The most recent Pew forum study, which show that numbers of people identifying with any brand of Christianity is still in decline, should surprise no one. But as is the case any time such a study comes out, Christians are looking for reasons why.
By now we know a lot of the basic reasons: people are busier, they are more mobile, there's less social stigma about not going to church, folks don't trust us, etc. But I'm interested in looking at it from three different perspectives, rather than just from the inside of Christianity. After all, there's far more at play here than just Christians not practicing what they preach.
Christians never will be perfect, so why do we pretend otherwise? There's always a big headline whenever a church leader falls from grace. From Robert Tilton and Ted Haggard to Mark Driscoll, they all fall, sooner or later, it seems. And yes, part of the problem is that power corrupts, and church leaders perhaps more than anyone else are too often given carte blanche authority to do what they feel is right. Unlimited trust plus unlimited power -- regardless of the person at the focus -- is a recipe for big trouble.
But corruption isn't the only problem. The bigger problem is honesty.
I'm not just talking about leaders lying about their transgressions. I mean that all Christians, as a whole, have a tendency to promote a false veneer of flawlessness to the world, as if somehow once you are a Christian, your hair is perennially straight, teeth are white, and your bodily functions magically smell like roses.
I really appreciate the approach fellow author/blogger Nadia Bolz Weber takes when talking to a newcomer to her Denver congregation. Inevitably, no matter who they are or where they come, a newcomer goes through what we call a "Honeymoon Phase" at any church, where (like in any new relationship) they only see the good in the church, in the pastor, and so on. And a leader who is not onto themselves will play into that, because it feels good. But it's not real, and it's a setup for disaster.
In her interview with Krista Tippet for "On Being," she explains what she says to anyone newly in love with the church. "I'm glad you love it here," she says "but...at some point, I will disappoint you or the church will let you down. Please decide on this side of that happening if, after it happens, you will still stick around. Because if you leave, you will miss the way that God's grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness. And it's too beautiful to miss. Don't miss it."
Three things happen in this disclosure. First, it helps to set more realistic expectations, both for the church leader and the congregation as a whole. Second, it brings the pastor down off a pedestal where they never should have been in the first place.
But third, and most important, it redirects everyone's attention toward the opportunity for Grace to enter in. After all, why look for grace, support and healing if we are still trying to convince ourselves we're perfect? And if Church does anything beyond bringing people together for mutual accountability, support and to help bear witness to each others' lives, it should redirect our individual and collective attention away from ourselves and toward something bigger than us.
From our church signs to our "evangelism" efforts, we're so focused on what others need to be more like us, that we don't spend half as much energy or time vulnerably and honestly sharing our own imperfections and messed-up-ness with others. Why do that? Because it assures people we're no better than they are, that, they're not alone, and that we all need each other, and just maybe, God.
But beyond that, when we admit we actually really suck sometimes, it assures people they can actually trust us, which is far more important than earning their short-lived admiration.
Find out more about Christian Piatt's work at ChristianPiatt.com.