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A Reckoning for the Church

This one is going to be rough.

We spent a lot of time looking at “Judge not, lest you be judged” (Mt. 7:1-6) because judgmentalism is probably the great sin of the contemporary American church.

Let me explain. There are two kinds of unbelievers in the United States–those who haven’t heard of Jesus and those who have. The first group–those who haven’t heard of Jesus–are pretty much kids. Jesus is ubiquitous in our culture, so they haven’t heard about him because they just haven’t been around long enough. Nowadays, there are church leaders putting some very good thought into how to effectively reach this group.

I’m not sure we’ve really wrestled with what it means to try and reach the second group.

Most churches are very concerned about reaching grown-ups for Jesus. But most grown-up non-believers in our culture are not simply non-Christian. They are post-Christian. I’m not saying that they are post-Christian in some generic sense–like they are post-Christian simply because this is a post-Christian culture. No, most of them are post-Christian individually . . . specifically . . . from personal life experience.

They’ve been there, done that. Many of them got the church camp t-shirt. They encountered Christ on at least some level, and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” We could speculate all day about why they made this decision, but if you actually ask them, almost all of them will cite judgmentalism.

Now this gets complicated. In a previous article, we talked about judging within the church. There are some behaviors we cannot condone in the life of fellow believers. When we draw a line–when we have an intervention–they may not take that well. All too often, they refuse to change, leave the church, and then cry, “Judgmentalism!” That’s not really what we’re talking about.

Here, judgmentalism is just being used as a smokescreen.

In fact, the situation can devolve into the mutually judgemental cycle where everyone points fingers at everyone else and no one (including us) is looking at themselves. Remember, that’s how this “judgmentalism” game works. So it would be easy for us to get caught in this cycle and focus on these disingenuous cases.

This may be easier, more automatic, but it means we can end up overlooking the damage actual judgmentalism has done. Projecting these “bad faith” examples onto everyone, we can end up invalidating the very serious and painful stories that we need to hear.

The fact is that the post-Christians we are trying to reach are “post” precisely because real judgmentalism has already scarred their lives.

Listen to the average American non-believer long enough and you will hear a story about how, in some way or another, it was communicated to them by people from the church (and often in the language of the church) that there was something unacceptably wrong with them. They were judged. The Christian religion became profoundly invalidating.

The very forms of Christianity (the language, symbolism, architecture, etc.) that we use to try to reach them for Christ were previously weaponized against them as instruments of emotional abuse. We can share our stories with them, and they may be very interested, affirming even. But when we’re done, they respond, “It’s great that Jesus works for you, but he was used to beat me as a kid.”

Untold horrors have occurred in individual homes by people claiming the name of Christ, but there have been plenty of corporate, public ones as well. Many of us learned an evangelistic strategy which seriously used “gotcha!” questions and sketchy logic to try to force people to admit that they were “sinners.” “Have you ever told a lie? Then you’re a liar! And liars go to hell!”

Perhaps the idea was that you would then announce forgiveness in Christ; but at that point, these poor random strangers weren’t paying any attention. They were too distracted thinking what a jerk you are. It was like someone read Matt. 7:1-6 and deliberately decided to violate it as much as humanly possible.

“Let’s dig for specks in their eye, judge profusely, then try to cram these pearls right under their feet!”

But it wasn’t enough for us to ambush occasional strangers on street corners. No. We went nuclear with our judgmentalism. We declared war. We tried to use the full weight of our state and federal governments to force people to get the speck out of their eye. Have protests! Sign petitions! Pass laws! Appoint judges!

We waged this culture war with all the weapons of this world: political power and coercion.

And we got our butts handed to us. You think we could’ve seen that coming. Jesus told us: draw the sword, die by the sword (Mt. 26:52). Which we did. But, in losing this fight (in fighting at all) we lost far more than that. When we waged a culture war, we forgot that wars do not make converts. They make casualties.

Look around you. The field of our culture is absolutely strewn with them. They are the vast sea of “the judged.”

  • They are the single mom whose pastor asked her, not the least bit subtly, when she was going to leave town.
  • They are the gay guy whose religious parents freaked out and, out of sheer shame, sent him away to live with relatives on the other side of the country.
  • They are the white lady who gets a chilly reception no matter what church she takes her black kids to.
These are not hypothetical examples. These are my friends.

Good luck getting any of them in your church building. For decades, one of them couldn’t even enter a church without being triggered. They are trauma victims. These are not people who casually walked away from the church. These are refugees who fled from the church for their very lives.

And if you think you can get them back with a catchy sermon series and a gift card to the coffee shop, you have failed to grapple with the magnitude of this problem.

Christianity is a call to relationship–a relationship with the body of Christ and a relationship with God himself. The barrier between these post-Christians and the church is that there has been a breach in that relationship. The violation of their trust has reached to the core of their being. They don’t need evangelization. They need reconciliation.

Reconciliation in a damaged relationship can only be found through repentance.

The offending party has to own the wrong they have done. There has to be a deep and sincere apology, and there has to be demonstration of an ongoing commitment to live a different way. A person who came out of an abusive relationship would be irresponsible to re-engage the former abuser without this happening.

We should understand better than anyone that there is no reconciliation without repentance. We just need to grasp the true nature of the reconciliation that needs to occur. If we want to have any hope of reaching these lost casualties of our culture, they aren’t the ones who need to repent in sackcloth and ashes.

We are.

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