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The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity

2009 November 6
by Mike

The following post by my buddy Richard continues to rattle around on the internet with lots of discussion:

To start, a story.

A few years ago a female student wanted to visit with me about some difficulties she was having, mainly with her family life. As is my practice, we walked around campus as we talked.

After talking for some time about her family situation we turned to other areas of her life. When she reached spiritual matters we had the following exchange:

“I need to spend more time working on my relationship with God.”
I responded, “Why would you want to do that?”
Startled she says, “What do you mean?”
“Well, why would you want to spend any time at all on working on your relationship with God?”
“Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?”
“Let me answer by asking you a question. Can you think of anyone, right now, to whom you need to apologize? Anyone you’ve wronged?”
She thinks and answers, “Yes.”
“Well, why don’t you give them a call today and ask for their forgiveness. That might be a better use of your time than working on your relationship with God.”

Obviously, I was being a bit provocative with the student. And I did go on to clarify. But I was trying to push back on a strain of Christianity I see in both my students and the larger Christian culture. Specifically, when the student said “I need to work on my relationship with God” I knew exactly what she meant. It meant praying more, getting up early to study the bible, to start going back to church. Things along those lines. The goal of these activities is to get “closer” to God. To “waste time with Jesus.” Of course, please hear me on this point, nothing is wrong with those activities. Personal acts of piety and devotion are vital to a vibrant spiritual life and continued spiritual formation. But all too often “working on my relationship with God” has almost nothing to do with trying to become a more decent human being.

The trouble with contemporary Christianity is that a massive bait and switch is going on. “Christianity” has essentially become a mechanism for allowing millions of people to replace being a decent human being with something else, an endorsed “spiritual” substitute. For example, rather than being a decent human being the following is a list of some commonly acceptable substitutes:

Going to church
Worship
Praying
Spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting)
Bible study
Voting Republican
Going on spiritual retreats
Reading religious books
Arguing with evolutionists
Sending your child to a Christian school or providing education at home
Using religious language
Avoiding R-rated movies
Not reading Harry Potter.

The point is that one can fill a life full of spiritual activities without ever, actually, trying to become a more decent human being. Much of this activity can actually distract one from becoming a more decent human being. In fact, some of these activities make you worse, interpersonally speaking. Many churches are jerk factories.

Take, for example, how Christians tip and behave in restaurants. If you have ever worked in the restaurant industry you know the reputation of the Sunday morning lunch crowd. Millions of Christians go to lunch after church on Sundays and their behavior is abysmal. The single most damaging phenomenon to the witness of Christianity in America today is the collective behavior of the Sunday morning lunch crowd. Never has a more well-dressed, entitled, dismissive, haughty or cheap collection of Christians been seen on the face of the earth.

I exaggerate of course. But I hope you see my point. Rather than pouring our efforts into two hours of worship, bible study and Christian fellowship on Sunday why don’t we just take a moment and a few extra bucks to act like a decent human being when we go to lunch afterwards? Just think about it. What if the entire restaurant industry actually began to look forward to working Sunday lunch? If they said amongst themselves, “I love the church crowd. They are kind, patient and very generous. It’s my favorite part of the week waiting on Christians.” How might such a change affect the way the world sees us? Think about it. Just being a decent human being for one hour each Sunday and the world sees us in a whole new way.

But it’s not going to happen. Because behavior at lunch isn’t considered to be “working on your relationship with God.” Behavior at lunch isn’t spiritual. Going to church, well, that is working on your relationship with God. But, as we all know, any jerk can sit in a pew. But you can’t be a jerk if you take the time to treat your waitress as if she were a friend, daughter or mother.

My point in all this is that contemporary Christianity has lost its way. Christians don’t wake up every morning thinking about how to become a more decent human being. Instead, they wake up trying to “work on their relationship with God” which very often has nothing to do with treating people better. How could such a confusion have occurred? How did we end up going so wrong? I’m sure there are lots of answers, but at the end of the day we need to face up to our collective failure. I’m not saying we need to do anything dramatic. A baby step would do to start. Waking up trying to be a little more kind, more generous, more interruptible, more forgiving, more humble, more civil, more tolerant. Do these things and prayer and worship will come alongside to support us.

I truly want people to spend time working on their relationship with God. I just want them to do it by taking the time to care about the person standing right in front of them.

25 Responses leave one →
  1. November 6, 2009

    Yep. Dead on, I’d say. Other examples: retailers know that churchgoing folks are notoriously crabby shoppers, always on the make for a discount, a markdown, or a refund…whether deserved or not. And if you happen to be in the financial service industry, just try explaining a market downturn or some other negative, unanticipated financial event to one of your fellow parishioner/clients. Not an interchange typically characterized by grace.

    Here’s a related question: if the apostle Paul was an acquaintance, would you invite him to your dinner party? How about Jeremiah? What’s the relationship between being “nice” and being faithful?

