What about everyone else, Jesus?
My thirteen-year-old is nearly finished with the Confirmation process that will conclude with her joining the church in a few weeks. She’s earnestly wrestled with the decision and ultimately decided the time is right. This past Sunday she and her seven fellow confirmands participated in a luncheon with their parents and sponsors. During the luncheon they shared some of the questions and issues they’ve been studying and debating, as well as their questions and concerns about the Confirmation process itself.
As part of this process, they were required to write their personal statements of faith. The day after the luncheon, they were scheduled to meet with the church’s governing elders, where they read their statements and the elders voted on their admission as members of the church.
Their anxiety about the meeting was met with unanimous reassurances from their parents and sponsors. And in fact, the next evening they were greeted warmly and enthusiastically as each shared their personal statements. A line in my daughter’s statement particularly touched me: "I believe the role of the church is to be a family. The church should always protect and support each other."
All were affirmed without question or reservation, and then the elders hugged and congratulated each of the confirmands. In a few weeks they will be formally received by the congregation as the newest members of the church.
Outside the walls of my church, other Christians are having a very different conversation, and it’s not as loving or affirming as the one I witnessed between my daughter and our church’s elders. It’s a conversation playing out in social media, on cable news channels, at political rallies, in state houses, and even big-box store parking lots.
And so it was this week that my older daughter also shared something she’d written about her faith. She’s 17 and spiritually engaged. Nurtured from birth in a loving church environment, she cares about her faith, and it plays an important role in her life. Yet her writing contained words of condemnation for many of those who call themselves "Christians."
One particular passage made my heart hurt. She said: "As a Christian, I all too often feel ashamed of the people and the religion that I associate myself with. I downplay my participation in church activities and deny many of my beliefs at school because I am terrified that people will assume that I hate them."
As painful as her words are to read, I cannot deny that I’ve had similar feelings. I do not worry about her, because I know that her faith is not dependent on the misguided actions of others. However, as a person who thinks a lot about declining churches and ways to positively engage those who reject religion, I do ponder the significance of her visceral response to hatred and intolerance by other Christians, whose actions tar and feather all of us. Jesus calls us to treat our faith like a loaf of bread, freely given to anyone who asks. Instead, many Christians chose to wield their faith like a sword, intending to strike down or fend away anyone they disapprove of or don’t understand.
If these public affirmations of hate and intolerance challenge my daughter’s perception of herself as a Christian, how do they affect the growing ranks of unchurched young people who already identify themselves as "nones" when it comes to self-identified religious affiliation?
Ironically, many of the same people who feed the public perception of Christians as unloving and intolerant, complain about declining church participation and wonder aloud how they might "grow" their congregations with "young people" and "young families."
They claim to stand on "fundamental" Christian values, but seem to forget that the "fundamental" tenet of Christianity requires Christians to love their neighbors. Unconditional, sacrificial love is the foundation of the Christian community that nurtured my daughters. Yet many Christians struggle to offer that same love to those outside the walls of their churches.
Years before they reach Confirmation age, young children will be taught that Jesus loves ALL the children of the world. Yet for many of their parents and Sunday school teachers, that message somehow gets lost in the time it takes to drive from church to the big-box store down the street.
Ty Gomez is a NorthPark member, PCUSA ordained elder, and soccer dad. In his spare time, he practices law, plans more unfinished woodworking projects, and cooks for the women in his home.