Many of you know of my growing up within the confines of a legalistic and extremely strict sect of Christianity. While I came to believe in Christ and have faith in Him, my current faith looks drastically different than it did in my early years. It has been a journey from there to where I sit now - which in my experience is on the progressive end of the Christianity spectrum, though I certainly would not identify as "progressive".
So it's incredibly interesting to me that my thought process and evolution (so to speak) has brought me around to what I am about to write. This has come from months and years of processing through what I see in the American Church and the values that are important to me in ministry, based on my vision and what I see in Scripture. And it is interesting to me because I know that many of my conservative brothers and sisters have made similar observations about the modern American Church as what I am about to make (albeit for what I believe are drastically different reasons and philosophies).
So - please see this article as a discussion starter of sorts. I don't have the answers - nor do I mean to pretend to. I want to hear from you - either on Facebook or in the comments below - and I'd love to hear your real world experience with this subject, and your own conclusions. I would only ask that as you discuss that you keep it respectful and you keep it steeped in either philosophy or theology, nothing personal.
So - The Question of the "Judgment-Free Church"
Years ago, there began a movement in the evangelical church that was in part a reaction to the Gospel and - in larger part, I think - a reaction to the state of Christianity at the time. This movement started with a handful of churches and had a basic message for outsiders and perhaps former church people: "come as you are, we won't judge you, we love you, nobody's perfect." In fact, I am using about 100 churches' marketing slogan in that sentence right there. Right?
The message is GOOOOOOD. And from the purely anecdotal side of things, I remember how much I resonated with & loved this whole philosophy. When that sort of vision really hit 10-15 years ago, it was such a different sort of mentality that it was instantly attractive, to me and I think to many others who'd grown up with a different sort of church. It was a hearts' cry that felt different and fresh and special.
And the churches who originally said it, really meant it. I remember in one of my earliest churches being blown away by the passion with which my pastor spoke on grace and how much he truly cared for the unbeliever who might be in the congregation that day. It was moving and inspiring and it became the rallying cry for our church... but not just our church - thousands of churches began to jump on this train.
And it built and built and built and here we are 10-15 years since I first recognized something different happening in the modern church, and - right or wrong, and I'm totally willing to be wrong - now when I see a church post this sort of vision or message as their way of letting people know that it's okay to come be a part of the church here, I realize that it feels more like a marketing ploy than a heart's cry. Seriously, I can't think of the last time I looked into a church and didn't hear some variation of that message. Everyone's message is the same (basically). And I'm talking about literally in the thousands of churches I have noticed this sort of messaging.
So - the first couple of questions I have to ask in order to really make sure I'm centered on the right things: 1) is this coming from a place of cynicism or does this truly feel right? and 2) is this me the overchurched guy who has now worked or been involved with the behind the scenes of more than a handful of massive churches speaking? or does it feel like this reaches to the unchurched?
The answer to the first question is that I truly believe that cynicism is not something that is a part of my reality right now. I am too curious to be cynical. I am too interested in what could be to cut off what is with cynicism.
The answer to the second question is less easy to answer. But I think as I wrestle with it, I come to this reasoning for believing that it affects more that just the overchurched: now than ever - right or wrong - the unchurched feel the opposite of that message. The unchurched world believes that the churched world judges them and doesn't accept them, despite the nearly universal call to the opposite.
And that leaves me wondering where the disconnect is.
I'd like to give 3 thoughts in regards to this, and would love to hear yours (even if you disagree vehemently).
1. If Everyone is 'special', no one is.
I think that anything that was once special & different becomes the 'normal' it loses its potency. Let me be clear: the Gospel never loses its potency. Catchy slogans & distillations of the Gospel can, I think. I think that so many churches now use this type message that it is now hard to A) figure out if it's really true about the church (and I think in many people's experiences, the opposite is often believed to be true about churches who use this messaging) & B) because it's now so common it has become white noise.
