The professional Christian speaker took another question from the floor. The university gymnasium was packed for the event, and tension was high. A bearded graduate student leaned into the microphone.
“How can you expect us to take your message seriously given the Christian record of atrocities?” he snarled. “Crusades! Ghettos! Pogroms! Residential schools! Slavery! Sexism! Homophobia! On and on!”
The audience murmured. The student had said what lots of people were thinking.
The speaker smiled tightly and replied with what a lot of professional speakers reply when faced with this line of questioning: “Well, yes, the Christian church has a spotty record, that’s true. But instead, look at Jesus! He didn’t launch any crusade! He didn’t enslave anyone! Look at him instead.”
Some Christians nodded to each other in the audience. That was a great answer.
The grad student, however, wasn’t through.
“But if Jesus promised to form his disciples into a community of love and justice, and he manifestly failed to do so, isn’t that a problem for what you’re selling?”
Well, yes. Yes, it is.
As fewer and fewer North Americans know much about Jesus—as the polls show—a lot of us nonetheless seem to know a lot about his Church…and a lot of that is bad.
It’s not just President Trump and his court chaplains, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Paula White, and the rest, although they don’t help much. It is a mental montage running in our heads of bloody crusaders and terrified Jews and weeping indigenous children. Bullied kids and beaten-down women and agonized slaves. Two thousand years of Christianity has a lot to answer for.
Today a friend in university Christian ministry writes to ask, “We’d like to host a week of Christian engagement to bring Christian awareness to the campus. The question is whether it should be called ‘Christian Awareness Week’ or ‘Jesus Awareness Week.’”
My reply? You can’t have one without the other. You can try focusing on Jesus all week, but his Church always comes along with him. Trying to avoid the dark side of Christian history is like trying to talk about Allah and Muhammad without mentioning Islam—and its record of, yes, crusades and sexism and slavery and the rest.
And that’s as it must be. For the only way for people to know Christ properly is to encounter him in their private prayers, yes, but also in the Scripture (taught by the Church), in worship (conducted by the Church), fellowship (hosted by the Church), and mission (undertaken by the Church). The Church is, for better and for worse, the Body of Christ on earth, and it cannot be avoided, or even indefinitely postponed. “Let’s just keep thinking and talking about Jesus, shall we? And let’s save the Church for (much, much) later!” Sorry. It doesn’t work that way.
Jesus metaphorically and literally engaged himself to the Church. He is with us, and we are with him, no matter what. So instead of attempting the impossible task of sharing Christ while running away from the Church, let’s talk about the Church as holding “treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7); the Church as a hospital, not a hotel; and the Church as what sinners look like when they aren’t anywhere near holy, but also what sinners look like as they are being made holy.
There is no becoming a Christian without becoming a member of the Church. And The Answer to our embarrassment about the Church is not to say, “Okay, all those other Christians have been disappointing, if not outrageous, so we’ll start a New, Improved Church that won’t get anything wrong.” Two thousand years of failed attempts at perfection make that prospect bitterly unlikely.
We Christians simply have to take on the admittedly daunting task of dealing squarely with the Church’s tattered reality. There is gold amid the rubble, love within the hypocrisy, and salvation among the scandals. Let’s help each other, and our neighbours, to find them. And let’s keep working to help our churches—this one, that one—become communities in which people don’t have to search so hard.
The Church, for all its failure, yet offers Jesus. In many ways the Church is a smelly, rough-hewn stable, but it’s still home for the Light of the World.