When Christians Are Embarrassing

One of my favorite books is Donald Miller‘s Blue Like Jazz. While I’ll admit that it’s been awhile since I last read it, I still clearly remember the impact it had on me. In short, Don shares his account of his early adulthood – a struggle to make sense of his childhood Baptist upbringing in light of real-world experiences that seem so incredibly different. While it could be considered simply one person’s story, it is easily relatable for many. Don tells his story with authenticity and candor.

This past weekend, Blue Like Jazz made it to the big screen. Friday night, I had the joy of seeing it on opening weekend. While quite different from the book (or at least what I remember of it), the film version of the story retained the elements that made the book so successful. Struggle. Doubt. Honesty, though at times quite brutal. What makes Blue Like Jazz so popular, I think, is that Don Miller’s story resonates so well with the stories of so many others.

Most of the negative press I’ve heard about the movie (and, for what it’s worth, I’ve heard far more positive than negative) is that it isn’t “Christian” enough (take Christianity Today‘s review, for example). It seems to me that CT simply wants Blue Like Jazz to be like every other Christian movie out there. The problem is, I think that’s the point. In Blue Like Jazz, Miller ultimately realizes that his “typical” evangelical upbringing has failed him. At first, it causes him to reject the church entirely, but he ultimately realizes that while he can run from his past, he can’t run from God. While his childhood has turned out to be filled with deception and even lies, God is still Truth. What I love so much about the story is that Don doesn’t become an atheist or something like that; despite his pain and disappointment, he concludes that God is still real and true despite it all.

As we left the theater on Friday, we encountered at least two separate groups of what I like to call “Bible thumpers” on our way out. In case you don’t know what I mean, they were the typical fundamentalist Christians: waving Bibles, telling people to repent, and so on. My encounter with them went something like this.

I shook my head and looked at the ground, audibly mumbling, “Please stop.”
They asked: “Are you a believer?”
“Yes,” I replied, “and you are embarrassing me.”
“You’re embarrassing me,” one of them said. “Preach the word!”

We quickly walked away. Seeing another couple about our age by the parking garage elevator and not knowing which movie they came to see, my wife sheepishly said, “Christians aren’t all like those street preachers, you know.” As it turns out, they were also Christians who came to see Blue Like Jazz and could also relate to Don’s story. We were relieved.

It’s sad – pathetic really – that we felt relieved to know this. What is so ironic is that those trying to “take a stand for Christ” (or so I would assume, by their comments to me) were the very ones for whom Don felt compelled to apologize in the movie.

I just don’t get it. Why do some Christians feel the need to do more harm than good? Why are so many Christians, for lack of a better term, so embarrassing?

Recently, I’ve read about several people who have had struggles with the church. Just yesterday I read the story of Kim Van Brunt and her decision to leave the church. Perhaps the most unfortunate part is the bashing she received in the comments section of the page. While some of the comments were positive, most were chiding her for her decision and warning her of the consequences to come. While I’m sure they were well-intended, they likely inflicted additional hurt onto an existing wound and reinforced her decision.

Here’s the thing. The church is the bride of Christ. If I’ve learned anything from my just-short-of-a-year of married life, it’s this: a marriage works the best when the husband and wife are on the same page. The times Lindsay and I have found ourselves at odds are all rooted in some sort of disagreement. Sometimes we’ve had different ideas about how to do something, and other times one of us made a mistake. Either way, though, the root of the problem was some sort of fundamental difference about something. And if the church is to be the bride of Christ, that means that the church needs to be on the same page as Jesus. Stories like Don’s and Kim’s are examples of times when this isn’t the case.