Again - the Gospel is not noise. The Gospel is potent and offensive and it should be (more on that later). But when nearly every "successful" church in American Christianity has the same style of slogan (and let's be honest, style of worship and preaching/teaching style and small group method and... name your thing), it causes one to wonder if perhaps there is something 'special' waiting around the corner to help people differentiate.
Messaging is just marketing. It helps you tell the story. It helps tell people why your church's story is different. Unless they're all basically the same and then it's impossible.
2. The Shifting Definition of Judgment
How we define judgment has drastically shifted in the 10-15 years. Being "judged" today is more defined by disagreement or lack of acceptance, while early in my time in ministry it meant something very different. If a church believes that, say, divorce is wrong outside of a couple of Scripturally-sanctioned reasons they are considered judgmental, EVEN IF the church cares for the people who go through the divorce and cares for the children of the divorce.
Back in the day, the judgment I saw people of various levels of 'sin' and 'rebellion' suffer didn't consist of simply not accepting or even disagreeing, it was all out rejection; it was being cast away for being different; it was being cut out of someone's life because you disagreed or were different.
In that way, YES! We do not judge and we do love. However - right or wrong, agree or disagree - the definition of judgment has shifted. So in the minds of those that actually matter - i.e., the ones we're trying to reach - they disagree; they believe we do judge. So if the first thing out of your mouth is a slogan speaking of being judgement-free and the people you're telling you won't judge feel judged, it fundamentally hurts our ability to affect people.
3) The Gospel is offensive.
I find myself more & more realizing that the Gospel demands something of us, and sometimes that demand can feel offensive to me as an always-churched guy who grew up a pastor's kid. I'd imagine it's offensive to those who have never had the same demand.
So maybe even beyond the shifting definition of judgment, maybe the messaging we use to get people in the door isn't quite true. We do love people different than us. We aren't going to cast people aside for their differences.
But the call of Gospel is not just to something; it's also turning away from something else.
As I conclude, let me first say this: while I think that we could probably begin to figure out how to use better messaging, the heart of the "judgment-free church" is good. I love its heart. And honestly in my experience - again, anecdotal evidence is not everything, but it IS something - I've rarely met a Christian who lives in true judgment of unbelievers. And I'm even talking about the believers who sure seem to be pretty judgmental on social media and the like. They rarely mean to come across as judgmental... but that's a whole different post.
But in conclusion I think there are a couple of takeaways, in my mind:
1) We need to start tweaking the messaging.
When messaging is being disagreed with by the target audience, it tells us that our messaging is missing something. We don't need to change The Message, i.e., The Gospel. I do believe we could begin to tweak the messaging of how we introduce people to that Gospel.
2) We need a greater focus on discipleship.
I believe that the greatest need in the modern American Church is the process of moving new believers to strongly-committed believers. It's the 2nd step in God-knows-how-many-Churches mission statement, yet it is usually the one that is missed the most. Discipleship is a HUGE need in the church. I believe strongly that if we raise up believers via discipleship we create men and women who can live out a "judgment-free" message and free the Church up to focus on different messaging.
3) Let's study what the signs are telling us.
The world is changing so fast. Yet I don't see the church changing as fast to figure out how to change with it. The Gospel doesn't change but methods do. I truly believe that we should be actively seeking the ways to best meet the needs of our people, not to create consumers of Christianity but to call people to something by turning away from something else.
4) Reconcile that Christianity isn't cool and that it's sometimes offensive.
We aren't cool and that's okay. Our churches aren't meant to be cool. The Gospel isn't cool. Well I think it's amazingly cool, but the unbelieving world doesn't understand it (yet), so it isn't cool to them yet. The Gospel is offensive to those who don't understand it and we have to be okay with the fact that maybe, just maybe, the thing that draws people to the Gospel is not that it is just like their current lives, but with a little more Jesus... but that it is DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT, and scary, and painful sometimes.
So - what about you? Do you agree? Disagree? What do you think about the ideas presented here?