Part 2 of 2
Loving those who hate you is weird. Praying for the welfare of your worst enemy is strange. Forgiving the drunk driver who kills your daughter is highly abnormal. Yet that’s exactly what Jesus tells us to do.
The question is – are churches in America today providing the path to become “weird” for Christ? Are our pews filled with “weirdos”?
Anyone who bucks cultural norms is apt to be ridiculed. Yet studies show that it’s not our radical, agape love that’s fueling the declining public perception of Christianity. Instead, surveys confirm what is readily observable in the mainstream media – that Christians are perceived as unusually legalistic and judgmental.
While John 17 says the world will always hate Christians, it is possible to change the media’s characterization of Christians from “hateful” to “loving” and “compassionate”. For example, in the days of the early church, the Roman emperor Julian had to acknowledge, “The [Christian faith] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”
No, the first word non-believers think of when asked to describe a Christian does not have to be “legalistic” or “judgmental”. Yet the processes and conventions in churches today contribute to that unfortunate word association. Christ-followers could be universally known for being “weird” for much better reasons – like putting others first, serving the poor, abject humility, and loving those who hate them. However, that will require significant departure from prevailing church growth models…
Formula for Enabling Conditional Love =
1. Looking Like the World + …
As we discussed a few weeks ago, culture has changed the Church more than the Church has shaped culture. By definition, conforming the way we run churches to fit accepted norms produces cultural Christians, not social outliers (for Christ). Churches advertise and offer adaptations to the framework we see for church in the Bible to accommodate an increasingly time-constrained and demanding society:
- Comfort – Design environment around creating an experience
- Convenience – Shorter commitment around weekend service
- Community – Social structure around small groups (fellowship vs. intensive discipleship)
- Control – Centralized definition of “church” around a place and pastor
- Counts – Measuring “success” around near-term conversions, attendance and giving
- Compassion – Focusing initiatives around holiday, church-branded “outreaches”
None of those cultural conventions are non-conforming enough to birth non-conformists.
2. Yet, Promising Something Different + …
The increasing number of “Dones”, including youth not returning to church after adolescence, speaks to missed expectations. People are smart. Churchgoers see through cheap imitations of what Christ intended and lose faith – not in Him but in church as we know it.
- They expected to find unconditional love (which would be “weird”), but instead see attempts to give the appearance of love, like friendly greeters (which is actually quite normal)
- They expected life transformation (which would be “weird”), but instead see a bar set at conversion with no options for personal discipleship
- They expected the supernatural (which would be “weird”), but instead encountered strategies and programs modeled after the natural, like attractional children’s ministries
- They expected real community engagement (which would be “weird”), but instead were offered occasional service projects that have negligible social impact
Those with deep relationships with Jesus will not be satisfied at a church that does not deliver on its biblical promises. They’ll quickly see through the majority of pastors who teach that believers must come to church for discipleship, but then do not offer true discipleship programs.
3. Then, Treating the World as “Outsiders”
Yes, churches following the prevailing church growth model in America today (i.e. Invite, Involve and Invest) are designed around worldly concepts yet claim to be nothing like the world. You likely see the irony of the first two parts of the equation – but it gets worse.
With fewer attending church regularly and giving per capita decreasing, efforts to grow and sustain a church typically involve internal and external brand promotion. The result of “I love my church” campaigns and congregants wearing church t-shirts for outreach events incites an implicit “us versus them” mentality. In other words, intentional efforts to market an institutional church encourages an unintended distant stance and a public perception of judgmentalism. As brand marketing inadvertently defines church as a place and not as people, loyalty to the church increases for saved “insiders”, but their sense of personal responsibility to reach unsaved “outsiders” diminishes. “Insiders” band together in their belief systems and political positions, unwittingly aligning against “outsiders” who don’t agree with them – and as a result feel left out.
Rather than acting like “weirdos” and loving those who hate them, church loyalists typically ignore the Great Commission, in effect treating non-believers like the “weirdos” by substituting passive invitations to a church service for proactive evangelism and discipleship.
Equipping Congregations to Love Unconditionally
A return to the biblical model for church, which naturally creates “weirdos”, is not complicated – but would be quite painful for a church entrenched in the status quo:
- Pray fervently for the power of the Holy Spirit, who is rarely mentioned in most churches, to fill each believer – because the real battle is not against people but against the powers of darkness that work against the souls of men and women
- Teach church members to see people as souls so we can stop judging others based on appearances and actions, which makes us undervalue non-believers, overemphasize distinctions, and reduces the impetus to share our faith
- Develop an aggressive plan to grow believers beyond conversion into disciples of Jesus Christ, who inherently see everyone as souls made in God’s image with eternal value
- Redefine “church” as people and not a place, putting responsibility back on congregants for being the personification of “church” between Sundays
- Fight the culture war in America with a “ground war” (with love as the chosen weapon) rather than the current “air war” (of opinions and politics)
- Reallocate time, talents and treasures toward uses that emphasize not only love for those who love us, but also love for those who may not like us – such as utilizing the church building for ESL classes for Muslim refugees, recovery programs for opioid addicts, support groups for parents of troubled teens, and compassion efforts for local widows
- Stop counting heads and start tracking transformation, evangelism and community impact
Only when Christians and churches adopt these biblical strategies will society see us as “weirdos”, not because we’re legalistic and judgmental, but because we love and forgive unconditionally.
It’s Your Turn…
Do you know of a church that is producing strange, abnormal Christians who turn the other cheek, treat the dishonorable with dignity, and desperately pursue lost souls?