One of the most common complaints about Christians is that we are judgmental in the way talk about and treat others. In fact, in a recent study, the Barna Group found that 87% of people between the ages of 16 and 29 find Christians to be judgmental. That was the the top characteristic on the list, just ahead of hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%).
What should we do about these perceptions? Is there anything we can do? Are we doomed to being poorly perceived or can we take steps today to improve the way people see us?
Part of the problem is we are sending mixed messages. We say that everyone is welcome but when certain kinds of “everyone” come we treat them differently. We preach that God loves everyone and then we treat people as if he doesn’t. We believe in grace but act in judgment.
Recently my wife and I went hiking. On the drive up to the trail head we drove by a strange drive way. It caused us to do a double take, to reverse the car so we could look again, and then to take the picture you see below.
Let’s unpack this photo a bit. There’s a beautiful arrangement of flowers just to the right of the driveway. The flowers seem to communicate something like “Welcome! We’re glad you’re here!” But the sign on the post screams the exact opposite message: “KEEP OUT! YOU’RE NOT WELCOME!”
Friends, this is a perfect metaphor for what we are saying to the watching world today. Some of our words, music, programs, etc. say to people who don’t follow Jesus yet that they are safe to explore and to learn and ultimately to meet Jesus and find meaningful community. But some of our words, postures, attitudes, etc. say to people that people like them aren’t welcome here among the people who supposedly have it all together.
Judgmental: A Few Examples
You may be thinking, “No way! I’m never like this!” And you may be right. But my experience and my own failures tell me that it’s likely that we’re all unintentionally being a bit more judgmental than we think. Here are a few examples:
- Believing and Behaving before Belonging: This example is very pervasive; you’ll see it everywhere if you open your eyes. We constantly communicate to people who don’t know Jesus yet that they need to think correctly about some things and to clean up their acts before they can be part of our community. Stop and think about that. What we’re unintentionally saying is that we believe everything correctly and that we behave perfectly. And let’s be honest, we know this isn’t true; we aren’t perfect! But by communicating in this manner we are telling people that they have to earn their place among us and by extension with God too. Oops.
- Holding Non-Christian Organizations to Christian Standards: This is another one that’s uber-common. Here’s the best example I can think of: We get all up in arms when Hollywood produces a movie with bad language, violence, and nudity. Should we keep track of the things that we consume as followers of Jesus? Absolutely! But why would Hollywood cater toward this desire of ours? They simply want to make money; in fact, that’s their job. And since most Hollywood production companies are not Christian organizations, why should we expect them to live up to our standards?
- Holding Non-Christians to Christians Standards: We do the same thing with people too. When we learn that one of our friends or family members who doesn’t follow Jesus has done something that the Bible calls sin, we act all surprised and we may even try to shame them! Think about that for a second. Why would someone who hasn’t agreed to a covenant with God be held to the covenant standards of a follower of Jesus? That doesn’t make sense at all! And yet we do this all the time…just ask someone you know who doesn’t follow Jesus yet.
- Not Controlling our Non-Verbal Communication: This one is a bit more subtle to notice on our side, but it’s obvious to the person observing us. Imagine this scenario: You’re talking with a friend and she tells you that she’s living with her boyfriend. You make a slight face. She then says she’s pregnant. Your face gets a bit more obvious. Now she tells you she’s considering an abortion. Your face shows shock and outrage! Don’t get me wrong, it would be best for this imaginary friend to wait to have sex until she’s married and abortion isn’t part of God’s design when it comes to human reproduction. But by being shocked while having the conversation, all we are communicating is judgment. This same scenario can be played out in a thousand other situations: drug-use, teen pregnancy, criminal behavior, political choices, etc., etc.
- Speaking Christian-ese: Here’s my definition of Christian-ese — the insider language that Christians speak among themselves, often incorporating biblical and theological terms (such as “repentance” and “sanctification”). If there’s any chance at all that a new believer or someone who doesn’t follow Jesus yet may be hearing our language, we should leave these words out. Why? Because including them creates an “us” and “them” barrier. And there’s little worse in life than feeling excluded! Just remember back to being picked last in a game on the playground!
What Can We Do?
- Stop Being Judgmental: This one is obvious but it needs to be stated plainly. Here’s the biblical support if you need it: 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 “For what have I to do with judging outsiders?…God judges those outside.” There it is in plain language — It’s God’s job to judge those who don’t follow Jesus yet, not ours. Let’s stop trying to do God’s job!
- Create Belonging before Requiring Believing and Behaving: What did Jesus say, “Follow me!” or “Think right and act right, then follow me!” He said the former but we tend to say the latter. How do we expect folks to learn what to think and how to act? Here’s the truth: the best way for people to believe rightly and behave in godly ways is to be in community with people who are learning to do the same! None of us will ever believe everything just so and none of us will ever behave perfectly. So we MUST stop requiring “full” belief and “correct” behavior before we are willing to be in community people seeking to meet Jesus.
- Start Being More “Shock-Proof”: If our postures and attitudes toward others whenever they reveal their lives to us sours them on the good news of Jesus and his kingdom, then we have to do something different! Here’s step number one: we need to work at being “shock-proof.” When we find out something about someone’s life that doesn’t line up with what we think is good or right, we must do our level best not to react negatively! This is difficult and will probably always be so. But the first step is awareness.
- Be More Hospitable in Our Language: When we meet and talk to folks who don’t know Jesus yet, we need to begin to use normal, human language. We can’t use language that creates an “us vs. them” situation! Instead let’s start doing the hard work of translating our Christian-ese into the vernacular so that people can meet Jesus in language that they can understand!
What do you think? What can we do to be a bit less judgmental?