How Judgmental Christians are Killing the Church...And What Comes NextFeb 07, 2023
As the church in America faces a steady decline in attendance and giving, many church leaders are quick to blame outside forces like secularism, progressivism, wokeism, or even the COVID-19 pandemic, for why people are leaving their church.
But what if judgmental Christians are to blame for killing the church? And what comes next for churches and pastors? We’ll talk about it in this episode of the More Than a Pastor Show. Let's get started!
Links for Today's Show
- The Guardian story mentioned: Losing Their Religion: Why US Churches are on the Decline
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How Judgmental Christians are Killing the Church, and What Comes Next
Are you old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall? I remember it well. It was November 9, 1989. I was a sophomore in college.
For 30 years, the Berlin Wall had been a symbol of the Cold War. It was constructed of barbed wire and concrete by the Communist East German government in 1961 to divide the city of Berlin and separate East Germany from democratic West Germany.
And it quickly became a physical representation of the political and ideological "Iron Curtain" which the Soviet Union erected to keep the entire Eastern European Communist Bloc separated from the influence of American capitalism and Western European democracy.
Over the years, more than 100,000 East Germans tried to escape over the walls that separated them from freedom in the West, and more than 600 were shot and killed or died in other ways during their attempt.
But on Thursday, November 9, 1989, a blunder made by an East German official speaking at a press conference led to the immediate opening of the Berlin Wall and East Germany's border with the West, and the eventual collapse of the entire East German Communist regime.
The official, Günter Schabowski, was slated to announce that East Germany would soon make it easier for its citizens to apply to travel outside the country, with fewer restrictions than before. And it would create an application process for allowing people to emigrate, or move out, of the country.
But what he actually ended up saying that afternoon, amid much confusion, was that East Germany was opening its border to the West. And that East Berliners could go through the border to West Berlin. Effective Immediately.
As journalists began to report these surprising statements on the evening news, huge crowds of newly emboldened East Berliners began to gather along the Berlin Wall and at all the border crossings, demanding to be let through.
The border guards, who had previously been instructed to shoot-to-kill anyone trying to cross without authorization, now stood helpless, unsure of what to do.
Finally, at 11:30 PM, a military officer gave the order to open the gates and allow people to enter West Berlin.
It was a remarkable scene to watch on American TV that night, as tens of thousands of Germans from both sides climbed the wall, walked through its previously guarded gates, and even began to chip away and dismantle it.
Within a few days, the genie was out of the bottle, as 2 million East Germans had walked through the border over to West Berlin!
And the physical, political, and ideological walls that divided people for decades had suddenly became irrelevant, literally overnight.
This singular moment led to the complete unraveling of the East German Communist regime within just a few days, and the reunification of Germany, as a Western democracy, less than a year later.
And it paved the way for the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Communist Bloc two years later.
In the end, the autocratic institution that had oppressed its citizens for decades, held the world in constant fear of nuclear war, and attempted to seal itself off from perceived threats posed by Western freedom and democracy, wasn't destroyed by its outside enemies.
It came unglued at the seams due to self-inflicted wounds, collapsed under its own weight, and was no longer able to sustain itself or maintain its authority over the people.
The Unraveling of the Church in America
I believe the traditional, institutional church in America finds itself in pretty much the same place today.
Always on guard to protect against attacks from the outside - from secularism, progressivism, wokeism, etc., the church is coming apart at the seams, due to self-inflicted wounds. It is collapsing under its own weight, struggling to sustain itself and maintain any influence in the culture.
Not because of some nefarious outside enemy bent on destroying it. No, the church is unraveling from the inside out.
Now, before I go further, I think it's important to give a disclaimer that...
- I'm not equating the church in America with communism
- I know the church in America is not a monolith, but an organism made up of thousands of churches and millions of believers
- I'm not saying this is the end of the church or Christianity, because the Lord Jesus Christ is the head of the church, and I believe he is still using his church to fulfill his redemptive purpose in the world
But I am suggesting that we are experiencing the end of the church as we've known it in America over the last 75 years or so. The end of the traditional, "institutional" type of church that has primarily funded through the giving of tithes and offerings.
Churches are Closing in Record Numbers
A story from TheGuardian.com on Sunday, Jan 22, 2023, explains that American churches are now closing at record rates.
In Losing Their Religion: Why US Churches are on the Decline, author Adam Gabbatt shares several factors of why churches are closing, which should come as no surprise to most of us in church leadership:
- Congregations are dwindling because younger generations are abandoning Christianity…even as faith dominates American politics (more on this later)
- America's population is becoming increasingly non-religious
- Thousands of churches are closing…last year 4,500 Protestant churches closed and only 3,000 new ones opened
But the WHY behind the why still seems to elude many within church leadership.
The Top Two Reasons Why So Many People are Leaving the Church
There are several reasons why so many people - especially young people - are leaving the church, and I've discussed some of the major issues here in the past.
If you haven't listened to my series on the cultural, social, political, and economic forces that are shaping the future of the church, be sure to check it out, starting with It's the End of the Church as We Know it (And I Feel Fine).
But I think Adam Gabbatt hits the nail on the head in his article in The Guardian, citing two specific reasons why he believes young people are leaving the church:
1. They find church members to be judgmental and hypocritical
The lack of acceptance, selective moralizing, and holier than thou attitude. Can't see the plank in my own eye because I'm focused on the speck in yours.