  2. November 6, 2009

    That is the whole deal … very little else is relevant to being Christ like

  3. November 6, 2009

    Wow. Thanks for sharing. I’m going to repost this.

  4. David U permalink
    November 6, 2009

    Dead on.

  5. November 6, 2009

    This is a very good post…it needs to be printed in every church bulletin.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  6. Dee permalink
    November 6, 2009

    Excellent! It doesn’t take but a moment to smile and tell the checker that you hope their day goes well…to ask if they are close to the end of their shift…to show a little interest…to tell a grumpy overworked server you appreciate them (and leave a decent tip!) I often have my church name tag on when we go out on Sundays…and it’s obvious that I’ve not only been to a church service, but which congregation I attend!

  7. D. Dallas permalink
    November 6, 2009

    Ah, Richard builds his case with a straw man approach. He begins with a young lady’s statement that exhibits a complete lack of understanding of “spiritual disciplines” and concludes that all contemporary Christianity is a works oriented procedure–i.e. “work on my relationship with God” He follows by saying we should do good works to become better human beings. But, we become better human beings and do good works because we have stopped trying to do it ourselves and turned our lives over to Jesus and God. WE stop beating ourselves over the head for our failures and instead let Jesus work in our lives. How does that happen? By as Paul said–seeing Jesus and allowing that sight to transform us into His image. The more we become like Him–the better human being we become and God is glorified and the world sees Him through us.
    The “contempory christian” restuarant crowd is not obnoxious because they spend all their time engaging in Richard’s list–it is because in those things they do not engage Jesus and God.

  8. November 6, 2009

    Isn’t Richard just expanding on Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5, especially vs. 23-24? Is what Richard says any more controversial than what his Lord said to inspire it?

  9. November 6, 2009

    Sorry but I don’t see this as a straw man approach. In my ministry, I have met too many people who have that same approach to Christianity that the young student has. It is not that various “spiritual” activities are bad but they often become the trade-off ends for the kingdom living we are really called to in Jesus and that is what I understand Beck’s post to be about…to use his phrase, the bait and switch we employ for true spirituality.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

    P.S. I remember three years ago sitting in a Denny’s restaurant late at night with a youth group in a dinning room filled with various youth groups…watching one youth leader demand a free meal for his entire group of 10+ because this overwhelmed Denny’s staff took 30 minutes to get their meal and accidently forgot one order. But I guess the group was working on their relationship with God by singing hip praise songs and listening to very inspirational sermons.

  10. November 6, 2009

    Very interesting. This needs to be read by a lot of Christians… especially me.

  11. November 7, 2009

    I love love love this. I used to be a waitress AND amen. Even if the service is abyssmal-leave a generous tip if you are the church crowd.

  12. November 7, 2009

    There you go with that incarnational stuff again…

  13. D. Dallas permalink
    November 7, 2009

    Many youth groups and adults as well have been singing latest praise songs and listening to very inspirational sermons for generations and failing to engage God in the process. What I was saying and still saying is they weren’t substituting those activities for engaging their culture in a postive way–they were not engaging when doing these activities and thus were not transformed in Jesus image 2 Corinthians 3:18.
    Further saying that Richard is missing the true source of the problem. There is not a bait and switch–there is a total misunderstanding of the “spiritual disciplines”. They are engaged in as a work rather than a process whereby transformation occurs–thus they don’t result in a positive result.
    We might find our why so many times the most active and seemingly spiritual kids in the local youth group leaves home and from the very first doesn’t darken the church door. Obviously, what we see is not what we were really getting in the youth group.

  14. November 8, 2009

    Not only is this post excellent, I’d also encourage people to read his series on Christians and Torture. It’s a sobering and thought-provoking one.

  15. Ken Hines permalink
    November 8, 2009

    I guess I must have blinders on, but I’ve never seen this kind of behavior by Christians in a restaurant. Well, OK, I have seen some pretty poor tips, but when I do I excuse myself on the way out to leave something more on the table, and I would imagine a lot of other people do the same thing.

    Even when there have been issues with the food, a caterpillar in the salad, a nail in the rice, a hamburger served without the meat, a well-done steak served medium rare, I have never seen anything like the anger or a dismissive attitude mentioned in the post, not once.

    Of course we disciples need to be more humble and generous, starting with me. But in my opinion, bashing ourselves unnecessarily doesn’t help us become better persons. I am much more convicted when the Lord brings to my remembrance the times that I have been rude than in being told that Christians in general are rude. What am I missing here?

  16. Glenn permalink
    November 9, 2009

    He left off being a follower of Obama as an acceptable alternative. The moral indignation of the religious right is matched in intensity only by the self righteous arrogance of the Christian left.

  17. Deb permalink
    November 9, 2009

    Thank you for posting this. I was raised Baptist and no longer practice. However, I am exploring churches in my new town and (to my own surprise) seem to intend to return to some protestant church – although I’m not sure which one. This exercise makes me queasy and nervous – I’m not a Christian if one can talk about it in the cultural terms: praise music, home schooling, republican, etc. Frankly the idea of trying to become one again is what keeps me at a distance. Reading voices like this one help me to continue despite my unease.

