If you’re ever bored with small talk and have a group of Christian friends around, try asking what they think the major issue in the American church is. You will almost always start a colorful discussion where everyone throws around serious issues like cynical confetti.
When it’s my turn, I’ve never been able to summarize the area I’m most worried about. That is, until I finished my latest read, which is actually not an examination of the church, but instead something much more personal: a memoir called Single, Gay, Christian by Greg Coles.
What I love about this book, the need I think it fills in the church, is that it isn’t a practical theology book (although there is a chapter that explains why Greg couldn’t interpret the Bible to allow same-sex unions even when he wanted to). It’s a story.
From the first lines of the book’s prologue, you get the sense of an invitation to empathy: “Let’s make a deal, you and me. Let’s make promises to each other….If you’ll listen, I promise I’ll tell you everything, and you can decide for yourself what you want to believe about me. Wait until you’ve heard everything. Wait until you know me.”
As I read, the story became less a justification of Greg’s stance—why he uses the term “gay” to describe himself even though he’s committed to celibacy or what he thinks about the insistence that prayer can “fix” sexual brokenness—and more a challenge for me and the church in general. (Have you noticed that we’re much more open to being confronted about something when we feel like we know and trust the person saying it? That’s the effect this book had on me.)
When Greg said, “Obedience is supposed to be costly,” sure, I heard it as a reason why he felt he shouldn’t act on his attractions. But I also thought of something larger when he went on to explain, “In the Western world, lulled by freedom of religion and unprecedented opulence, we so easily lose sight of what words like suffering really mean. We begin to believe that ease and safety are the baseline experiences of humanity.”
It sounded strangely familiar. The very argument that many theologically liberal Christians use to justify gay relationships (“God loves us and would never create someone to deny their sexual desires…that’s not fair”) is used by many theologically conservative Christians to justify remaining snug and secure in their faith communities (“God loves us and wants us to be safe and encouraged and blessed, so he would never ask us to do anything hard or risky.”) Both of them put our happiness as the main goal of life. Neither of them seem to get that from the Bible.
Here’s Greg again: “Maybe the calling to gay Christian celibacy stands in twenty-first-century America as a precious reminder of just how desperately, helplessly devoted we were meant to be to the cross of Christ. A reminder that every sacrifice we make will pale in comparison to the sacrifice made on our behalf. Maybe the problem isn’t that faith costs some of us too much, but that it costs all of us too little.”
(Read that last line again. Go ahead. I’ll wait.)
If the events of the past few years have taught me anything, it’s that Greg is right. When we ignore the call to radically sacrificial faith…bad things happen. Here are a few reasons why I think this is the number one failing of the church in America:
- Because, as Dr. Theon Hill points out in a Christianity Today article, while the gospel gives us every imperative to oppose racism, the church has a history of temporarily speaking in outrage…and then falling silent before any real change has been achieved.
- Because when I went to ESL training, everyone else at my table was shocked to find out that many of the immigrant services in my community are run by Christian groups or ministries. “I don’t believe it. All the religious people I know want to send these people back,” someone said.
- Because in Single, Gay, Christian Greg reminds us with stories from his own experience that we don’t know how to treat those from sexual minorities…and it’s driving many away from Jesus instead of toward him. (I talked about this more here.)
Those are bullet points, but they felt like bullets to me, reading them. I hope they did to you, too, because what they represent is the failure to love like Jesus.
Can I be blunt? I am deeply, desperately afraid that we are destroying our witness in our pursuit of the Christian version of the American dream. The world is looking at what we’re doing—and not doing—and coming to conclusions about the God we claim to serve…and they’re not always good.
Sometimes, we are silent when we should speak. Sometimes, we talk too much when we should listen first. Sometimes we just run away.
I love the church. Please, if you’re new to my blog, know that. There are entirely too many people whining about and giving up on the fellowship of believers that Jesus loved enough to die for, and that’s not what I want to do. I’m also fully aware that I’m often part of the problem.
What I want to do in join with the voices who are calling us back to the words of Jesus, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” And I’m going to start by asking myself, and asking you, “What has your faith cost you lately?”
The list of action points is basically endless: Have a heart to listen to others who are different than you. Ask someone what they think about something. Learn more about an issue that catches your attention. Look for opportunities to simply tell the story of what God is teaching you. Pray for more love for others. Read a book or blog to learn more about a different group of people. Be a good neighbor.
Those things sound simple, but they’re harder than they seem because they require a shift in thinking. With these priorities, it isn’t enough to go to church and page through your daily Bible reading and listen to a radio station that’s “uplifting, encouraging, and safe for the whole family.” According to Jesus, that’s never been enough.
We’ve settled for a half-hearted faith that doesn’t cost us anything. Yes, today’s messed-up world with its moral chaos and depressing headlines is what happens when non-believers do whatever feels right. But it’s also what happens when the church rejects costly discipleship for something a little safer, milder, more comfortable.
Christians, there is no issue too difficult for us to discuss. There is no area of life the gospel doesn’t relate to and transform. There is no person outside of God’s ability to save.
Only if we believe that—really believe it in a way that transforms our actions, not just our church’s doctrinal platform—will we be able to obey the command to radical discipleship and love others like Jesus.