I've had a melancholy sort of week. It was a state of mind that led to a lot of reflection and looking back over the years. I was thinking of my time in American Evangelical Culture, the people I met there, the ones I'm still in contact with, the bridges I burned with others, those who burned the bridges in my direction, churches I visited, churches I attended, churches I left, etc. I have two bad habits when I spend a lot of time in thought. I overanalyze simple things and simplify complex ones. As I continued to reflect, I tried to think of the one piece of advice I would give to people/churches/organizations that exist within that culture. Could I boil it down to one thing?
At first I assumed that it would be something about treating others with love and compassion. But there are plenty of people in that culture who do behave with love. And when it comes to those who don't, they usually claim that they are. So that wouldn't really work. I let all the faces, places, and experiences I had in that world flip through my mind's eye one by one. As I did, the emotions of those experiences, good and bad, rushed back. It became a more personal challenge now. It wasn't just about the advice that I would give to the culture in general. What advice would I give if I had the chance to give it to those I had personally encountered?
Just be honest.
That's what I would say. That's how I would sum it all up. Just be honest. It's not that I feel there is a rash of blatant lying within Evangelical circles. It's that many of those circles are rife with insincerity.
I don't think American Evangelical Culture is always intentionally trying to mislead people. But I do believe that it can create this scenario where either the end justifies the means or devotees are so obsessed with doing the "right thing" that they go through the motions while being emotionally disconnected.
I think of all the times I befriended people because that's what I thought Jesus would do, but had no real interest in them and didn't invest in the relationship, letting it die out. I think of the painful instances where I came to the realization that people I viewed as good friends had done the same to me. I think of the times we were so intent on the end goal of "saving" people that our outreaches and missions trips became spiritual formulas seeking that result rather than sacrificial relational experiences. (As I ponder that, I wonder if, since the love of Jesus was demonstrated through sacrifice, we can truly claim that we are showing others his love at all if we are sacrificing nothing of our own and ourselves in sharing it.) I think of the people I met who spoke to me with one harsh tone in private and then suddenly developed a sickeningly sweet demeanor when leading a public group prayer. I think of all the pastors whose suddenly public scandals shocked their congregations because they put so much energy into appearing to have it all together. I think of a documentary I watched about the founding of a large Evangelical church in which the church's pastor's wife shares how he had so much doubt about actually starting the church at home and contrast that with all the video of the same pastor at the time publicly declaring that he knows this will all work out.
A few weeks back my own pastor spoke on a passage that contained a reference to hypocrites. One thing he said about it stands out in my mind. He mentioned that in the original Greek, the term doesn't have the same connotations we give it in modern use. He said that the meaning of the original term essentially spoke of people who were playing a part, actors. I've always thought of hypocrites as people who say one thing but do another. This definition is a little different. It's not just people who don't practice what they preach. It's people who are playing a role. They are being insincere with the people they meet because somewhere along the lines they became convinced that they needed to. They are doing the right thing, and may in fact be doing the very thing they preach, but it is just a part they are playing.
I was in a church once when a missionary couple came to speak. They were serving in Portugal and learned that I knew a little Portuguese. (I had just started learning, so it wasn't much.) He asked me a question in Portuguese and the second I finished responding, I realized that I had used a verb in the wrong tense and constructed my sentence incorrectly. Before I could correct myself, he quickly jumped in and proclaimed "Oh, that's very good. You speak very well. Very well." Ha! Not in the least. I understand the concept of politeness and the prevalence of little white lies to protect others' feelings, but at that moment, my whole impression of this man changed because I knew that he had just lied to my face. I began to wonder how he could possibly build authentic relationships with those he served if he wasn't being sincere. I wondered what walls I had built in my own relationships in those times over the years that I had been playing a part myself.
Countless Christians spend large amounts of time wondering why it is that so many people don't go to church. Could it be in part because they recognize the insincerity that we refuse to acknowledge? The more fundamentalist Christians often balk when society uses phrases such as "be true to yourself." But maybe, just maybe, doing so would make for far more welcoming congregations. That's not to say that we should share all of our deepest thoughts and feelings with everyone we meet. I wouldn't advise that. But how would the culture of our churches change if we stopped trying to portray ourselves as spiritual superheroes and just started being honest?