There’s one difference between Christ’s relationship with the church and all other marriages, however. It’s this: the church has a spouse that doesn’t mess up. So when the church isn’t on the same page as Christ, it’s the church that’s in the wrong. Though I still (hopefully) still have much of my life ahead of me, I’ve already seen far too many examples of this firsthand in my short past. I was the youth pastor at a church where most of the youth left before worship because they didn’t feel like they were welcome. I’ve been a worship pastor at a church immersed in a war over musical style. I’ve heard a guest speaker come and preach a “sermon” that was really more of a fundamentalist treatise on who to hate and why. I’ve visited churches whose pastors regularly spew out a misconstrued “gospel” that is in fact more of an arrogant brag on why they have been chosen as elect while most others in the world have not. I’ve experienced the cheesy Christian subculture – the awful bumper stickers, the copycat t-shirts, the zombified music detectable within milliseconds (justified in its existence for its “family-friendly” benefits). As a child, I even once visited a church in which a girl pointed at my sister and me and exclaimed, “Who are those people?” as if our mere presence in the room deserved explanation.

It’s easy for me to see why so many feel the need to give up on church completely. It’s not necessarily because there’s something wrong with those who are leaving; it’s because, more often than not, the church looks nothing like the bride it’s intended to be. It’s because, far too often, the church is driven by selfishness, greed, control, and fear of change. I’m so thankful that I’m currently a part of a church that appears to be none of these things. I have a feeling that Donald Miller and Kim Van Brunt might really like my church. I’m absolutely sure that my church is trying to be the church that people like Don and Kim are looking for. But for all the other churches out there, maybe they can take a hint from Don and Kim: instead of badgering others to conform to what you think church ought to be, try actually being the bride of Christ that we’re called to be. I think (non-zombified) Christian songwriter Shaun Groves says it best: “This world is not what’s wrong with me / I’m what’s wrong with this world.” I truly believe the biblical model for church is far more appealing than what we’ve made it out to be, but we must change our ways and stop the bleeding before we can truly advance the Kingdom of God.

5 comments

  1. First, I love your interactions with the bible-thumpers. “Please stop” is exactly what I’ve thought, so many times! Next time I might venture to say it out loud like you did.

    Thanks for reading my post and wading through those comments. It was an interesting day yesterday, but the thing was, none of the comments said anything that I hadn’t already thought long before we left church. I wasn’t that bothered or hurt by them because I’d already made those arguments to myself. I was pleasantly surprised to just be engaged in the conversation in a detached way. I knew people would react more to the “leaving church” issue than to my actual post, which was how we’re trying to shape our kids’ faith (a topic I think would interest anyone inside the church or outside it, but perhaps the source (me) was too distracting because of our choices).

    We also didn’t leave church because we were wounded or betrayed by it — a big reason we left is because it was very much a program-driven exercise in morality. Jesus was mentioned because of course he should be, but when I read about him on my own, I was surprised at how little of what he did and said actually make it into a church service. He was controversial and challenging and still is today — but church is typically anything but.

    We left one church because a pastor we admired (from that church) was starting up a new church plant. We were excited to be part of the startup, thinking we could contribute, make it different, make Jesus real in ways our old church hadn’t. Instead, after several months and when the service was established, it was clear that it was the same old thing in a new location. They’re doing some things very right, but mostly they only have time and resources to pour into the service — the same old music, sermon and fellowship-with-donuts time, along with a few bible studies thrown in. We were sad that a church plant just looked exactly like its parent church in the end. I think that’s when we got more disillusioned that anything would change within the institutional church. And maybe it’s just our local culture, or the midwest, or our town full of conservatives. Who knows.

    In the end, I know that leaving was the right thing, and I’m not sure anything could have kept us — because God knew we needed some space and time to relearn church, to see him with new eyes. I don’t think even the church “behaving like the bride” within the context of institutional church could have persuaded us, because our previous church was pretty good at it. I just have some pretty serious questions about the relevance of the evangelical “church service” as we know it, and what good it’s really doing in the world, and if that’s at all what Jesus had in mind.

    Didn’t mean to write another blog post in your comments section! Your thoughts invited me to share more thoughts, so I guess I did!

    I’d love to hear more thoughts about what you think it means for the church to “behave like the bride,” and whether that involves a church service, or what different manifestations it would take.

    Grace and peace. I appreciate continuing the conversation.

