate statements. But this does not help anybody. We satisfy ourselves with cheap information (that comes at no cost or effort to us) while not really becoming equipped to engage seriously with neighbors, co-workers, and friends.
Furthermore, the culture in our churches need to be places where open, honest feedback is highly valued and sought after. Too many church members are fearful of giving feedback to pastors; too many pastors are fearful of giving feedback to church members! A church where pastors and members live in fear of one another is not one where we are rightly speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
Do you have an experience with any of these barriers? What was that experience like for you? Those who have run into these walls in the past are likely most equipped to knock them down.
So let’s get to work!