Words by Scott Axtmann
Since I became a Christian in 1989, I’ve met more and more people who no longer identify as Christian. These are people who grew up going to Sunday School or maybe went to Vacation Bible School (VBS) in their neighborhood. These are people with praying moms or praying grandmothers. Some of them were even active members of churches as adults and, in some cases, well-known Christian leaders. The trend in recent years has been to no longer believe in the “God of the Bible”, become atheist, or, most commonly, become agnostic: the loose belief that no one really knows who God is.
Why is this happening? I’ve been told that these prodigals are just bad people who reject Christianity because they want to return to their sinful ways. But that’s too simplistic. Sure, that may be true at times, but some of these people are my friends, and I know otherwise; they didn’t fall away into crime or hate. They are still kind and thoughtful people. So what happened?
The two primary forces I’ve observed through the years that push good people away from the Christian faith are either that they have been given a distorted portrait of the Christian God or have become repulsed by hypocrisy. Some have experienced a devastating combination of both.
A few times when I was in high school, a girl would come up to me and tell me that her friend had a huge crush on me. I remember one particular time this happened and I was shocked. I went from thinking, “this girl probably thinks I’m a jerk” to realizing, “this girl is crazy about me.” Butterflies filled my insides. Suddenly the whole world was more colorful. I wanted to know more about this beautiful girl who wanted to be with me. I found myself doing whatever I could to get near her.
This is similar to what happens when we realize the Creator is crazy about us. The Gospel message tells us that there is a God in heaven who loves us and wants us. He’s a God who is willing to look past all our flaws. He’s a God who wants to have an intimate relationship with us. When we get that, our whole perspective changes. In a moment we go from thinking, “God probably doesn’t like me that much,” to realizing “God is wild about me!”
Sadly, many people who have experienced Christianity didn’t receive this wonderful message. I myself was raised in a faith tradition from childhood, and even attended a religious school, and I never understood anything about this loving God. In fact, I was convinced God didn’t like me. The Christian faith teachers burdened us with rules and boring rituals and painted a portrait of God that was not attractive.
I ran from it.
But when I experienced—later in life—the love of God, I fell like a child into the arms of God. I try to keep this portrait of God’s love in mind, especially when my own faith is tested.
The other reason I’ve seen many people walk away from Christianity, and especially church life, is that they simply don’t want to be associated with a group of people who seem unkind, intellectually dishonest and hypocritical. Even as I write this, my heart is bursting to say—“Yes! I feel like that too! I want to pull my hair out sometimes over stupid things Christians say and do! I’m embarrassed in some settings to identify as a Christian. I get it!”
Hypocrisy means pretending: to act like someone you aren’t. One way this plays out amongst Christians is when someone acts holier than others but actually isn’t. It’s pretty ugly! It has helped me to realize that Jesus Himself raged against hypocrisy and often called it out publicly. If you are really bothered by the hypocrisy of some Christians you might take some comfort in the fact that Jesus feels the same way!
What I think bothers me most is when I see Christians preaching a message of love but not practicing that love. Christians can be rude, snarky, unpleasant, ungracious, unmerciful, insensitive, inconsiderate, selfish, unforgiving, angry, malicious, petty, divisive, jealous and competitive. Christians can, in fact, behave much worse at times than people who don’t even claim to believe in God! This is all very confusing, and I can see why people would want nothing to do with Christianity.
The temptation, in light of all this hypocrisy, is to throw off Christianity. But is that logical? I don’t stop eating at a local farm-to-table restaurant just because of someone who acts like he loves the food but actually doesn’t. I don’t abandon my love of the New England Patriots simply because some of the fans are obnoxious. I don’t refuse to buy an iPhone because people use the iPhone in rude ways. I’ve decided not to blame Jesus for all the hypocrisy I see, and to stay devoted to his Church despite the flaws. Why should I let hypocrites rob me of the beautiful gifts of God?
I freely admit that Christians can behave poorly. They can think narrowly. They can produce bad movies. Their politics can be infuriating. Some Christians have justified and taken part in slavery. Some claiming to be Christian have slaughtered people in the name of Jesus. Christians have put other Christians to death! The atrocities of people identifying as Christian throughout history cannot be denied. Jesus, in fact, warned us that not everyone who identifies as a Christian actually is a Christian, from his perspective.
What keeps me sane is reminding myself that there are millions upon millions of devoted lovers of Christ who quietly and beautifully live out the love of God in their corner of the world. They are generous, kind, forgiving, thoughtful people who want nothing more than to honor God with their lives. They aren’t perfect; they fail; they are works in progress—but they reflect something of God’s love. It’s hard not to be bothered by the hypocrisy of Christians, but I’m not going to let them push me away from Christ.
Have you stepped back from the Christian faith because of abrasive portraits of God? Or because of the embarrassing hypocrisy of Christians? Or both? My encouragement is to not give up on Christ and his Church. I wish I could promise that if you return to church you will experience grace and love. The truth is that churches are open to the public, which means there is always a mix of good and bad people. I do know, however, that there are beautiful church communities out there. You may need to search for them, but they’re there. The eclectic urban church community I’ve been part of since 2003 is far from perfect!—but it has fostered my relationship with God dramatically. Don’t give up.
Scott grew up in Western Massachusetts and came to the faith at the age of 21. As the outcome of his transformed life, he founded and now Pastors Renaissance Church and CityLove.