Make Christianity Beautiful Again
These days, the name “Christian” seems to evoke as many negative reactions as it does positive ones.
This bothers me.
Does it bother you?
Critics might summarize their feelings about Christians as Gandhi did when he allegedly said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
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.
Having been a Christian for over thirty years and an ordained minister for over twenty-five, I can sympathize with these sorts of anecdotes. As the people of Jesus, we have not always represented him well, and in our poor representation have created a public relations nightmare for the movement that he began through his death, burial and resurrection. In the eyes of a watching world, many would say our lives have been more lackluster than compelling, more ugly than appealing, more pharisaical than winsome, more contentious than kind, more self-centered than servant-like, more sexually inappropriate than sexually pure, more consumeristic than covenantal, more fickle than faithful, more greedy than generous, more proud than humble, more biblically disinterested than biblically anchored, more distracted than purposeful, more bored with Christ than alive to Christ.
Rather than shining as a light to the culture, we can 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 ways to go.
Sadly, our generation of Christians is not the first to limp along in its calling to live as salt and light. Since Bible times and throughout history, we have fumbled again and again. Abraham’s misogyny, Jesse’s parental neglect, David’s adultery and murder, Solomon’s womanizing, Rahab’s prostitution, Peter’s abrasiveness and cowardice, and Corinth’s worldliness are only a few of the many biblical examples of stumbling saints.
Past and present history reminds us of horrid things done “in the name of Christ,” but that would make the actual Christ want to flip over a table or two—the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Jewish and Native American genocides, institutional slavery, white supremacy, holding up signs that say “Fags Burn in Hell” at a young man’s funeral after he was beaten to death for being gay, blindly and boldly calling the September 11 terrorist attacks God’s judgment on America…and more.
In his masterful exposition of The Sermon on the Mount, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says that Christians become compelling to the world to the degree that they stand out as different from the world. The world does not thirst for a religious imitation of itself. Nor does it thirst for an “us against them” moral turf war with its zealous religious neighbors. The world thirsts for a different kind of neighbor—not the kind who deny their fellowman, take up their comforts, and follow their dreams—but the kind who deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus in his mission of loving a weary world to life. The world also thirsts for a new vision for being human, for pursuing and entering friendship, and for contributing to a better world. It is this kind of life, Lloyd-Jones says, that only Jesus Christ can create. And he has left us here to show the world what that kind of life looks like.
Indeed, Christianity is already beautiful. The problem isn’t with Christianity itself, as much as it is with our flawed approach to and understanding it. We can let ourselves become imbalanced, lopsided, and unfocused (much like the rigid, holier-than-thou Pharisees and the anything-goes, libertine Sadducees of the New Testament). To regain our footing, we need to move in the direction of following the whole Jesus and the whole Scripture, into the whole world, the whole time.
As one who longs to see Christianity exude a life-giving, contagious presence in the world, I am both haunted and motivated by 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).
This compelling description of the first Christians compels me to ask what it would look like for Christians to be reignited in this kind of faith for our time.
What would it look like for us to become those who live most beautifully, love most deeply, and serve most faithfully in the places where we live, work and play?
What would it look like for us to live so compellingly and lovingly in our neighborhoods, cities and nations, that if suddenly we were removed from the world, our non-believing neighbors would miss us terribly?
What would it look like for Christians to become the first place where people go for comfort when a life-altering diagnosis comes, when anxiety and depression hit, when a child goes astray, when a job is lost, or when a spouse files for divorce?
What would it look like for a woman with a crisis pregnancy to see the local church, not the local clinic, as her trustworthy source for love, non-judgment, practical support, wise counsel, and much needed encouragement?
What would it look like for the local church to become the most diverse and welcoming, rather than the most homogeneous and inhospitable, community on earth?
What would it look like for “Christian” to become the first thing, rather than the last thing, that employers and search firms hope to see on a resume?
What would it look like for Christians to become not only the best kinds of friends, but the best kinds of enemies, returning insults with kindness and persecution with prayers?
What would it look like for the Lord to add to our number day by day those who are being saved, not in spite of Christians but because of Christians?
What would it look like for Christians, en masse, to start loving and following the whole Jesus and the whole Scripture, the whole time, into the whole world?
In short, what would it look like for Gandhi sympathizers to start saying, “Your Christians are so like your Christ,” for Herb Caen to say that being born again makes people better, not worse, and for Anne Rice to want to live out her Christianity alongside other Christians?
Jesus declared that Christians would be his aroma to the world, the carriers of the divine imprint, partnering with God as his servants to bring foretastes of heaven down. He declared that we would leave the world, as far as it depended on us, better than we found it. He declared that we would be a sign and shadow of a better world, a world that all have imagined but none has yet fully seen. He declared that over time our movement—rather, His movement through us—would become irresistible to people from every nation, tribe and tongue.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote:
“We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Despite a checkered past and present for the Christian family, I write as an optimist. 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 compelling and contagiously beautiful ones. For history is also illuminated by L’Engle’s “light so lovely” and by a Christian way of life that is truly stunning.
There are many such illuminating examples from history. 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-culture 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 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 openly 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, an abortion provider who is beginning to engage with the claims and ways of Christ recently told a member of our church, “I want your God, whoever he or she is, to be my God”—which appears to be his way of saying, “I like your Christ, not in spite of your Christians, but because of them.”
This is the true Christianity that I want to be part of, and this is the true Christianity that I am committed to pursue. It is the beautiful way of Christ that shines a light that is so lovely. It is Christianity that mirrors the whole Christ, offering 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 begin a journey toward Jesus, a better you, a better community, and a better world?
If so, Jesus says, “Come, follow me” (Matthew 4:19).
Let’s follow him together, shall we?