FDR famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Similarly, I sometimes think the church’s greatest threat is the church itself.
These days, many people are intensely interested in Jesus, but, at the same time, profoundly disinterested in the church. This wide gap between how people feel about Jesus and how they feel about the church reflects, in part, a broad cultural trend away from involvement in organized groups. Across America, membership in civic clubs—Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions—has been declining for two decades. Far fewer Americans vote in elections, participate in political parties, and attend city council, county commission or school board meetings.
More and more Americans say something like: “I am spiritual but not religious,” which means they have feelings of connection with the divine, and practices which nurture that connection, but keep their distance from churches. Jesus is popular. The church? Not so much.
That distance from the church isn’t simply the result of broader trends away from civic engagement and social affiliation. The gap between people’s fascination with Jesus and their indifference, or even resistance, to the church also has to do with the church’s own failure to be like Jesus.
There are big and obvious wrongs which show how the church can fail to look and sound like Jesus: Priests abuse children. Preachers call for men and women created in God’s image to be rounded-up, locked-up and quarantined or killed because of their lifestyles. Televangelists amass wealth scammed from people living on fixed incomes.
But there are everyday ways in which the church denies Jesus, just as surely as Peter did on the night before his death. When justice, peace, and concern for the marginalized get pushed aside by petty moralism, nervous deference to the status quo, and anxious refusal to share resources with those who need them, then the church is a long way from Jesus.
When church people use the Bible like a weapon to bludgeon people with whom they disagree or to oppress women and keep them “in their place”; when fear is a tactic to force conformity of behavior and uniformity of thought; when condemnation is more common than compassion; when legalism overrules freedom; when forgiveness gets lost in the fog of judgment; when status matters more than service; and when harshness drives out humility, then the church has made itself unlike Jesus.
When these kinds of things happen, people outside the church see sooner and more clearly than do people inside that something is desperately wrong. They wonder how there can be so much talking and singing about Jesus and so little evidence that the people doing all that talking and singing mean to follow him and be like him.
The greatest threat the church faces is the church itself, and the best hope for the church is Jesus. Those of us who claim to follow him need actually to do so.