    Thanks again.

  18. Happy permalink
    November 9, 2009

    Wow you must have been channeling “This American Life” whose topic this week is “Bait and Switch”

    Ira talks with Dave Dickerson about some of the bait and switch techniques Dave used when he was an evangelical trying to bring converts to the Church. Then Ira talks with author and evangelical Jim Henderson, who argues that evangelicals should follow Jesus’s example not through conversion, but by simply befriending non-believers. Dave Dickerson is the author of the book House of Cards: Love, Faith, and other Social Expressions. Jim Henderson records his thoughts on the website doableevangelism.com. (13 minutes)

  19. Justin permalink
    November 9, 2009

    Ken there is a lot of behavior I’ve never witnessed outight… That does not mean it’s not prevelant.

    Have you waited tables recently?

    I’ll never forget 5 minutes before I was getting cut on a sunday night at cracker barell, a party of 13 in suits and long dresses from the uber fundamentalist baptist congregation in Murfreesboro (the one that parks the hell and flame buss around town to advertise their church) showed up and so I had to stay an extra hour. I wasn’t happy about it but decided I’d be extra friendly since they were the only people I was serving and I could offer that personal service.

    We chatted, talk about church (on a fairly superficial level of course I had no desire to argue) they invited me to visit… They left me an 5 percent tip and a tract for their church. This wasn’t out of the ordinary but just one of the more memorable situations. Changed how I tipped from that point on.

  20. November 9, 2009

    Ken –

    To quote a line from one of the vices mentioned in Richard’s post, “[He] regarded him as a servant unworthy of much interest or notice. Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.”

    I don’t think it’s the overt actions of church-goers on Sundays at lunch, as much as their general tendency to view the person bringing them food as being somehow less than an equal – unworthy of much interest or notice – that really speaks to the waiters and waitresses. If I may, do you happen know the name of your server at lunch this past Sunday? Being entirely confessional, if it hadn’t been for the fact that my server had an unusual name, I probably wouldn’t have ever remembered.

    I will never forget an encounter a couple of years ago after I’d photographed a wedding and was at a restaurant in “plain clothes” for a brunch the next morning. We started talking to our waitress about the area, her job, what she was planning on doing, etc. We started talking about Sundays, and she mentioned that she wished she could have been off every Sunday. I asked why, and her response was so striking I had to write it down. The card stays on my desk as a reminder even today: “Sundays are the hardest day of the week – the church crowd, you know. They’re the biggest bunch of hypocrites you’ll ever meet. … But they prayed about it this morning.”

  21. Ken Hines permalink
    November 11, 2009

    Thank you for these thoughtful responses.

  22. Jenny permalink
    November 11, 2009

    To Ken….thank you so much for your original post. I share the same thoughts as you and would’ve posted them had you not already done so. I am frustrated by the sweeping and unsubstantiated comments in this post, and confused by this fixation with bashing the Body. Do we seriously expect to not see hypocritical Christian behavior? We’re plain old people who are imitating a perfect Savior. It’s by His grace alone that we don’t stumble around embarrassing Him more than we do! Our failings, however, do not mean that all of Christendom has lost its way.

    I have heard various versions of the restaurant scenario my entire life and cannot ever remember observing it firsthand. On the contrary, I have more often seen the Christians I know be kind and generous and Christ-like in the face of unkindness. Sure, there are exceptions, but once again, isn’t that to be expected? Isn’t it possible that we hear these stories because we are striving toward a higher calling, as most of our society is aware, and are therefore held to a higher expectation? We are surely under more scrutiny when it comes to our behavior–let’s hold each other accountable, certainly, but as a family, let’s also make sure the world knows that we LOVE each other and are not ashamed of each other, faults and all.

    I think it’s time to come to terms with the reality that we WILL see Christians acting unChristianly occasionally. We shouldn’t excuse it, but we shouldn’t wallow in it, either. We all, like Paul, can say that we do not do the things we wish to do.

    P.S. I didn’t meant to begin ranting, but I’m also so frustrated by the Republican comments. And the homeschooling stuff. And several other examples from the list above….what makes a Christian Democrat who sends their child to public school and looks with derision at the Christian Republican who homeschools his or her children any different than the Republican who looks down on the Democrat? Really? This is what divides us?

  23. The Drake permalink
    November 16, 2009

    “He left off being a follower of Obama as an acceptable alternative. The moral indignation of the religious right is matched in intensity only by the self righteous arrogance of the Christian left.”

    +1, brother.

  24. Tom permalink
    November 18, 2009

    Have witnessed the kind of restaurant behavior discussed in this blog on many occasions. Have had friends who were servers confirm the prevalence of such behavior. It’s real.

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