The Most Damaging Attitude in Our Churches

Why subtle cynicism doesn't look like Jesus.

It was an attitude I learned in Church, and I used to believe it was a strength.

I thought I was simply a critical thinker, full of constructive insights. My husband and I shared a “gift for reflection” and spun many conversations around what we considered to be compelling observations about what the Church and other people were doing wrong and what they could do better. Never mind the fact that our tips were not actually being presented to those we believed would benefit from them. At least we saw the problems, right?

But with time, the satisfaction of hearing ourselves talk began to fade and a nauseating feeling settled in its place. No matter how positive a light we tried to cast it in, we were filling up on bitterness and tasting the result.

Subtly, without even realizing it, we had become cynics. And the toxic effect could be felt in our marriage, our relationships and our ability to communicate Christ’s love for the world.

We tend to think of cynicism as something that’s overt. We love watching the overt cynics—Bob Kelso, Gregory House, Don Draper. We laugh at their bitter rants and quote their best one-liners. Perhaps their extreme negativity makes it easier to justify our quiet tendency to be overly critical, especially in the name of something good.

But cynicism doesn’t always present itself in the sweeping, broad negativity we see on TV. In the day-to-day, it looks more like quick, unwarranted, “constructive” criticism. I’m not talking about the critical thinking required for success as an adult. I’m referring to the way we constantly evaluate and critique people and what they do:

“Worship was great this morning! I can’t believe all those people were just standing there and not raising their hands. Some people just don’t take worship as seriously as I do."

“Worship was great this morning! I was trying to be still and reflect, but the guy next me was moving so much and flinging his arms around. Some people just don’t take worship as seriously as I do.”

“The sermon was good. If he had just said this, it could have been better.”

“I was so annoyed by this guy at the mall. He had no common sense and was so rude. Nobody teaches people how to be polite anymore.”

“The problem with the Church today is ___________.”

Sound familiar?

Subtle cynicism, or the overly critical nature of our culture, is a toxin satan uses against the Church. And it’s all the more damaging because we often don’t even realize it’s happening.

It’s time to change our posture. I’m not suggesting an extreme alternative of falsely positive, overly peppy Church culture that says nothing is wrong. Jesus, Paul, David and every writer of scripture has shown us that this is not Biblical.

But when we recognize the dangers of subtle cynicism, we are able to engage in honest conversations that are productive, loving and full of grace.

When Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he addressed a steady stream of negativity. He pleaded with the church to rally around their shared love for Christ, sacrifice for each other and “do everything without grumbling or arguing.” With this as our example, let’s remember the following when we are tempted to snap sarcastic quips or offer unsolicited insight:

The Church is the Bride of Christ and deserves our respect

It is made up of broken people. We may not agree with everything, in fact, we may be spot on in calling out behavior that opposes the Gospel, but let’s speak truth with the love and humility of Jesus. He died for this Bride that He adores, so I’d imagine how we talk about her matters to Him.

Reject anything that resembles an “us” versus “them” mentality

Jesus was honest about truth and spoke confidently to those who challenged it with their hypocrisy and legalism, yet He did so without mocking or belittling anyone. He didn’t post open letters on the town gates and He didn’t publicly ridicule those who questioned him. He met them with Scripture and self-control. Any foolishness they felt came from getting caught with their foot in their mouth, not from Jesus laughing at them with crowds behind Him.

Focus on what is good

In the four short chapters of Philippians, Paul instructs the Church to rejoice 15 times. It’s interesting to note that he appears far less concerned with why they are negative and much more concerned with their choosing to change.

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Identifying problems is easy. Following Paul’s call to focus on what is good, lovely and admirable takes intentional work, and it breathes new life into our relationships. If God can choose to no longer look on our sin, we can choose to stop focusing on the things we would change in others and get busy loving them instead.

When we become subtle cynics, our ability to grow becomes stunted

Unveiling flaws outside of ourselves requires little to no personal sacrifice. Examining the depths of our own brokenness requires vulnerability and risk, both of which are essential for growth.

Life in Jesus involves the death of self (Mark 8:34-35). This is difficult to do while clinging to the belief that we know more than someone else. But as we move into a space of grace, our eyes are opened to lessons we were blinded to before, and we begin to find the places in our hearts God longs to address. If we are too busy discussing the ways everyone else needs to change, we lose the ability to see our own need for restoration and we get stuck rather than grow.

Pray first. Talk later.

