“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”Jesus: Matthew 11:28-30
I had something happen Wednesday that made me both angry and sad; it was another example of evangelicalism pushing people away from Jesus, and I can’t think of anything sadder than that.
I’m talking about the judgy, harsh, bigoted, “don’t ask questions,” “turn or burn” religion that claims ownership of a stylized salvation experience, leans fundamentalist, is quick to condemn, and often confuses reactionary social/political conservatism with Christianity.
To the extent that this exclusionary – though patently incorrect – brand remains the default public understanding of what it means to follow Jesus, Christianity in North America may well be in serious trouble.
Of course (and because more winsome expressions of Christianity do not make so much noise) it already is. And that’s my point. My other point is that it doesn’t have to be, and the future – if we actually walk with Jesus – can and must overflow with grace, mercy, light, redemption, and promise.
Because it’s not Jesus who is in trouble (I believe he is seldom rejected when properly introduced), it’s what is being said in his name. Let me illustrate with two sad stories.
“If this is Christianity, I don’t want it”
The first story is the one that precipitated this post. It unfolded this week, during an interview in connection with an article I’m writing on college students and financial planning.
- “What impact does your faith have on this topic?” I asked.
- “To be honest,” he responded, “I’m not really a Christian anymore.”
I could have left it there, because the story didn’t need me to to know any more. But I had to ask. “Forgive me,” I said, “if this sounds intrusive, but I’m genuinely interested to know what you mean when you say you are no longer a Christian…”
So he told me about his experience, a couple of years ago, working as a counselor with an organization (associated with Lifeway) that put on “Christian” summer camps.
“I’m someone who always has a lot of questions,” the young man said. “But in that environment I was not allowed to ask questions.”
He went on to explain how, week after week, he witnessed hellfire and brimstone aimed at both children and staff, and in an environment where there was no room for discussion. Open, honest, inquiring conversations were verboten.
Rather than being encouraged to discover and explore his relationship with God, the message was clear:
- We already have all the answers for you.
- This is what you must believe.
- There are no questions.
- There is no discussion.
- If you don’t parrot exactly what you are told then God will send you to hell.
“Hearing that all summer really shocked me,” he told me. “I concluded that if this is Christianity I don’t want anything to do with it.”
We then had a positive conversation about where he is on his journey, and I was able to encourage him not to blame God for bigotry perpetuated in God’s name.
“Where I come from we don’t question God”
Several years ago, back in Florida, something similar happened in one of the men’s groups I led.
We were reading a book by a well-known football coach. I told a friend about it and she said that her husband – who was struggling with life in general and pretty much done with faith – was a big fan of the author; would I invite him to read along?
I contacted “Dan” and he was excited to be part of the conversation. He lived in another state, so my group agreed to welcome him, to encourage him, and to extend our weekly discussion via an open email thread.
The first week went well and my friend’s husband opened up a little. Then the second week Dan risked going a little deeper and aired a couple of questions about God that had been troubling him. I was excited to see him willing to share so authentically.
But before anyone else had a chance to respond, one of the men – “Richard” – closed him down hard. “I don’t really know who you are,” the comment went, “but where I come from you don’t question God. I accept what the Bible teaches and I don’t ask questions; you should too. It’s best to keep your doubts to yourself and keep quiet when you’re the new guy.”
I was horrified. Immediately I reached out to my friend’s husband and apologized. I also had a serious conversation with the man who had been so harsh, much like the Pharisees Jesus talked about who, “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matthew 23:13-14).
But it was too late. Dan felt – justifiably – cold-shouldered, judged, and rejected. I never got him back in the conversation. He stopped going to church too. The experience with Richard’s bigotry confirmed what he already suspected.
Jesus is God’s Invitation!
Some Christians want to know, “How many people have you brought to the Lord?” I think an alternate line of inquiry might be, “How many people have you driven away from faith in God?” or, “Why do you shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces?”
Jesus is God’s invitation. If anyone claims to follow him, then surely we should be welcoming too?
I’d like to challenge all of us to make sure the message we are sharing is the same one Jesus offers: “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”
Come. – DEREK