17 August 2021

Fearful churches.

We Christians are meant to be holy, and consider ourselves separate from the rest of the world.

No, this isn’t because we’re better than them. We’re so not.

No, this doesn’t mean we’re to move into little gated communities where nobody but Christians live, isolate ourselves from everybody else, and drive out anyone we might consider sinners. This is how cults start—assuming the cult hasn’t already started, and the compound is just another creepy symptom of how we’ve gone astray.

We’re distinct from the rest of the world because God calls us to follow Jesus. Not other people. Not one another. Not even popular Christian culture—especially its political or Mammonist variants. As the rest of the world does its thing, we’re to ask ourselves, “What would the Father rather I do?” or “What does Jesus do?” Then do that.

Believe it or don’t, sometimes this means we do as the rest of the world does. If the culture suddenly realizes society is institutionally unjust—that violence and discrimination and sexism are wrong, that evil needs to stop—we need to cheer them on, participate, and see whether the Holy Spirit uses these moments to bring people to Jesus. ’Cause he will, and does.

But of course we need to bear in mind pagans have entirely different motives than we do. They don’t do grace; on their better days they do karma. They want things to be fair and equitable, not because it’s inherently good that they’re so, but because fairness ultimately benefits them. And when it doesn’t, they don’t try to make things fair. The status quo and current social order is fine. Why discomfort themselves when reform does absolutely nothing for them, or even costs them, or makes ’em give up power? Nah.

Our motives have to be like God’s: Way higher. Wheenever we find ourselves on the same side as the world, we oughta see this for what it is: It’s a chance to draw a few pagans to Christ Jesus and God’s kingdom. But not every church realizes this, and figures we’re to stay away from the world, lest “bad company ruin good character.” 1Co 15.33 Best to stay away from pagans, turn the kingdom into a fortress, and isolate ourselves from them with both spiritual and rule-based hedges of protection.

When you visit such churches, that’s the mindset you’re gonna find among ’em. A whole lot of anti-world rhetoric. Everything inside the church is good, pure, and holy; everything “out there” is wicked, corrupt, destructive. Dabble in it just a little, even unintentionally, and it’ll ruin you. Stay away. Touch not the unclean thing.

Ostensibly the goal is holiness. The real result? Fear and dark Christianity.

“The world is going to hell. But not us!”

One of the things you’re gonna find fearful Christians tend to preach, regardless of what they believe about the End Times (and relax, I’m not writing about End Times stuff today), is the world is the worst it’s ever been, and only getting worse.

This, despite many measurements proving it’s not.

Seriously. Current crime rates are down, and have been going down for years. Murder rates are down. Prostitution and slavery are on the way out. Life expectancy is up. Institutional sexism and racism are slowly but gradually getting exposed and rooted out of our institutions. Technology is so useful. Quality of life is up. Diseases (except among anti-vaxxers) are being cured and eliminated. The poorest of our poor have better access to food and healthcare than they ever have before. And we’re doing more and more to help the poorest of other nations’ poor.

So why do Christians believe things are getting worse, despite all the evidence around them? Because they don’t believe the evidence around them. Their hearts are hard; their minds are closed. They believe as they believe, and there’s no convincing them otherwise. In fact if you try, they’re convinced you’re trying to lead them astray. Facts don’t matter to them; only their worldview does, and facts only get in the way.

Some of ’em were raised to believe, and only believe, that the world is getting worse. That the only valid theologians and preachers and authors are the pessimists. That the only reliable sources of news are provided by the pessimists. Their mentors rebuked any hopeful optimism they found in them, any idealistic strain, as foolishness, wishful thinking, tricks of the devil: We need to remain pessimistic, skeptical, and vigilant, for only our vigilance (not Christ’s infinite, overwhelming power) holds back the darkness.

Some of us, when we were kids, were sheltered from all the evil in the world. Our parents made the world feel safe and loving. Back in the 1960s, our history books skipped all the atrocities our society committed, and only taught progress and optimism—and when kids were finally exposed to the evils of the real world, they were horrified: “Things are far worse than we ever imagined!” Or if they never realized their parents sheltered them: “Things are far worse than they were when I was a kid.” Society, they conclude, has to be in decline.

And some of us are, and always have been, pessimists. Or as pessimists like to rebrand themselves, “realists.” They don’t choose to turn things into joy; they focus on evil instead of good. They gravitate towards any theology or worldview which does likewise.

So in their churches, you’re gonna hear lots of negativity. The preachers regularly mock and rebuke one worldly thing after another. Some of these things are legitimately evil and should be rebuked, but really the preachers are going after them because they’re secular, and seldom for any other reason. In seminary I remember one chapel speaker who really confused us students ’cause he talked about how he got a popular movie as a Christmas gift, and how he really enjoyed watching it… then how he had to repent for enjoying this movie. What, we wondered, was wrong with it?—was it immoral, or was he immoral in the way he enjoyed it? Neither. The movie was produced by this world, and the speaker figured we’re to “love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” 1Jn 2.15 KJV Including secular movies.

How do Christians discourage one another from even liking the things that are in the world? Easiest way: Make ’em worry these things are quietly corroding us. Make ’em think the darkness can extinguish the light Jn 1.5 when we don’t watch out. Make ’em afraid. Like the children’s song goes, “Be careful little eyes what you see; be careful little ears what you hear; be careful little feet where you go.”

But when you teach the kids this song, it’s not so they might learn discernment. It’s so they look at nothing, listen to nothing, and go nowhere.

Why this mindset is evil.

Church is meant to be the place we go to escape fears, worries, and burdens. God’s love—as practiced by his obedient followers—is supposed to eliminate fear. 1Jn 4.18 Jesus orders us to stop worrying, for the Father takes care of all the junk we and the pagans worry about, and all we need do is seek his kingdom. Mt 6.25-34 Jesus himself offers to take up any burdens we carry, and replace them with his burden, which is easy, not heavy. Mt 11.28-30

So… what if church becomes the source of our fears, worries, and burdens? Right you are: People are gonna seek the alternative. People are gonna leave.

So many kids in my high school youth group went away to college, and discovered how all the things our youth pastors warned us against, and tried to scare us away from, were nothing like the fears they put in our heads. We felt lied to. (We kinda were lied to.) Most of us never returned to church. Why should we? All church ever did was make us feel awful.

Whom does that leave behind in the church? The pessimists. People who already fear and hate the world, who love how their church validates their paranoia. And of course the pessimists’ families… who themselves will either grow up into little pessimists—or like the kids of my youth group, flee as soon as they discover an escape route.

Yeah, you can tell I grew up in a church full of dark Christians. On the up side, it’s made me particularly sensitive to such churches. When I visit a dark Christian church, I won’t go back, and I warn others away. On the down side, I admit I still have some of that scared-of-the-world mentality embedded in my subconscious and theology, which I gotta watch out for lest I slip up and teach it as if it came from God. It does not.

My Lord has conquered the world. Jn 16.33 He is my light and salvation; what reason have I to be afraid? Ps 27.1 None. I refuse to stand with any church who proclaims otherwise.