Once the word gets out that I am a practicing "evangelical," I get lots of comments about the church. I hear about hypocrites in the church and about national leaders whose lives fall far short of their rhetoric. A lot of the comments are true. So how do you handle those accusations? Ideally you can reach a point where you can explain the Christian theology of original sin and that redemption is only because of Christ and not because of works. But the old bumper sticker argument that "I am not perfect . . . just forgiven" is not a compelling defense for those who don't understand the gospel and who witness the daily shortcomings of Christians.
I thought about a church in my town that decided last fall to own up to their failures. They made a bold decision to confess in humility and see what might happen.
The headline in an ad that ran in The Dallas Morning News screamed out in big, bold letters:
We Were Wrong
We followed trends when we should have followed Jesus. We told others how to live but did not listen ourselves. We live in the land of plenty, denying ourselves nothing, while ignoring our neighbors who actually have nothing. We sat on the sidelines doing nothing while AIDS ravaged Africa. We were wrong; we're sorry. Please forgive us.
That is a powerful and sobering admission. I was shocked. And I was greatly encouraged by the courage and the humility needed to admit such an embarrassing message to the public.
I opened my first book When Bad Christians Happen to Good People back in 2002 with these words:
I must begin with some words of disclosure. I am a hypocrite. I can be arrogant and selfish. I have been known to stretch, conceal, or slightly massage the truth. I am sometimes inconsiderate and insecure. I struggle with lust and impure thoughts. My ego often rages out of control, and I battle foolish pride. I can be lazy and foolhardy with my time. I get angry, petty, and ill tempered. I am sarcastic and cynical.
I am a Christian.
Does that surprise you? It shouldn't. If there is one theme about our faith that should be communicated, it is that we all fall short of the goal spelled out in Christ's teachings. Author Max Lucado has a wonderful line. He says that God loves you just the way you are, but He refuses to leave you that way. So all of us believers are somewhere on that continuum of where we started and where God wants us to be. But that realization seems to penetrate our thinking only sporadically. In fact, there are those among us who will call me a counterfeit since I admit to such unflattering traits. They will write and tell me that if I had their brand of faith I would be above any of these sins all of the time. I believe they would be wrong.
Obviously a "bad Christian" like me was intrigued to hear how Springcreek Church explained their very public confession. Senior Pastor Keith Stewart wrote this in an open letter on the church website:
No one is perfect. No one lives sin-free. You blow it. I blow it. And the church does, too. I'm sure that you (like me) have, on more than one occasion, had to make something right by apologizing. So why is it so rare to hear a church apologize? The truth is, an apology from the church should not "stand out." It should not make the community sit up and take notice. But it does, precisely because that the church rarely does what it tells others to do.
In all sincerity, we want to change that. The church in America has a serious credibility problem. Those outside the church look at us and often don't see anything that even remotely resembles Jesus. Instead they see judgment, hypocrisy, and very little compassion. They hear our words, but don't see a lifestyle that aligns with those words.
Is this very public mea culpa Godly, or is it a gimmick? Pastor Stewart began his open letter with this Scripture:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives (1 John 1, NIV).
I would love to go to a church that can confess with humility and grace that they have erred. I trust that Pastor Stewart's heart is sincere and his congregation shares his authenticity. I rarely write in absolutes but one thing I have found is that truly Godly people always demonstrate humility. From reading the comments at the church website I am struck by the humility of Pastor Keith Stewart.
If I may gracefully add one caution to my fellow sojourners here in scenic Garland, Texas, it would be this lesson I learned the hard way. I am responding to a couple of lines that appeared in the open letter. I hasten to add that their leadership may be well ahead of your humble correspondent on this point. Here are the sentences that caused me to recall my long journey to practice grace:
The only way the community will ever believe our words is if our behavior backs it up. With the help of God, we want to become a community of believers that lives out its creed.
May I suggest with all the grace I can muster the following thoughts? The community will believe your words if you create an environment of grace and from that safety you can live out your creed. A place where you can walk in flawed and hurting and be accepted for who you are and where you are in your journey. A place where you don't have to wear a mask to be accepted. That is when, in my humble opinion, the community will believe your words. I am praying for you daredevils at Springcreek Church. I pray that many of us will follow your example both personally and corporately. I think it is a good example of humility that the rest of us can take to the workplace and into our own circle of influence. Your thoughts?