The Wrong Way to Criticize the Church

There comes a point in the journey of every Christian where cynicism starts to look inviting. Even mature.

I remember experiencing this in college. I sat at tables where passionate 18 and 19-year-olds would strike up conversations about what’s wrong with the Church. These young adults (myself included) took turns finding something to accuse the Church about. One day it would be music style. The other, caring for the poor. Consumerism. Dogmatism. Divisiveness. We never ran out of problems to address, it seemed.

These conversations were interesting because in many respects they carried truth. But after a while, you get tired of being a part of these conversations. They seemed like they were more about stroking egos and reveling in the pleasure of judging something rather then meaningfully articulating what Christians can do differently.

It was like we actually took pleasure in being disappointed in the Church.

Not that it’s always a bad thing to criticize the Church. It’s natural for us to see negative trends in the evangelical landscape and voice our opinions. Often, that’s a good thing. Frequently, it’s something we could use a little more of, actually. In the last few decades, people within evangelicalism have effectively articulated their concerns on how the Church at large deals with issues like race, social justice, materialism and community impact, as well as numerous other issues. These conversations are how we grow.

But that wasn’t what was happening at our lunch tables.

Reflecting on those conversations, I’ve come to realize that what we need in response to the Church’s issues is mature, humble criticism that leads to change, not jaded disillusionment.

Don’t Ignore That You’re Part of the Problem

As long as the Church is made up of sinners in need of grace, we’ll have issues. And we need mature, wise, careful voices to speak to our issues.

But there’s a difference between looking for ways to make the Church better and looking for things to complain about. Mature, humble criticism is selfless and redemptive; immature criticism is usually self-focused and doesn’t generally lead to change.

Humble criticism means noticing a problem and articulating solutions instead of looking for problems and wallowing in anger. It means being temporarily disappointed without being permanently disillusioned.

When I feel tempted toward being jaded, I have to catch myself. I can offer criticism, but I can’t allow myself to be constantly jaded about the evangelical subculture—because I’m part of it. As much as I feel tempted to criticize it, I am it. I’ve sinned and broken promises and lived in inconsistent ways, just like the Christians I can be cynical about. What right would I have to be jaded and leave the Church over one issue when I fail in another?

I want to speak with a wise, mature voice. Wise, mature voices offer critique, but they aren’t self-entitled. They don’t see the Church as an institution subject to their judgment, but as a work in progress of which they are a part. They don’t look for reasons to leave, they look for reasons to stay. They acknowledge their own sinfulness and commit to walking with other believers in their brokenness instead of abandoning them for making mistakes.

Don’t Forget to Examine Your Motives

Sometimes, asking ourselves “Why?” is exactly what we need. If you find yourself constantly criticizing the evangelical subculture, ask yourself: Am I doing it because I’m noticing an issue and humbly seeking change? Or am I doing it because I enjoy finding problems with the Church and I’m looking for reasons to not be accountable to it?

Sometimes the “why” behind our cynicism is a desire to dissociate from embarrassing aspects of the Church’s history and escape responsibility. Has the Church messed up over the 2,000 years since Christ walked the streets of Jerusalem? Yes. And we are this Church. We need to take responsibility for our own hearts and our Christian communities before vainly trying to flee Christian responsibility by being jaded cynics.

But sometimes, the “why” behind our criticism runs even deeper, and more dangerous. In her book Real Church, author Sarah Cunningham shares an incisive truth about how the passion to criticize the Church can actually replace a passion for God:

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This kind of unexpected idolatry—the obsession with living in despair over what is wrong with the institutionalized Church—creeps up on you (like most shifty little idols do) … Criticism becomes what we end up worshiping.

What Does the World Need From Us?

I don’t think what the world needs most from the evangelical subculture is an upcoming generation of young adults who are by nature suspicious of tradition, critical of structures and bent against authority—and very vocal about it.

We are a generation just as broken as the generations before us and just as prone to make mistakes. We aren’t going to make a difference merely by being disillusioned. How ironic would it be for a watching world to see Christians who spend more time talking about the failures of the Church than actually doing things to make it better?

A watching world needs to see a generation of humble Christians who acknowledge their brokenness and humbly depend on God to help them. A culture of criticism does little for a broken, watching soul wondering what it means to know Jesus.

What We Must Do

In the midst of our grand evangelical disillusionment, it seems many millennials who leave churches still prefer to maintain a working idea of God and spirituality. They’re the people who say things like, “I’m a spiritual person, but I don’t believe in organized religion” or “I consider myself to be a Christian but I prefer to live out my faith privately.”

Simply put, we have to reject these notions. We can’t follow Jesus outside of being in community with His people. If you’re one of the millions of millennials who believe there is a God and claim to have a meaningful relationship with Jesus but have rejected the notion of institutional Church altogether, I beg you to search your heart. The Bible is clear that being with other believers is essential to our faith (Hebrews 10:25), and it goes further: You can’t claim to love Jesus if you don’t love the people He came to save (1 John 4:20). To reject God’s design, the Church, is to reject God.
 
If you’ve left the Church altogether because you’ve simply found it too hard to be around Christians who’ve messed up, here’s that hard truth once again: you’ve made mistakes too. As a broken person, embrace the idea of being around other people just like you while you pursue Jesus together. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Love deeply.
 
I don’t have all the answers for the Church’s issues. But I do know that the answer isn’t a culture of jadedness.
 
We can do better. It starts with you and me.

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