    • Thanks for your reply! I’m glad the comments you received for your blog were things you’ve thought before. It seemed to me like a lot of the people writing approached the topic as a hypothetical and forgot they were writing to another actual person with feelings. I can see where they were coming from, but I didn’t sense much compassion from many who were writing, so I’m glad that you were able to handle the feedback so well.

      You are absolutely right that many missed the point of your blog. Because of the nature of so many comments left for you, I carried on this theme, so I apologize for not making more of this in my post. I’m hopeful that your thoughts on shaping the faith of your children carried through more than the written reactions would indicate.

      As for your suggestion on elaborating on my thoughts on the church acting as the bride of Christ should, this is an excellent idea and something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the next few days. I think it would likely be best presented as a separate blog post, so I’ll get busy on that and hopefully have something to share later this week.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  2. Charlie Johnson says:

    Jonathan, your excellent essay reminds me of what Carlyle Marney, a powerful preacher of an earlier generation, said: “Jesus was God’s answer to a bad reputation.” The church continues to give God a bad reputation before the world. Hopefully Jesus corrects it, and that the world knows the difference b/t the two.

    I like your gumption in challenging the hateful street preacher. Well done.

  3. DC says:

    Jonathan,

    I will first say that I have also read “Blue Like Jazz” and will be seeing the movie next weekend. I really liked the book as well, and it did resonate with me.

    I believe I have told you in the past what my feelings are about the “church” and its involvement, or too often, lack thereof when it comes to a person’s faith and understanding of God, Jesus, and the Bible in general. Now, I am by no means a Biblical scholar. I haven’t even read the Bible cover to cover…yet. But this is what I have done: I have been to a total of 9 different denominations of church services, been to multiple churches in 5 of those denominations, and even led devotions on a regular basis when I was at my denominations church camp. Yet, I have no love for the organized church.

    You say the Church should be like “the bride of God.” I say the Church should be a sounding board and lead to introspection. It should allow a person to not only question what they read in the Bible and what they have heard in the Gospel messages and multitudinous excessively long sermons, and be able to have a discussion about them without being immediately shot down, laughed at, or even worse, flat out ignored.

    I argue that it is better to be “spiritual” than “religious.” To have a belief in God, to try your best to understand the Word of God, to spread a message through your OWN word and deed, and in your own words and deeds is more of a spiritual connection. A religious connection is the one that is what the church intends: fearful, forceful, too often in-your-face. These are the people that will advertise that they are a “Christian business” or say “I’m a good Christian” and then turn around and stab you in the back or be one of the most dishonest businesses or individuals you meet. You’d be surprised (ok, maybe not) at how many times I hear people say “Never trust someone who makes it a point to tell you they are a Christian.”

    So I guess I am essentially agreeing with you on this topic. I feel the Church does more to drive people away anymore than bring them in. Televangelists started the trend of driving people away (purely my opinion, but do you know more people that like or dislike televangelists?). Then the “bible thumpers,” which I have found are unfortunately of a greater population in the Southern United States, which will get in your face and tell you that you are condemned to Hell because you aren’t like them. I’d much rather have good friends that, if I so choose, I can have a good discussion with regarding the God, the Bible, and any other religious or theological topics that may arise. I take more from those discussions than I have from any church service I have ever attended. And if that isn’t a sad testament to the state of the church, I don’t know what is.

    • I definitely agree that the institutional church often comes with more than its share of baggage. So many times the church emphasizes a certain set of morals or even equates Christianity to being a good American citizen (I’be discussed this previously) and I don’t think either is at all what the church was intended to be. While one can be a “good moral citizen” and be a Christian, one may also be the former without being the latter, and the main message of Christ is often lost in the search for morality. One thing I love so much about my current church (and hopefully you were able to see at least a little bit of this going on when you came into town) is that it doesn’t shove expectations and rules in your face. Instead, as you’ve said, it promotes discussion and allows people to ask hard questions. As a minister, I try to avoid rewarding clich√© “Sunday School answers” but instead push people to think more deeply than they have before. I see the value in having others in Christian community to challenge each other and hold each other accountable, but when it becomes a matter of judgment for failing to meet extra-biblical expectations the church has failed miserably.

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