Mean Christians Suck, Too

Some people shouldn’t be allowed to own and display bumper stickers.  Going home from the office, a little Honda swerved around me, causing me to slam on my breaks and almost hit another car in a turn lane.  The driver popped his arm out the window and gave me a middle-finger salute, mouthed an obscenity, and gunned his car on down the road — but not before I noted the “Mean People Suck,” “Coexist,” and “Commit Random Acts of Kindness” bumper stickers adorning his rear end.  There ought to be a law against such false advertising.

My naive hope is that somehow people in our churches would never behave like this — that at the very least, being a Christian would guarantee some kind of higher standard of civility, respect, kindness, and ethical conduct.  Instead, I am regularly struck by the small-minded, petty, selfish, and mean behavior of many folks called United Methodist.  Among such behaviors I have seen in just the past year:

  • two women shoving one another at a church supper over the last white chocolate macadamia chip cookie
  • a disgruntled church leader discharging a shotgun at the front of the church parsonage while the pastor and family were at home
  • a UMW putting combination locks on the church cabinets to make sure the youth couldn’t make a mess
  • a Christian youth group vandalizing area businesses with graffiti because they were “evil”
  • a woman throwing a fit because she couldn’t help herself to a soda at a church function
  • a group of unhappy parishioners removing memorial gifts from the church because they had a disagreement with the pastor
  • a group of men blocking access to the church parking lot with trucks to prevent people attending a contemporary service of which they disapproved
  • a cadre of malcontents spreading rumors about the pastor’s sexual orientation to undermine her leadership
  • a pastor sharing confidential information to discredit a lay person he was fighting with

I could go on, but why dwell on the problem and depress everyone further?  I mean, this doesn’t even touch on the basic gossip, bad-mouthing, telling tales, making stuff up kind of mild behavior evident everywhere.  Shouldn’t we, as representatives of God and the love of Jesus Christ, guided and infused with the Holy Spirit, committed to living as kingdom people here on earth at least try to be a little better?  There is simply no excuse for such behaviors anywhere, let alone the church, but the church ought to be different — better somehow.  I have yet to meet anyone who thinks gossip, spreading rumors, lying, threatening and/or committing violence, or any of these other behaviors are acceptable.  Everyone knows they’re not!

There is one simple reason that bad behavior occurs anywhere, including church: no one addresses it directly.  Bad behavior is allowed to continue because we don’t want to offend anyone or incur their further wrath or challenge their authority (church matriarchs and patriarchs can do pretty much anything they want, and no one says anything about it!).  We turn a blind eye, then wonder why nothing gets any better.  If it gets bad enough, we expect the pastor to deal with it, thus making her or him a lightning rod that takes all the heat.  Once policing the congregation for bad behavior becomes the responsibility of one person, we can turn our anger and aggression there, but we really don’t have to change.

So, if we allow bad behaviors to become normal and accepted over time, what is the solution?  The solution is for the whole community of faith to decide not to ignore, allow, embrace, or otherwise tolerate unacceptable behavior.  It really isn’t any harder than this.  It requires a few simple steps, and a modicum of restraint.

  1. take some time identifying behaviors that are positive, unifying, edifying, and promote the greatest health and well-being of the group/congregation
  2. name explicitly the behaviors that are toxic, destructive, hurtful, negative, unpleasant, mean, petty, immature, and unChristian and covenant together not to allow them
  3. agree that it is everyone’s responsibility to enforce the covenant — if anyone behaves in a way that the whole group/congregation agreed not to, it is everyone’s and anyone’s responsibility to say, “we agreed not to do this”
  4. name bad behavior firmly, but gently; immediately, but kindly, and attempt to do so with humor
  5. don’t allow accountability to be the pastor’s job — pastors need to serve the whole congregation, and it does no good to force the pastoral leader to choose sides

Bad behavior is bad for everyone involved.  We cannot grow as Christian disciples AND continue in small-minded, petty, hurtful, and destructive practices.  A congregation held hostage by the bad behavior of the few suffers mightily.  This is the heart of the injunction to speak the truth in love.  Certainly, it isn’t always pleasant and it doesn’t always go well, but it is always necessary.  To be the body of Christ means to excise the toxic influences that make it sick, and to provide a model and a witness to the world that it is possible to live in harmony, unity, grace, respect, civility, and love.

11 replies

  1. in my limited experience, the main reason bad behavior is excused is because the perpetrator also happens to be the largest financial giver to the congregation . . .

    • …which is why emotional blackmail may be one of the most toxic behaviors of all. When the church is held hostage by the pursestrings of a few limited (and often narrow-minded) individuals, vision and God’s will go flying right out the window. Money talks, but it doesn’t always say good things!

  2. The church is full of fallen people, so we shouldn’t be surprised when they bring their junk with them inside the church walls.

    That being said, it would help greatly if all of us took a step back and realize we’ve all done some pretty awful things thinking we were acting on God’s behalf. A dose of communal repentance is always healthy.

    • There are many degrees of broken — and we need to be ready to receive them all. But as you say, communal repentance — and communal responsibility grounded in accountability — goes a long way toward redemption. Very few people want to be mean or petty. Most do it because it works for them and they never see any other options. When the good of the many supercedes the will of the few, and the many are focused on pleasing God, great things can happen.

  3. If we are in an accountable relationship with one another, then we are less likely to push and shove over the last piece of pie at the pot luck…it all goes back to a need for classes and bands (small groups) as the primary way we are ordered!

  4. well, in my humble opinion the reason we aren’t able to do it is because that would mean we don’t need our sacred church buildings so much (especially in more rural areas… I believe we really need to have county preaching houses…which would mean less baggage and expense and more collaborative opportunities for clergy to make, grow and send disciples).

    But who wants to give up the family pew, or make room for others to share the space?

  5. Great post, Dan! But the problem I run up against is that my church is more willing to hold me accountable than they are each other for fear of losing people if they do so. After all, they’ll just get another pastor to emotionally blackmail if they can get rid of me.

    • Oh, man, I hear you. You are the lightning rod… and disposable! Our system makes real accountability hard, because there are so many ways for dysfunctional people to use the system to their own advantage. I do have to say that in most cases, this is where SPRCs and DSs can be most helpful. Any time you get caught in the cross hairs of pastor hunters, make sure that leaders in the church and in the conference know what you are dealing with. It isn’t a solution, but it is a good idea.

  6. I see bumper stickers like the ones you mention, but we don’t know if the driver is also the owner, and when we are in church we are sitting in a room full of sinners, liars, crooks, backbiters, cheats and on and on, and guess what, WE are no better, Paul said, As it is written, THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NO, NOT ONE: then verse 12; “They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” KJV
    Does that sound like we are good? No, we are not good, but we can become good, so cut your people in what ever church you go to some slack and try to help them.
    We are there trying to get better, by allowing God to do his work on us, and there are people in that church that are further along the road to look like Jesus then others in the same room. Jesus said,“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 KJV. Now how are we ever to do that? Well in my eyes you will never make it, and in your eyes I will not come close, but in the Fathers eyes you and I both can be perfect if we are covered by Jesus, he makes us perfect, we might fail from time to time, but if we are serious about it, we can make the slip-ups not so frequent.
    Remember the churches are full of hypocrites and you and I are no better, but we can be, but not by throwing stones. Jerry or jerbear.

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