In his book, Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer writes,
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.
So take a second and answer the question. To you, “What is God like?”
Now, let’s travel with Tozer as he broadens the scope to a thirty-thousand foot fly over. He says:
Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God, just as her most significant message is what she says about Him or leaves unsaid, for her silence is often more eloquent than her speech. She can never escape the self-disclosure of her witness concerning God.
When we survey the American Church, what could be said? What do we profess that God is like—both by word and action and our silence and inaction?
If our omissions are truly as important as our commissions, then what aren’t we saying that needs said?
Now, what if we were to flip the script a bit, and ask similar questions to non-Christians?
How do you think they would answer, “What is God like?” and “Who does the American Church show you that their God is?”
Interested in those answers? Well, you’re in luck, because a few years ago, a massive study was commissioned by The Resurgence that asked those questions to those people.
The answers are tremendously insightful.
The study was called, “Objections to the Christian Faith from the Unchurched and De-Churched,” and surveyed thousands of people from four influential, American cities.
The independent firm that conducted the study asked two questions:
- What is your impression of Evangelical Christians?
- Who is Jesus?
Now, there were thousands of responses from their in-person focus groups and phone calls. In fact, if you follow the link above, you can actually download the results and even listen to recorded audio of the conversations.
While I didn’t review all of the reports, I did review enough to synopsize the findings.
If this study is indicative of culture’s view of Evangelical Christianity and Jesus Christ—which I believe it is—then here is my summary of what people outside of the church have to say:
Christianity is a religion of intolerant bigots that uses weaponized guilt to control, condemn, and coerce. It is powerless to deliver on its supernatural promises of answered prayer, a relationship with God, and genuinely loving community. It’s a feel-good social club at best, and a hate-mongering, fear-wielding, socio-economic control machine at worse.
Let’s take these points one-by-one:
Christianity is a religion of intolerant bigots that uses weaponized guilt to control, condemn, and coerce.
If this charge was leveled against the American Church in your hearing, how would you answer? Can you refute that we are not “intolerant bigots” who wield guilt to “control, condemn, and coerce”?
I have seen the church serve and love people in desperate need. I have seen hands extended to people who are on the outs.
What testimony do you have personally to draw from? Where have you seen the church love people?
It is powerless to deliver on its promises of answered prayer, a relationship with God, and genuinely loving community.
When is the last time one of your prayers was answered? Or better yet, when was the last time you fervently prayed because you genuinely believed that: (1) God would hear you, and (2) he would supernaturally answer?
Further, would you feel one-hundred percent confident repeating the words of Paul, “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ”?
If we know God, then we know he’s personal, he’s powerful, and he’s near. If we know Jesus, we sit at his feet. If he is truly our Shepherd, then we know his voice.
And what did Jesus say to the disciples, and therefore to us in John 13:34–35?
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Have we obeyed? Are we people who love one another in the way that Jesus loved us? Do we give up our lives for one another?
I’m very guilty of missing this mark here. Are you?
It’s a feel-good social club at best, and a hate-mongering, fear-wielding, socio-economic control machine at worse.
A new religion has emerged from the womb of the American Church: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
In a recent report, entitled “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers” by Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, they coined that phrase and identified the core beliefs therein.
In essence, this Christian knock-off espouses these tenets:
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
At best, that’s how culture sees us. As people who: believe that there’s a nice god who flits around in the clouds; wants us to be deliriously happy and possessed of high self-esteem; is generally distant until a problem arises; and then welcomes us into paradise if we’ve been generally good people (however goodness is defined).
We’re seen as people who are teaching the spiritual practice of cosmic, delayed gratification. Simply put, don’t do bad stuff now and you get to have something good later.
Now, remember, that’s the best-case scenario.
Growing in prevalence, though, is the notion that we’re hateful bigots who condemn anyone and anything that doesn’t look like us, sound like us, and believe like us.
And we’re a wallet-snatching band of thieves, at that.
What to Do About It
So, now that we’ve walked ten miles down the negativity parade route, what do we do? How should we feel? How should we think?
Let me start with this. I’m not writing something just to bash the Church. I’m not trying to be the guy who “gets it,” the only self-aware relative at the crazy family reunion.
Jesus loves his Church. I love the Church.
So, as I see it, there are three responses we must make.
- Examine the validity of culture’s claims, internalize them, and ensure we are addressing them in what we say and what we do.
- Remember that Jesus promised the world would hate his disciples (John 15:18–19). We should not abandon the offense of the Gospel to be well-liked.
- Be able to answer this question with total conviction, clarity, and authority: What is God like?
Many of the assertions that the unchurched and de-churched made in that study are true. Heck, I’ve been guilty of them all at varying points.
But what we must remember is that to answer culture’s questions in a way that wins people rather than just arguments, we must first be fools for the cross.
I’ll paraphrase Paul’s words to the Corinthian church:
I didn’t come to you as a wise man. I didn’t pretend to be smart, or something that I’m not. I didn’t try to win you over with impressive words. All I brought was the reality of the cross. I wasn’t eloquent in speech. I wasn’t profound. Instead, I walked in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that you didn’t put your hope in the cleverness of people, but in the power of the Living God.
The Gospel is an invitation into relationship with a person, not a gilded invitation to a club with an interesting mascot. We are welcoming people into a relationship with the very God of the universe. The Creator. The Savior. The Redeemer.
We are guiding people to follow us in the cruciform path.
We are people of the cross who would rather be faithful fools than be accepted by men.
There is no power, no demonstration of the Spirit, outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ. This means that we must people who can describe our God with confidence, because we’ve knelt and wept in his presence. Because we sit at the Master’s feet daily. Because we are people more concerned with being obedient than being comfortable.
So, what is our God like?
He is a lion, not tamed, not declawed. He is a fearless warrior-king, who won victory in defeat. He gave wisdom her name and set spiral galaxies spinning. And yet, walked humbly as a lamb, lived innocent as a dove, and died the unjust death of a criminal.
He is the chain breaker. He speaks to dead men and they are raised. He breathes upon icy hearts and they are warmed. He moves upon the waves like a bird upon the sky.
He is love that transcends fleeting emotions. He is love that breaks into broken hearts and heals. He is love that demonstrated himself in this:
Greater love has no man, than he who would lay his life down for a friend.
And our God has called us friends (John 15:15).
Truly, we must be people of the cross who understand and cling to its power. Because at the cross we gained access to the Father of Lights himself. Through Jesus’s blood we became temples for the Holy Spirit.
If the Holy Spirit genuinely dwells in us, the Spirit of all power, than how can we live unchanged?
What comes into our heads when we ask, “What is God like?” is the most important thing about us as individuals, and collectively as the Church. So what is your answer and what is ours? What do we reveal about our inner workings through action and inaction, through words and silence?
What are you running hard after, and are you willing to get uncomfortable in this ultimate pursuit?
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