Instead of unifying believers, Christ has become a symbol of discontentment and divisiveness. Theologians publicly humiliate each other, pastors hatefully condemn those they disagree with, denominations split over minor differences, Facebook is used as a platform to spread hurtful comments and derogatory memes, Twitter accounts are used as vicious tools of attacks, and people spew degrading opinions and gossip—often without provocation. Disdain reaches hyperbolic proportions, and accusations of being a “heretic” and “false prophet” are freely given to various individuals who simply have new, bold or different ideas.
American Christians have forgotten how to dialogue and respectfully disagree. We’ve abandoned concepts like grace, humility and love and have devolved into critics instead of encouragers, instigators instead of peacemakers, debaters instead of friends, and reactionists instead of innovators.
We crave independence and avoid teamwork, and prefer communities who share similar theological, political and social beliefs. Exclusiveness is preferred over acceptance, and we religiously bolster our personal ideologies instead of readily listen to others. Meanwhile, the rest of the world watches as we destroy ourselves and the gospel we represent.
2) Unfair and Inaccurate Associations
American Christianity is obsessed with labels. We ascribe names, descriptors and titles for various theologies, denominations, movements, political ideas and social ideologies.
We judge individuals based on the flimsiest of associations in order to fulfill our superficial stereotypes. Therefore, someone who likes Rob Bell must be a “Liberal Universalist,” while someone who admires John Piper must be a “Calvinist.” Mystery and ambiguity is mistakenly perceived as ignorance, and so we categorize everyone—including ourselves.
We live in an age where the term “Christian” means a million different things to a million different people. To make matters worse, non-Christians have their own associations—often warranted. Therefore, an individual claiming to be Christian can be misinterpreted as being Homophobic, Conservative, Anti-Science and Sexist, even though those descriptions may be completely inaccurate.
Christian groups and organizations reinforce negative perceptions through campaigns, lobbying efforts, institutionalized doctrines, public comments and actions, making it harder to break down preconceived stereotypes that our popular culture and media continue to associate with Jesus.
For believers, the term “Christian” is just the beginning label, a generic description meant to be broken down and dissected. What type of Christian are they? A moderate? Liberal? Egalitarian? Lutheran? Charismatic? What style of worship do they prefer? What translation of the Bible do they use? The classifications could go on forever.
American Christianity is a complex and diverse array of beliefs and ideologies, and every individual is unique, but we prefer to reduce everything through labels, forfeiting truth for the sake of compartmentalization and simplification.
3) Speed and Shallowness
Our fast-paced culture of celebrity, noise and entertainment has trumped our ability to patiently meditate, pray and reflect. We ignore meaningful content if it’s boring. Time is money and we value being engaged in the here and now. Our country is addicted to technology, and we use our smart phones, tablets and laptops to constantly interact—but we fail to take the time to process our actions.
We communicate in real time as news constantly breaks around us, and we’ve been trained to Tweet, Post, Text, Call and Blog at the speed of light. Controversy is a welcome diversion that distracts us from issues (or people) that really matter.
The most popular theologians and pastors now have their own web platforms, and we expect them to engage in every newsworthy event—no matter how significant (or insignificant) it may be. A Christian author may spend years of exhaustive work and research in order to write a book, but we’ll manage to ruthlessly and publicly tear it apart within minutes of publication.
Mistakes are made, statements are shouted, relationships are ended, and it’s often too late to retrace our steps and retract our sins. We sacrifice contentment, care and thoughtfulness in order to quench our insatiable desire for social interaction and cheap entertainment.
4) We’re Privileged
Change is hard to accept when things are working in your favor. As the common expression goes: “Why is change a good thing?” Any theology, idea or sermon that challenges people to sacrifice or reach beyond their comfort zones isn’t easily accepted.
Many American Christians defend their position so passionately because the greatest beneficiaries of their worldview are themselves. But when people are persecuted, abandoned, ignored or powerless, their perspective changes and they become open to different paradigms. These new paradigms are invisible and seem illogical to those that live comfortably.
We have turned our faith into a set of costs, and it’s becoming increasingly costly to maintain the Christian status quo. In John 2, the Bible tells the riveting story of Jesus entering the Temple and becoming furious at what He sees: vendors who have turned something holy into a commercial marketplace. Jesus is irate, and he basically tears the place apart because of their sin. But how different are our churches today?
The message of Christ should be available for free, to everyone. The best worship, pastors, teachers, ideas, inspiration and resources should not be reserved for only those who can afford to pay for the latest albums and books, buy tickets to conferences, pay tuition for Seminary, or submit a fee for retreats—you get the picture. As Christians, we need to be intentional about fighting our cultural habit of commercializing everything, and be willing to generously offer our gifts and resources freely to everyone—with no strings (or charges) attached.
6) Obsessed with Power
American Christianity has historically had vast institutional, political and social power.
Power-hungry Christians view their faith as a battle, a series of wins and losses. Control and influence is valued above all else, and Christianity’s success is measured by research, statistics, attendance and the success of church-supported laws at the state and federal level. Success is hardly gauged by the fruits of the Spirit or by how well we’re following Christ’s example.
A thirst for power results in Christians who prefer political might over spiritual strength, legal enforcement over personal choice, conscription over evangelism, punishment over grace, fear over hope, and control over love. In extreme cases, even violence and aggression is viewed as a necessary means of gaining power.
But “Christianity” in America is no longer an institutionalized tradition that people automatically do on Sunday mornings— this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It forces us to care less about power and more about the gospel of Christ. Jesus routinely sacrificed worldly power for humble service and love. Is selfless love something that American Christians are ready for? We’ll soon find out.
In the meantime, let’s pray that American Christianity is transformed to reflect the love of Christ—in order to humbly serve the world around us.
(Disclaimer: Don’t worry, there is a Best Things About American Christianity as well…)
Stephen Mattson has written for Relevant, Sojourners, and The Burnside Writer’s Collective. He graduated from the Moody Bible Institute and is currently on staff at Northwestern College in St. Paul, MN. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.