Congratulations, new follower of Christ, you have won an all-expense paid trip to Shamesville. Please carry your own baggage.
While we don’t ever hear that when we walk into a church, it would certainly be more honest than what most people get.
Last night, I was tweeting with some fellow bloggers about the way in which conservative Christian (and here, it goes beyond evangelical) culture frames love, sex, dating, and marriage. I was torn. On the one hand, I was stunned at how many people have such deep pain not because of their history but because of what was said to them by the church or by fellow Christians. On the other, a big part of me is not surprised at how vast this shaming is.
It is a deeply rooted problem within the church that we talk about how “free” we are in Christ yet apply layer after layer of guilt on people. This isn’t just true when it comes to matters of sex, gender, and sexuality (although those seem to get the most mileage on the guilt train). It permeates everything. I can see why so many Christians either hide their behavior or hide behind legalism. When you regularly hear two conflicting messages, it’s not hard to understand why so many people feel like failures.
Even the imagery we use surrounding the concept of sin is laden with shame: A cup that’s been spit in; a gift-wrapped dirty diaper; cookies with salt replacing the sugar; chewed gum; a licked lollipop; brownies made with dog poo.* The message is the same with each of them—that you are dirty, worthless, and full of things no one could ever possibly want.
It’s true that right after we hear the message of how completely screwed up we are we get the “good news” that even though God is royally pissed off at us, we don’t have to worry. Jesus took one for the team! Yay! We are now supposed to feel free and clean.
Except it doesn’t work that way.
Even after we give our lives to Christ, the church continues to lay on the guilt week after week, a bringing out a constant stream of all the things we need to improve in our lives. We get tidy sermons in which our sins are bullet points in a list of words all beginning with D, and the solutions are often out-of-context Scriptures that speak to the behavior but not the heart. Sunday after Sunday, people leave the building feeling less human than when they went in.
When I read and hear the stories of people like the women on Twitter last night, I am horrified that this is how we make people feel. Is it any wonder that there are so many people who are turning to desperate measures to feel whole? Is it any wonder that people are leaving the institution that has driven them into hiding in shame?
I’m not suggesting that there is no such thing as sin or that everything is relative, nor that we have no responsibility to call people out on their sin. But I think we’ve become people who fixate on exactly the wrong things. We hear in churches all the time about purity and modesty, pornography, the proper role for women, homosexuality, lying, and gossip. But where are the church leaders speaking out against violence and racism and greed? Who is demanding justice for the abused child or the rape victim? I can’t recall the last time I heard a sermon on sin that raged against any of those things. (And just for some perspective, in the last week I have seen the exact same people, who claim to be “Christians,” make both racist remarks and slut-shaming comments.)
Churches, if you want to know why people are leaving, it’s not because you’ve become irrelevant in your style; it’s because you’ve become irrelevant in helping wounded souls heal. Do you really want to know how you can fill your seats? Open your doors wider. Stop fixating on personal sin and start spreading the message that God can reach into the places of pain and shame. Speak out against abuse and stand up for victims. Don’t treat frightened victims as though they have a responsibility to their abusers. Don’t treat survivors as though they still have something to feel guilty about. Teach your members that respect means all people, not just the ones that look and act a certain way.
When are we going to stop living—and treating others—as though we are all permanent residents of Shamesville?
*Those are all real object lessons used to teach “purity” and/or sin. The brownie one made me laugh, though, given the fact that there often are…er…added ingredients in brownies; just preferably not that particular one.