Judgemental, hypocritical, anti-LGBTQ, and insensitive; these are the top adjectives used to describe Christians in the U.S. Collectively, Christians have managed to hurt and anger a lot of people by claiming total moral and spiritual authority. Who would want to be a part of a religion like that? Many days, I am hesitant to call myself a Christian because I fear that I will be immediately labeled with the aforementioned adjectives, so instead I choose to opt for the far more neutral “follower of Jesus.” Something about Christian culture is turning the loving and truthful words of Jesus into a toxic mess that people don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole.
When I first became introduced to Christian culture early in high school, I was fairly open to learning about the faith and I hadn’t had any experiences that would make me cautious. As I spent more time going to Sunday services and youth group, I acquired cultural capital that allowed me to fit in, think deeply about important issues, and develop meaningful relationships that became my lifeblood. Christian culture made me feel accepted and welcome, and I still feel at home when someone mentions “discipleship” or I hear a song that I learned during Vacation Bible School.
However, what happens when people can’t easily fit into Christian culture, like I was able to? The Christian culture that makes me feel included can simultaneously make Christian spaces unwelcoming to people who aren’t familiar with the routine of a Sunday morning service. Church is supposed to be a sanctuary for all; instead, we often seclude ourselves on Sunday morning, thanking God that we are not like the people who are not in attendance.
When the Church constantly expects “secular” culture to conform to our image, we create a culture of judgement that communicates that faith is not enough; you must also wear our clothes, listen to our music, read our books, and worship how we do. Church culture is not an inherently bad thing, but when we don’t talk about it, unnamed and silent expectations filter out individuals who, don’t fit the “standard” Christian mold (white, upper-middle class, heterosexual). If we never take the time to realize who is missing from our community, we’ll never realize how we might be alienating them. I believe that it is the responsibility of the church to engage culture and approach difference with humility and discernment, instead of fearfully condemning others for being different.
Judgement, however, is not a one-way street; the hypercritical eye that chastises non-Christians also demands perfection from those already on the inside. I picked up on this expectation pretty early, and my devotion to my academics soon expanded to include being an awesome Christian. Church became something to be good at, and dammit, I wanted to be the best. Reading the Bible and daily “quiet time” was initially so exciting for me - I got to talk with God and study beautiful poetry, stories, and letters that were relevant to my life. But eventually this attitude became more of a checklist, and I experienced severe guilt when I didn’t make the grade. Striving to meet all of these expectations was exhausting, and I frequently burned out.
Although many of these expectations required nothing more than time, I loved buying Christian stuff. I remember the first time I walked into a neatly organized Christian bookstore; every shelf vied for my attention with glossy, colorful Bibles, serious looking devotionals, and cross-shaped bookmarks that all promised to help me reach my spiritual best. If you calculated the amount of money I have spent over the last seven years on Christian books, conferences, and other related goods, I would probably be ashamed to tell you the answer. This commercialization is damaging because it cheapens the complex, messy Gospel into a simple, marketable message. Christianity wasn’t designed to spread through programs and pamphlets; it was designed to spread through people. In the New Testament, Jesus talked more about money than he talked about heaven and hell combined. A capitalistic understanding of the Gospel assigns a socioeconomic class to faith. This isn’t just bad theology, it’s failing to love others like Jesus did.
Despite the judgement, perfectionism, and commercialization that have come to define the church, I am encouraged to hear growing numbers of stories detailing how people find new ways to follow Jesus that directly combat these stereotypes. Opening up our doors and minds to new ways of loving God and others are the first steps, and these actions need to be soaked in the humility and prayer. In The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne writes that, “Most good things have been said far too many times and just need to be lived,” and I agree. Let’s talk about exclusive language, racial reconciliation, and learning how to welcome people of all socioeconomic statuses. Let’s start the conversation. I’m all ears.