Over the last year, our mission field has changed. It has become much, much more resistant to the Christian faith and message.
Here’s the headline:
Over the course of the last year, those outside of the Christian faith have increasingly looked on Christians with derision. A new animus has emerged toward Christians and Christianity—specifically evangelical Christians and evangelical Christianity.
This is when you need to put on your big-boy pants. I’m going to be telling you why they feel this way. It’s not about whether they are right or justified. I’m telling you how they’re thinking, and how they’re feeling. I’m going to tell you how we are being perceived. The reputation of Christians, and evangelical Christianity in particular, has been hit in five ways, over five issues, over the past year.
Issue 1: In-Person Services
First, the insistence of some to meet for in-person, weekend services. That didn’t and isn’t going over well. The anger toward “open” or “opening” churches from the wider population is palpable. And no segment of that “wider population” is more livid and more disgusted than those who are unchurched. The sentiment is that churches insisting on meeting indoors, in person and in mass, are selfish, uncaring, unloving, and belligerent.
Even though many churches are gathering with masks and social distancing, it doesn’t help that there are just as many, if not more, gathering without masks or distancing and posting the gatherings boldly on social media as if a badge of spiritual pride. This causes all cautiously “open” churches to be painted with the same brush of perceived reckless irresponsibility and disdain for the health of others.
The bottom line is that those we are trying to reach care little for our desire to meet, our hunger for corporate worship, or our First Amendment rights. They would say that they have been deprived of much themselves. What they do care about is any group of people acting in such a way that seems to callously put others at risk. It is simply deemed selfish and unloving. It is seen as putting the emotional or relational needs we had to be together over the now 500,000 plus lives lost in the U.S. alone, not to mention the one in five Americans who have lost someone dear to them.
In a strange cultural twist, it is now the unchurched saying that we value the quality of life over the sanctity of life. In their minds, we have not loved our neighbor. Specifically, we have not loved them.
And there’s some truth to that.
A Pew Research survey was recently released that found only 54% of all white evangelicals planned on getting the vaccine. But here’s what was most concerning: More than half of white evangelicals said they would not even take the health effects of their community into account in their decision. In other words, they wouldn’t consider what taking or not taking it would mean for their neighbor. They literally said they didn’t care.
Issue 2: Conspiracy Theories
Second, the embrace of conspiracy theories like QAnon by many Christians, mostly evangelical ones, put us firmly on the fringe in their minds.
We’ve all heard of QAnon by now. What is alarming is the degree by which conspiracy theories like those it spreads have taken hold in Christian circles. It’s some bizarre stuff: 5G radio waves are used for mind control; George Floyd’s murder is a hoax; Bill Gates is related to the devil; face masks can kill you; the germ theory isn’t real; and there is a ring of pedophiles made up of deep state leaders.
Now, if you’re reading this thinking, “Wait, some of that is true!”, I’m not going to get into conspiracy theory debates with you. I’m telling you what the people we are wanting to reach are thinking. They’ve got one word for it: crazy. Again, to the unchurched, it makes Christianity as a whole seem not just extreme, but on the fringe, and even weirder than it already was to their thinking.
Issue 3: Christian Nationalism
Third, the violence that has seemed to come with Christian Nationalism has them frightened and appalled. The storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 by people carrying the Christian flag, signs about Jesus and faith and a Christian America – even holding a prayer service once the rioters got inside – will forever be etched in their psyches.
It’s all about Christianity being identified with hate and violence and insurrection and forcing a Christian cultural and, in their minds, political agenda onto the world through terror. In their minds, we’re no different than the people who flew planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11 as retribution against Islam. Only this was retribution against Christianity. To their thinking, it’s all the same terrorism in the name of religion.
Issue 4: Political Affiliation
A fourth issue is the confusion about all things Trump. White evangelicals in particular supported him. The unchurched, non-Christian didn’t care about the importance of conservatives in Supreme Court appointments, laws about freedom of religion, or the question of abortion. All they saw were Christians fawning over a man to the point of seeming idolatry—a man who even his most ardent supporters would admit is a deeply immoral man. From their perspective, we cared about power more than purity. We would eagerly condemn sin in their lives – such as homosexuality, adultery, and pornography – but embrace and overlook lying, sexual immorality, multiple divorces, ego, and immaturity in Trump. In their estimation, Christian support of Trump was hypocrisy. It gutted our moral authority because we threw what mattered morally out the window in return for political gain.
Issue 5: Silence on Social Justice
Finally, they saw the often-muted response to the death of George Floyd and other tragic events related to race, racism, and social injustice as wildly insufficient. Their verdict was that many Christians were silent on the greatest moral issue of the day. Instead of a clear stand, all they felt they heard from us were arguments about critical race theory, the denial of institutional racism, and the condemnation of violence and looting in the streets. Which, to them, was at best culturally tone-deaf and at worst exhibiting our own racism.
Now again, there’s no point in trying to push back at this. It’s how they feel. And you can’t just write all this off and say, “Well, they’re just liberals and we’re conservatives.” Or “Well, Christians will always be persecuted.” Or “We shouldn’t care what the world thinks.” I won’t get into whether those sentiments are true or not. I will say they are largely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what the source of the attitudes toward the Christian faith may be.
Here’s What Matters
The world we are trying to reach believes that we don’t care about them. They believe we are certifiably crazy and irrational—not because of our doctrine, but because of what we believe off the internet. They believe that we are as violent as any terrorist group, that we are hypocrites, and that we are racist.
That’s kind of a problem. Those are assessments about our character. Those are assessments about how we match up to the Jesus we proclaim. Those are assessments about our morality. You can laugh at me or hold me in contempt all day long for believing in the virgin birth, the atonement of my sins through Christ’s death on the cross, the Trinitarian nature of God, and the inerrancy of Scripture.
I’ll wear it as a badge of pride.
But if you are holding me in disdain for perceived lovelessness, the lack of sound reason and judgment, violence and hatred, hypocrisy and racism, then I’m no longer proud (whether I’m guilty or not)—I’m in crisis mode.
All to say, cultural apologetics has gotten a lot tougher, with a lot more to help people get past than ever before. So that’s the bad news.
The good news is that a lot of local churches gained ground with the unchurched during this time. Christianity as a whole might have had some tough sledding in the court of public opinion, but many local churches earned respect and admiration.
From the perspective of the unchurched, they gained points for staying closed, or by making it very clear that when they gathered, they took every possible precaution. They spoke out against racism and took time to pray and teach about it. They debunked conspiracy theories. They spoke out against the violence at the Capitol and the many insidious elements of extreme Christian Nationalism. And they walked through the election year politics in a way that made clear that they were Christians first, and Democrats or Republicans second.
But let’s be candid.
The pandemic, collectively, was not our greatest moment in terms of perception and public relations. And we need to realize that the mission is going to be much, much more difficult as a result.
Cary Funk and Alec Tyson, “Growing Share of Americans Say They Plan to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine – or Already Have,” Pew Research Center, March 5, 2021, read online.
Bob Smietana, “Bible Teacher Beth Moore, Splitting with Lifeway, Says, ‘I Am No Longer a Southern Baptist,’” Religion News Service, March 9, 2021, read online.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/nicoletaionescu
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.