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.

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

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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.

An earlier version of this article appeared in February 2014.

Top Comments

Ryan Heffernon

1

Ryan Heffernon commented…

I totally get where the heart of this article is coming from, and I agree with it. I deal with a cynical heart. But, we shouldn't dismiss this as all cynicism.

Someone I know recently told me that where we look for negativity, we will find negativity. And while I agree to an extent, we can't let this thought process to dilute the church. He said that in reference to a preacher who is a blatant false teacher. We live in a culture where casual Christianity runs rampant, despite Christ calling us to lay everything down for him.

If there aren't people of discernment in our churches, voicing biblical opposition to things that should be opposed, this casual Christianity will continue and so many people will be mislead and, in the worst case scenario, believe they are saved when they are not.

I understand the heart of this, but we have to understand that what Christ calls us to is radical and if we just pass everything as "well, that's just his opinion," or "well, that's just how she worships," we will be in a lot of trouble.

There are things in the American church that are broken. Why do you think the most churched nation in this planets history is also among the most morally filthy? Something is missing from the church. If there aren't people there to point it out and stand on biblical convictions, our church will continue to tread water.

Megan Mercier

4

Megan Mercier replied to Matthew Abate's comment

You realize you are doing the exact same thing the article was about, don't you?

33 Comments

Joshua

18

Joshua commented…

This magazine is so cynical, and they go on about cynicism... huh.

Ryan Heffernon

1

Ryan Heffernon commented…

I totally get where the heart of this article is coming from, and I agree with it. I deal with a cynical heart. But, we shouldn't dismiss this as all cynicism.

Someone I know recently told me that where we look for negativity, we will find negativity. And while I agree to an extent, we can't let this thought process to dilute the church. He said that in reference to a preacher who is a blatant false teacher. We live in a culture where casual Christianity runs rampant, despite Christ calling us to lay everything down for him.

If there aren't people of discernment in our churches, voicing biblical opposition to things that should be opposed, this casual Christianity will continue and so many people will be mislead and, in the worst case scenario, believe they are saved when they are not.

I understand the heart of this, but we have to understand that what Christ calls us to is radical and if we just pass everything as "well, that's just his opinion," or "well, that's just how she worships," we will be in a lot of trouble.

There are things in the American church that are broken. Why do you think the most churched nation in this planets history is also among the most morally filthy? Something is missing from the church. If there aren't people there to point it out and stand on biblical convictions, our church will continue to tread water.

Steve Cornell

344

Steve Cornell commented…

Excellent! Excellent! Excellent! Don't be part of the group identified as "grumblers and faultfinders" (Jude 16).

Those who walk in God’s will are distinguished by a gracious disposition — not a grouchy one. Spirit-filled people are extravagantly grateful.

“… be filled with the Spirit, … always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18,20).

see - https://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/dont-let-them-drag-you-down/

Jacqui Battin

3

Jacqui Battin commented…

I disagree. My spiritual life and relationship with God has been most harmed by being in churches that I was not critical enough about. I would "focus on the good" and remain in harmful situations, I would respect the church to the point of blindly agreeing with everything people said and did. And as a result, I drifted further from God. I did not know him and I reflected a false image of him to non Christians. I have not truly begun to know him until I developed an attitude of cynicism, which allowed me to leave unhealthy churches and join a church that helps rather than hinders my faith.

Connor Knudsen

1

Connor Knudsen commented…

It seems to me that this article promotes a sort of submissiveness or quiet acceptance in the face of potentially dangerous falsehoods and potential heresy. I would not amend this to say that we ought to contend every issue in a hostile way, rather, that we ought to love one another and be able to disagree at the same time. Striving or wrestling with God is something we do every day when we are trying to discern what is right. I see this as being strengthened when done in community and, because of this, I think a good bit of cynicism is a great thing to have in church. We must sharpen one another and continue to be vigilant in seeking to know more about God's character.

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