2. They disagree with the church's stance on political and social issues
LGBTQ, abortion, immigration, and racial justice are at the top of the younger generation's social concerns. It seems like the more Christians try to push a "Christian" agenda or "Christian" values through political means, and advocate for candidates who pledge to do so, the more this pushes younger generations away from the church.
Why are Christians Seen as Judgmental?
It's an interesting time and place we find ourselves in right now, with many expressing that they are leaving their church and the church because they believe it is not living out the radical love and acceptance that Jesus modeled for the misfits and marginalized.
I've reflected on this for some time, asking myself...
Why is it that the people who are supposed to be the most loving - those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ - are now viewed by our culture as being the least loving?
"Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" Leads to Christian Judgmentalism
I'd like to suggest that one of the top reasons why Christians have become known for our lack of love, and for being so judgmental, is the whole "Love the sinner, hate the sin" concept that many in the church have espoused, myself included, especially with regard to LGBTQ over the last 30 years.
Like how Günter Schabowsk's press conference blunder led to the fall of the Berlin wall and the unraveling of communism, I believe the phrase "Love the sinner, hate the sin" has caused an unforced error leading to the unraveling of the church in America.
Because when we see people as sinners and focus on hating their sin, we can easily end up becoming self-righteous, and start finding all the things wrong with them (like that's our job?). And this can eventually lead us to feelings of contempt, condemnation, and judgment.
So we end up focusing on hating the sin and not on loving the person.
I don't know about you, but I haven't found anywhere in the gospels where Jesus calls his followers to "Love the sinner and hate their sin."
But I do see where he warns us to pay attention to the plank that's stuck in our own eyes, completely distorting our vision, before we worry about the speck in someone else's eye. And where he calls us to love our neighbors...and to even count our enemies as neighbors worthy of our love and acceptance.
Seeing Each Other as Neighbors Changes Everything
And when we see each other as neighbors, the whole equation changes. Because then we remember that we are all outsiders who don't belong. And yet we all DO belong, because of the ONE who has given us the ultimate invitation into his family.
I can't help but think that things would be different in the church and in our culture today, if we stopped seeing people of other political persuasions as enemies, stopped seeing people of other ethnicities as outsiders, stopped seeing LGBTQ people as "sinners," and instead saw everyone as our "neighbors."
The Mass Exodus is the Culture's Judgment on the Church
Many Millennials and Gen Zers have grown up being taught, to some extent, the values of diversity and acceptance, and the importance of creating a safe place for all people to belong, in their schools, workplaces, the military, universities (even if these places don't always get it right).
However, one place in society where they expect to find it, but often don't, sadly, is the church.
Through their own experience, the experiences of others, portrayals in the media, etc., they have come to believe that judgmentalism, mistreatment of women - including women in ministry, racism, sexual misconduct scandals, and toxic culture have somehow become baked into American Christianity.
You and I both know this is an unfair characterization of the church as a whole, and of many individual churches and Christians in particular. But it's been true often enough that this is what our culture now believes.
And I think we're in a season now, unfortunately, where pretty much all churches and pastors are guilty by association.
So what are people to do when they lose trust in the institution of the church, believing it no longer practices the radical love and acceptance of Christ that it preaches?
- They could express their doubts and seek honest answers to their questions, but they'd get hit with our dogmatic answers
- They could point out structures and methods that are no longer working, and advocate for change, but then get labeled as "progressives," "deconstructionists," or worse
- They could try holding church leaders accountable for misconduct and abuses, but then find that the system in some churches and denominations has been designed to protect itself and those in authority
So they leave.
And this is why so many churches today are experiencing significant losses in attendance and giving, and are struggling to survive.
We can cry about the fact that we're losing the younger generations. We can blame some outside enemy like secularism, liberalism, progressivism, wokeism, some other kind of ism, or even the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the truth is, the enemy is us.
We've allowed the name of Jesus to be used to divide and hurt people. We've taken his open invitation for all to come and belong, and have made it exclusive for those who look and act the way we think they should. We've allowed toxic leaders to preach one thing and live something totally different.
I could be wrong, but I think the mass exodus we're seeing in the American church is our culture's (and God's) judgment on the church for our own judgmentalism and hypocrisy.
What's Next: Life After Death
The good news is that, in Christ, there is life after death! And I believe the death of old, broken, unsustainable church models will give rise to new, more healthy models.
But I have a hunch that the church of the 21st century will look more like the church of the 1st century than the 20th century.
I say this because Gen Zers and Millennials are naturally born creators. And they place high values on authenticity, trust, inclusion, and community. So I believe they will reimagine and recreate the church without all the labels, dogmas, institutions, and denominations that have divided us.
Think simple church centered on the Apostles Creed, not on an exhaustive book of doctrine or discipline. They'll meet in a smaller-sized building, or no building at all, because they want most of their giving to make a difference locally and globally, not pay for overhead used a few hours a week.
The church of the future will be lead more by co-vocational pastors who, as creators themselves, will derive their income mostly from their work in marketplace, through their own business or side hustle, than from the church.
Now's the Time for Pastors to Create Sustainable Income Outside of the Church
That is why I think now is the time for pastors to begin creating streams of income outside of the church, to supplement or even replace their current ministry income.
And why I've made it my mission to help pastors discover the best ways to leverage your ministry know-how into a business or side hustle that's right for you, so you can serve God and provide for your family, no matter what.
Not sure if starting a business is right for you? Then get my FREE guide, "How to Know if Starting a Business is Right for You," and discover the 12 signs that you might be ready to launch your own business! And learn three things every pastor needs to be successful in business! Get your copy today at www.morethanapastor.com/biz.
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