These days, the word “Christian” evokes as many negative reactions as it does positive ones.
This bothers me. Does it bother you?
Critics might summarize their feelings about Christians with these alleged words from Mahatma Gandhi:
“I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
While no original source seems to exist for this quotation, we do know that Gandhi (a) quoted and expressed high regard for Jesus, (b) attributed most of his humanitarian ethic to Jesus, (c) felt grossly mistreated by Christians, whose actions toward him did not reflect Jesus from the New Testament, and (d) very possibly on this basis, chose Hinduism over Christianity.
More recently, San Francisco journalist Herb Caen said,
“The trouble with born-again Christians is that they are an even bigger pain the second time around.”
Painfully, and from the vantage point of a Christian convert who had become disenchanted with her church, Vampire Chronicles author Anne Rice wrote:
“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”
Deservedly infamous. Ouch!
As a forgiven, loved, and Spirit-filled people, we can do better than this.
Christians certainly did at one time. Look no further than Luke’s observation about first-century Christians in the book of Acts. Their quality of life was so rich, their worship so genuine, their life together so deep, and their neighbor-love so palpable, that they “were having favor with all the people” and “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
So what went wrong? How did we end up alienating, rather than attracting, those around us?
As the sentiments quoted above make crystal clear, the people of Jesus have often not represented him well, and our poor representation has created a public relations nightmare for the movement that he began through his death, burial, and resurrection.
In the eyes of a watching world, our lives can seem more lackluster than compelling, more contentious than kind, more self-centered than servant-like, more fickle than faithful, more proud than humble, more biblically disinterested than biblically anchored, more bored with Christ than alive to Christ.
Rather than shining as a light to the culture, we have in some ways become products of the culture. As those whom Christ has called the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and a city on a hill, we still have a long way to go.
In spite of a checkered past and present for the Christian family, I am still optimistic about the Jesus movement. I am optimistic because Jesus still intends to renew and love the world through his people. I am optimistic because the negative stories, as concerning as they are, don’t tell the full story and, therefore, shouldn’t be allowed to completely own the narrative.
The negative stories aren’t the whole story because for every poor representation of Christ, there are a thousand infectiously beautiful ones. For history is also illuminated by a Christian way of life that is truly remarkable and beautiful.
History is filled with these kinds of lives. For example, Christians have shown groundbreaking leadership in science (Pascal, Copernicus, Newton, Galileo, Koop, Collins), the arts and literature (Rembrandt, Beethoven, Dostoevsky, TS Eliot, Tolkein, Fujimura, Cash, Bono), the academy (all but one of the Ivy League Universities were founded by Christians), and mercy and justice (Wilberforce with abolition, Mueller with orphan care, MLK with civil rights).
The identifying mark of the City of God is when citizens of the heavenly city become the very best citizens of the earthly one. As CS Lewis has said, history shows that the people who did the most for the present world were the ones who thought the most of the next one.
To be heavenly minded, then, is to be more earthly good, not less.
It is to be contagious contributors, not contemptible contrarians, to the world around us.
It is to be neither holier-than-thou enemies of the culture on the one hand, nor lawless and licentious products of the culture on the other. Rather, it is to be counter-cultural for the good and flourishing of all. It is to resist every urge to lobby and position ourselves to become a power- and privilege-hungry “moral majority.”
Rather, it is to pursue our God-given and biblically sanctioned calling to be a fiercely love-driven, self-donating, prophetic minority.
I think it’s time to embrace that kind of vision, don’t you?
It is heartening to see contemporary observers take note of how Christian belief, in its purest form, produces beautiful lives. New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof, a self-proclaimed agnostic, has often noted how today’s Christians far outnumber the rest of the world in volunteer hours and dollars given toward the alleviation of poverty and human suffering.
The gay mayor of Portland, Oregon, Sam Adams, has spoken publicly about how positive his experience was partnering with local Christian churches to serve the vulnerable communities of Portland.
Here in our Nashville community, a committed secularist told his neighbor who is also a member of our church,
“I want your God, whoever he or she is, to be my God.” This appears to be his way of saying, “I like your Christ, not in spite of your Christians, but because of them.”
I don’t know about you, but this is the kind of Christianity I want to be part of, and this is the kind of Christianity I am committed to pursue. It is a beautiful and therefore truer Christianity that shines a light that is so lovely. It is a Christianity that mirrors the whole Christ and so offers a tired and sometimes cynical world a reason to pause and consider…and to start wishing it could be true.
How about you? Are you ready to embark on a journey toward a better you, a better us, and a better world?
If so, Jesus says, “Come, follow me” (Matthew 4:19).
Let’s follow him together, shall we?
Scott Sauls is an author, blogger and pastor in Nashville, TN.