Paul begins his letter to the Philippians by writing that he thanked God every time he thought of them. If we model Paul’s heart in this way, the thoughts and words that follow will reflect Jesus.

There are times when a thoughtful, loving, critical response is the most appropriate one. But before we jump in to offer it, we should examine our hearts and consider what is most beneficial, being willing to say nothing if it tears others down and hinders the Gospel of Christ. What we say matters. Choose carefully.




KingCrimson250 commented…

I'm not convinced this is logically consistent. For us as Protestants (I'm assuming most of Relevant's readership is Protestant), criticizing the church is what we are. It is the reason we exist. If no one ever criticized the church, we would all be Roman Catholic. Moreover, every day that we continue to exist is a day that we offer a tacit criticism of the Catholic church because we are saying "No, your church is wrong in many ways and we don't want to be a part of it." We can - and should - say these things in a way that is loving and reasonable, but we say them nonetheless. Presumably the authour of this article is alright with that, because she is Protestant herself. In fact, most Protestants who are opposed to being critical of the church are okay with being critical of Roman Catholicism.

In other words, this isn't really about not being critical of the Bride of Christ, but rather not being critical of the aspects of the Bride of Christ that the authour happens to align herself with.

I mean, I sympathize with the sentiment, but I just don't see how it can be applied in any way that's consistent - and this sort of thing has to be consistent, otherwise it falls apart before it gets off the ground and just becomes tribalism at best, and fosters a cult-like insularity ("If you criticize us you can't be a part of our club!") at worst.

Christina J Kostecke


Christina J Kostecke replied to KingCrimson250's comment

This is the other ugly side of trying to define someone's subtle cynicism: if we are fearful for being too critical it "just becomes tribalism at best, and fosters a cult-like insularity ("If you criticize us you can't be a part of our club!") at worst. YES. This is another type of cynicism maybe? This is like an "us against them" mentality that is not Christlike, that shuns anyone who is a challenge to that "tribalism" as you say (love that too) and, discourages Godly constructive criticism which points to the Word of God. You cannot lose with God's logic. This is something that should already be obvious! I really don't care about worship music so much. Actions speak louder than words do. This was helpful and so was the essay here...but this comment is a good balance to it. We should still not "scoff" at anyone or anything though, no matter how much they may be perceived as "the enemy/threat to our tribal churchyness".

Matthew Abate


Matthew Abate commented…

I found this piece quite intriguing. Donald Miller should read it along with the other Emergent and Progressive "believers" who are out there.

Elaine Giam


Elaine Giam commented…

This isn't cynicism; this is judgmentalism. Saying something or someone could be better is judgmentalism, it's self-righteousness, it's a hyper-critical spirit. It doesn't help anyone because it's usually said to sooth the speaker's ego and not help the object of the putdown. I should know; I used to do it a lot. I was sarcastic as well and even witty, so it was doubly bad that I was tearing someone or something down and trying to look clever at the same time. I realised how pathetic I was after the Holy Spirit opened my heart and convicted me of my sin. Now, the thoughts still enter my mind but less so. And I certainly seldom voice the nastiness like I used to.
Cynicism, on the other hand, is when we take a negative attitude about anything vaguely positive. When we assume some idea will fail, people will not respond, that everything's hopeless. It's a kind of cry-baby wah-wah thing. It's the cowardly response, the fatalistic giving up. If an idea is risky, think about how to mitigate the risk; if we fear people won't be interested, ask for feedback and ideas. There's always something positive and active that we can do, rather than just be an armchair wet blanket.
But either way, both attitudes are indeed corrosive to both the church and Christians. It is allowing the Devil to have a foothold.

Jim van Ommen


Jim van Ommen commented…

Two words came into my mind...Speck and Beam... When I fed these in to Google the first thing that popped up was Mat. 7: 3-5.
We may not have our Bibles at our fingertips as much as our computers, but isn't it interesting the words of wisdom that even cyberspace comes up with. This may well be because some cynics in the past who realised the error of their ways.

Ray Hartsfield


Ray Hartsfield commented…

I absolutely agree that Christians should identify the church as something God treasures, so even when we examine it, we must do so with care. In regarding to the "me vs. them" mentality, I feel like some church protocols kind of create this. For example, why does nearly *every* church default to worship and teaching *every* Sunday?

I'm a worship leader myself, but I feel like we're building a worship culture on the foundation of preferences, and preferences are biased. Check out my blog post about why I think worship music isn't a big deal...

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