I’ve been trying to compose a post about how the church is too much like the world these days, but not in the ways I always grew up hearing about. But once I started exploring the subject, I realized the problem is more broad and deep than I had first imagined. My “post” threatened to be about 300 pages long. So I decided to make a series of posts. I don’t know how many there will be, as I’m sure I will find more and more to add as time goes on. I’ll start by sharing an experience I had a couple of years ago that got me started thinking about this whole topic to begin with.
If you grew up in church, like me, especially the evangelical variety, you probably heard approximately 248,872 times that the church looks too much like the world. Meaning, of course, that the world’s music or clothing or hairstyles had wormed their way into the church…insidious little bastards. How dare they? Jesus told us to be different from the world, didn’t He? He said we should be in the world but not of it, right? So how can we do that if we wear the same clothes and listen to the same music they do? We need to “come out from among them” and stick out like sore thumbs! And actually, we should. Jesus astonished everyone He came in contact with–He was different. And we should be, too. But I’ve come to realize that this difference is not at all what I was taught it should be.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 35, NIV)
I used to subscribe to one of those “verse-a-day” emails, and this verse hit my inbox right on the heels of a sound scolding from a well-meaning friend of mine, who I love and admire in many ways.
She worried that I was “ruining my testimony” because of something I did. I was out with some friends (enjoying a happy hour, which is a story for another installment in this series), and one of them posted a picture of us on Facebook. A friend of that friend’s made some comments on the photo that were suggestive and obnoxious. We tried to steer the conversation to a more appropriate place, and eventually I removed the whole stinking post from my wall. But this wasn’t enough for my well-meaning loved one who had been offended by what she’d seen on my Facebook wall. She felt I should have done more than just delete the comments. I should have posted some sort of retraction or apology, to make it clear to everyone that this was not the kind of company I wanted to keep, and that’s not the sort of conversation I want on my wall. Even though I deleted the conversation and the offender was someone I didn’t even know, the fact that I didn’t make this announcement, supposedly, ruined my “testimony,” or my outward appearance of Christianity.
It’s not as shallow as it sounds. Following Christ should make a visible difference in your life. If it doesn’t, then what’s the point? I truly hope that when a person gets to know me, they can tell I love Jesus without me having to announce it at every turn. That’s my testimony. I want my life and my attitude to reflect well on Christianity, and more than that, on Christ Himself.
The problem comes when a person’s testimony is defined by how they dress or wear their hair or makeup, or which buzzwords they use. It’s difficult to define. As a Christian, and as a mother, I don’t want to be known for my skimpy clothes and raunchy mouth. But is modest apparel and G-rated language going to draw anyone to faith in Christ? Is there anyone—even one person—struggling in their spiritual journey who’s going to say, “I think I should become a Christian because look what He did for that woman. She never shows too much skin, and she doesn’t cuss as much as other people.” I don’t think so. In fact in some cases, that might prevent that person from identifying with me at all. If I’m honest, I have to admit that my aversion to skimpy clothes has more to do with body image issues than holiness. And I’ve learned that once in a while, my true feelings can best be expressed in words of the 4-letter variety. So what’s the answer? How should a Christian act in order to be effective in this world while honoring the One who created it?
Jesus Himself gave us the answer to this dilemma. And, true to His form, He answers in a way we wouldn’t expect. While we want to present the question to Him, “How should I dress, how should I talk, what should I eat & drink, or not eat & not drink, to show people what You’ve done in my life?” He ignores the pettiness of the question and says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Oh. That changes everything.
Why did Jesus willingly leave His kingdom in heaven to live in poverty and ridicule, and ultimately die a death so horrible they had to come up with a whole new word to describe how it felt? (Excruciating – this word was invented to describe the horror of crucifixion.) Was it so the people of the world would be better dressed, and society would just be nicer in general? Seems like a poor return on investment. No, He looked down on a world that had been corrupted by sin, and it made His heart ache.
Now stay with me here—the word “sin” has come to mean anything enjoyable. That tastes good? Put it down, it’s sinful. That woman/man is attractive? Look away, you’re sinning. But let’s talk about what sin really is. Sin is destruction. It’s stealing possessions that another person needs and has worked hard to get. It’s hurting them just to get what you want. It’s treating them like a collection of body parts instead of a human being with a soul. It’s abusing your own body and mind instead of nurturing it the way God intended. Hmm…suddenly sin doesn’t sound so fun, does it? And this is what God sees when He looks at His creation. He can’t stomach it. The Bible says he can’t stand to even look at it. And He certainly can’t allow it into heaven—then it wouldn’t be heaven anymore, would it?
Do you see what’s missing in the actions above? Stealing, violence, abuse, promiscuity, addiction and other destructive behavior? What’s missing is love. God IS love. Without Him, we will inevitably disintegrate into these destructive patterns. He took on human form and came down to infuse HIMSELF into the human race. He came to save us from our sin. In other words, to save us from killing and feeding on each other, physically and emotionally. By this everyone will know that we are His disciples, if we love one another. If we give more than we take. If we build up instead of tearing down. That’s what makes Christians different. So it’s not when we fail to make our position clear in the presence of obnoxious people—it’s when we fail to show love to each other that we ruin our testimony.
Are you seeing this radical love–this willingness to get dirty and uncomfortable for the sake of someone who’s flailing around in the filth of sin–in the church today? Thank God I do see it, but it seems to be the exception, rather than the rule. Most churchgoers I know would rather associate only with people who dress, eat, act and think like they do. They would rather act…just like the world.