Why Don’t Christians Follow Jesus?

Not too long ago I caught up with a former coaching client of mine who shared how valuable our work together had been in his life.

Toward the end of the conversation, he asked what I was up to and what was important to me. I spoke about the work we’re doing to save our church and create a community at Church of the Holy City.

I then offered this. “You know that values stuff you appreciated in coaching, well I preach about that every Sunday. You should come to join us on zoom.” He hesitated and I could see was trying to be polite, “Church really isn’t my thing. To be honest, Christians are not my thing. In fact, to be super honest, when I learned you were a minister it almost kept me from wanting to work with you.”

Church has a bad brand.

His views weren’t unusual. I’ve discovered the biggest barrier for people coming to church is the word, “church.” For many their most important value is equality, and they see the church as the enemy of equality.

Beyond just the equality issue is the hypocrisy issue.

The same church that preached pro-life and pro-family values looked the other way when their own priests sexually abused young people. The same church that says that God loves everyone are the same ones who put their energy into opposing equal rights. The same church that says Jesus challenged the wealthy and powerful, attend mega churches preaching a prosperity gospel. The same church that draws a line on immoral sexual behavior, looks the other way if the candidate engaging in that behavior aligns with their goals.

The gap between Christianity and Jesus has been widening for generations.

Only one generation after the disciples formed the first church, powerful political leaders co-opted the message. In no time, the message of Jesus’ love for others had morphed into a religion that would physically punish people who didn’t agree with it. If you were lucking you were excommunicated, but you could be literally burned at the stake as a heretic for your thoughts—now that is cancel culture.

As the centuries went on the message of Jesus got lost in the religion of Christianity.

By the 1600s, Protestants and Catholics were literally killing each other in Germany over 30 years of war over differing beliefs and claims of power.

In the 1700s, when the Christian mystic Swedenborg came onto the scene he stated that the Christian Church as they knew it had moved so far from the teachings of Jesus that it could not be saved and that over the next few centuries it would wind down being replaced by a new evolution of church. Though he never started a church, readers of his works would create a new group called the New Church of which we are decedents.

In Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer a Lutheran theologian who opposed his own church’s alignment with Hitler.

Here in the USA, our largest Christian church, the Southern Baptist Church, broke from northern Baptists to defend the sin of slavery.

A role model for a new Christianity would grow out of this suffering in the ministry of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

My start in national politics occurred in 1992 when I debated the famous pastor Rev. Jerry Falwell on LKL about whether gay people could be Christians. He pointed out that his exclusions were built on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible and I pointed out his church had also justified slavery using Bible passages. Much of my reason for engaging in politics was to fight for the name of Jesus against ministers like Falwell.

In just the last two months, the SBC has thrown out two churches that welcome gays and harassed their leading female author and leader Beth Moore right out of the denomination. My friend David French wrote a painful piece about how Moore’s harassment in his column today French Press.

This huge gap between what Jesus taught and how the church actually operates explains why that young man said that his biggest problem with the church is the church.

The battle between following religious rules and living a life of love existed even in Jesus’ time. His chief opposition wasn’t from the government officials or the people of other faiths or the poor. His chief opposition came from the fundamentalist religious establishment.

This past week I did an interview on the American dream and the interviewer asked how my faith informed my work. After sharing my beliefs, the interviewer said, “You are a Matthew 25 Christian.” I had not heard that typology before.

She was referring to the gospel message today from Matthew 25 where Jesus warns us that people in the future will confuse words and ideas with actions. The passage ends with “What you do for the least of these you do to me.” That’s the message of Jesus.

Why don’t more Christians follow Jesus?

Truly following Jesus is hard work, and it requires a lifetime of commitment. Following Jesus means dying to our own ego and selfishness and opening ourselves to the Lord’s purpose in our lives. It means not simply focusing on myself, but seeking to be of use to others.

We often say that America is a Christian nation. But, in fact, Jesus is counter-cultural to American culture where we measure success by your income, power over others, or celebrity status. American young people have gotten the message of what’s important.

50% of sixteen years old’s in America report being famous as their life goal. 86% of young people aspire to be social media influencers. In 1978, being rich ranked 8th among all the goals listed as choices in the survey of young people. However, since 1989, being rich has consistently ranked first most important value.

In a culture that tells us to build up our ego, Jesus calls us to submission.

In a culture that tells us to seek fame, Jesus asks us to be humble.

In a culture that tells us to look out for number one, Jesus asks us to love others.

In a culture that teaches us to strive to be in the upper class, Jesus asks us to stand with the underdogs.

In a culture that says never let them see your weakness, Jesus tells us to seek forgiveness for what we’ve gotten wrong.

In a culture that teaches win-lose thinking, Jesus demands we seek empathy with those whom we disagree.

Following Jesus is always a journey without arrival. To grow as a follower of Jesus is to become more humble realizing just how little we know. As soon as feel the desire to be righteous and point a finger, we are called to look at the log in our own eye.

If the Christian Church is no longer the place where a rising generation can go to learn these lifesaving lessons of Jesus, it too must die and be born again in a new form. Something like that is happening now.

One of the visions for our work at the church of the Holy City is to reimagine what church can be. We must become a place that lives the teachings Jesus seeks to be radically inclusive. Our truth must lead us to action for it to be real.

Let me end with some good news. The path of Jesus leads to inner peace and lasting happiness. No matter what happens to the institutions who claim to represent the message of Jesus, the Lord will always find new ways and new leaders to reach people with the life-saving message of Christ love and call us to be better people remembering that what we do for the least of these God’s children we do to God.