Asked what is wrong with the world today, G.K. Chesterton allegedly responded with just two words: “I am.”
The famous writer’s response offers a powerful lesson to a generation of Christians who grew up watching their churches stumble through the culture wars, neglect social justice, or bungle questions about marriage and family. It’s easy for Christians in the Millennial generation constantly to criticize the Church and become cynical. We’ve seen and often are seeing the flaws of today’s Christianity. And many of us have become experts at pointing out these flaws.
When I talk to older Christians in my church, it can be tempting for me to write off their perspectives and their advice as merely oversimplified or judgmental. Our generation is great at leaning on our peers to help us work through our problems—but not so much on the Christians who aren’t like us. We seem to assume that somehow the challenges we face are unique, unprecedented and cannot be solved by leaning on the traditional advice of Christians from another era or another culture.
Many friends of mine who have grown up going to church and perhaps attended a Christian college have an impulse to critique. I run across articles online all the time that just point out things that the American church has gotten wrong. We get dating wrong. We get sexuality wrong. We get racial issues wrong. We rush to judgment about #BlackLivesMatter—or about Donald Trump’s evangelical supporters. We condemn a movie like God’s Not Dead, or maybe Deadpool. The list goes on.
Many of these critiques are accurate and necessary. But they can also cultivate a subtle sense of pride and aloofness.
This can lead to a major problem: We can start to see the problems with Christianity as as exclusively “out there”—in other Christians’ prejudices and mistaken theological beliefs, and in other Christians’ perpetuating injustice or harmful stereotypes. It fails to grasp that this nagging problem of sin, which we all share, is likely distorting our own vision and actions as much as anyone else.
Because here’s the thing: No one instinctively thinks they are part of the problem. Easy targets lie all about us, there for us to stand against and show the world how progressive or level-headed or spiritually insightful we are. But that isn’t the posture Jesus calls us to.
Many evils lie outside of us and ought to be opposed, of course. But the problem also sits right within. Jesus’ admonition to take the log out of your own eye before picking out the speck in your brother’s eye is instructive. We’re great at identifying hypocrites in the church. But could it be that in the act of criticizing others we are falling into the very same sin?
Chesterton was one of the most prolific cultural critics of his day, a master of inflicting rhetorical burns on both the uptight religiosity of Victorian England, as well as the secularizing forces taking hold at the turn of the century. And yet he had the deep-seated humility to recognize that true criticism, especially in matters of morality and faith, begins with the self.
What if we viewed the church not as a community in need of correction but as a community that can provide correction to us? This is why we need the Church. We need a posture of humility that asks whether there is more wrong with our own hearts than with others. Think of those older Christians in your church who have been following Jesus for decades: spend time with them and let them speak into your life. Who knows, maybe someone with a lifetime of following Jesus will be able to see things in you that you can’t.