By Bill Mefford
Once again, in what is becoming a story I hear all-too often, I heard from a young women recently who rejected Christianity when she was a child because her Christian “friends” were jerks to her. When she was eleven years old, the Christians in her class bullied her because she expressed doubts about Christianity. Let me repeat this - a young girl was bullied for doubting the existence of God by classmates who supposedly followed a man who was put to death by a fusion between the religious and political powers of his day because he fully enfleshed God’s love for a broken world. This is where the church is at right now.
When she told me her story all I could do was shake my head and say, “what a bunch of jerks.” Of course, her classmates could only learn that kind of jerkish theology from their own family and church. It reminded me of when I was when in high school and I worked at a hamburger and ice cream joint in Plano called Braum’s. I was a Christian at the time, but I shared my work colleagues’ hatred of having to work the Sunday and Wednesday night shifts and do you know why we hated it do much? Yep, you guessed it. Those were church nights.
After worshiping Jesus long and loud the church people would crowd the Braum’s for hamburgers and shakes and they were the rudest people ever. Ever. I remember one woman who wore a large golden cross hanging conspicuously around her neck storming up to the counter, slamming down her over-halfway-eaten burger on the counter and yelling at me in front of the whole store, “I told you I wanted it medium-rare!” Now, besides this being a fast food joint, I had close to forty burgers on the grill while also having to get everyone’s drinks read and she was demanding that I remake her burger. I was naturally pissed off at this incredibly rude person yelling at me, but I was even more angry that this woman wore a cross and yet behaved exactly opposite the way I envisioned Jesus would have had he ordered a cheeseburger and a chocolate chip shake.
Now, all Christians act badly. Heck, people of all faiths act badly. It doesn’t matter your theological or political leanings; jerkish behavior abounds. But having grown up and spent most of my life within evangelicalism I know firsthand how winning people to Jesus through relational evangelism is regarded with such importance within evangelicalism. In fact, sociologist Christian Smith has three marks which distinguish evangelical Christians and one of those is evangelizing other people (the other two being: 1) having a born-again experience, and 2) having a high, even literal understanding of Scripture).
So, with the emphasis on relational evangelism that is supposed to mark evangelicals among all Christians, I am never ceased to be amazed at how they betray this core distinguishing characteristic by being such amazing jerks about stuff.
And one thing I always find amusing is when I hear evangelical pastors brag about how their churches have grown by professions of faith and not just by transfers from other churches (yes, bragging is another way of being a jerk). So, evangelical churches tend to have more people join who are not part of any church previously even while all churches in the United States (including evangelical churches) are experiencing decline. But these bragging pastors never seem to realize that the people they are adding through a confession of faith are costing them numerous people who leave their churches because they are such jerks to so many people. This is why all churches are experiencing decline and especially why evangelical churches are experiencing decline in particular.
So, here is one rule that if followed, I believe, would stop the decline of church attendance practically over night: don’t be a jerk. John Wesley has something similar for his classes he started when he built the Methodist movement: do no harm. I prefer my rule though because it’s a little more blunt and we all know a jerk when we see them. They are the people who demand their way like the idiots who bullied my new friend when she was eleven, or the loud, obnoxious church people who flooded Braum’s every Wednesday and Sunday nights and griped and moaned when their $3 burgers were cooked a few minutes too long.
Just don’t be a jerk. Before you are required to love people, before you reach out to empathize and come alongside those bearing enormous burdens, before you go the extra mile and turn the other cheek and give your coat and all that jazz, just don’t be a jerk.
But this is hard for folks. Just look at the recent General Conference of the United Methodist Church when evangelicals cheated in casting their votes and said horrible things about LGBTQ people and passed legislation that mandates minimum sentences and obliterates the biblical themes of contextual and restorative justice that leads to reconciliation and healing for all people, and further criminalizes LGBTQ people. It was as if United Methodist fundamentalists looked at Wesley’s first rule - do no harm - and though it was opposite day.
I am convinced that being jerk essentially means demanding your way. Look at the jerks driving on the roads today; they are the ones cutting people off, honking, speeding, and demanding everyone go at their pace or get the hell out of their way. I know. I used to be one. Jerks have done more to damage the message of the gospel of Jesus than anything else I can think of.
But these days, when evangelicals have placed donald trump as the head of evangelicalism, then being a jerk is just being another self-centered, self-consumed American Christian. Sadly, every week I run into more people who have been hurt by this kind of jerky, America-first Christianity. People will surely continue to leave the church because of it too. It is ruining the church’s missional engagement and is a serious form of abuse. Jerk, for many people, has become all too synonymous with evangelical and worse yet, with being Christian.
So, let’s stop. Loving people is the most challenging and most rewarding thing we can spend our lives doing. But it has to start with just not being a jerk. That has to be rule number one.