Hello, my name is Frank Powell, and I am a recovering Christian cynic. I was disillusioned about the church. I didn’t sign up for church ministry. I was drafted by God. I also didn’t grow up heavily involved in a youth group. I attended church sporadically to appease my parents.
I tell you this because when God drafted me, I had a picture of the church. This picture was shaped by my limited experience in church and my idea of what I thought “church” should look like.
In my mind, church ministry would be easy.
I would baptize new Christians all the time. Everyone would be receptive to my plans and teaching. In no time, I would have a mega-church. I knew I could do it. I was friends with several 20-somethings on Facebook and Twitter who pastored mega-churches.
I quickly realized “church people” are often frustrating and resistant to change. Not everyone enjoyed my teaching. Progress was slow. For nearly two years, I fought disillusionment. And, slowly, I made strides.
Then came the bombshell.
Another minister at the church where I worked sent me a scathing e-mail. He attacked everything, from my competency in ministry to the future salvation of my family.
That e-mail was the final straw. I wanted out.
Ever been there?
Thankfully, God kept me in ministry. I accepted another position and battled more disillusionment. But on the other side of my latest season in ministry, God restored my hope. It’s not because people changed. People will always be people. It’s not because the church is different. My hope is restored in the church and in God’s work in the world because God awakened me to inconsistencies and brokenness in my heart.
Here’s the reality. Cynicism plagues our culture. It might be the greatest threat to the present-day church. Cynicism is toxic. It’s insanely contagious. And, it’s not a respecter of persons. Anyone, anywhere, regardless of age, background, socioeconomic level, or race is susceptible to cynicism.
Cynics live without hope (the anchor of the Christian faith), void of compassion, lacking trust in everyone and everything. And without hope, compassion, and trust, what do you have? Seriously?
I want to share what I learned about cynicism. And I want to challenge you to start (or continue) fighting against cynicism. Cynicism is a sickness. It’s not from God.
Here are 8 ways to treat cynicism sickness.
1.) Never become familiar with God.
If familiarity breeds contempt, then religious familiarity breeds unholy cynicism.Margaret Feinberg
Familiarity with God turns blind faith into dry legalism. The church needs a larger view of God. The church needs to rediscover the God who created stars with his breath. God’s people are desperate for a new, fresh perspective of what it means to be all-powerful and all-knowing. There is no mountain God can’t move. There is no place to hide from God. If you travel to Pluto, he’s there. If you travel to the furthest known galaxy in the universe, MACS0647-JD, 13.3 billion light years from earth, God is there.
Write this down…the smaller your God, the larger your problems. And when your problems are too big for God, cynicism will plague your life. Rest in God’s power to do anything, anywhere, anytime.
But also rest in God’s knowledge, which far exceeds yours. God might not answer the way you want. It’s not because God doesn’t hear you. It’s because he sees the trajectory of your life. And, he weaves your requests with his will to form an unbreakable cord that lasts for all of eternity.
2.) Don’t fight religious battles. Just serve people.
Several years ago, a tornado ravaged a suburb in Jackson, MS. A group of teenagers and adults from my church spent the day helping those affected. It’s interesting. That day, I served alongside Christians from other denominations. I realized, despite what I was taught, they weren’t from Satan. They actually loved Jesus. A lot.
You know who doesn’t spend time debating ideals? Christians actively engaged in the mission of Christ. These Christians are too busy actually doing what Jesus said to debate whether Jesus actually meant it. What a novel idea, right? You see, cynicism thrives in a culture where Christians are idle and bored.
Show me a culture where Christians are cynical, I will bet my son’s salary (because he’s three) that church is focused on themselves and not others. I will bet my other son’s salary (because he’s two) a disproportionate number of Christians simply fill pews. Few Christians in cynical churches serve and few church leaders challenge people to serve.
Can you imagine what would happen if every Christian decided to serve others? This sounds ridiculous, but what if Christians stopped reading about Jesus and started living out what they already knew?
3.) Challenge your long-held assumptions about your faith and God.
In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”Eric Hoffer
Cynicism loves a culture where people hold to their beliefs tighter than the time I held to my wife when we rode the Goliath at Six Flags. And, yes. I screamed like a girl. Don’t judge me.
You are a learner. When you stop learning, you cease to be human. Human beings are the only creations of God with the ability to accumulate knowledge.
Dogs eat, pee, poop, make me sneeze (I’m allergic), and sleep. Dogs don’t reach a certain level of maturity and say, “Hey, I think I’ll learn to drive today.”
Cats eat, pee, poop, annoy people, look scary, and sleep. No one ever walked into your house, looked at your cat, and said, “Isn’t your cat five? Shouldn’t he be in school?”
But you? You were created to learn. If God is all-knowing, it is godly to learn and grow.
Listen to people you don’t agree with. I listen to sermons and podcasts of people from all walks of life and backgrounds. I have even listened to atheists discuss their perspective on the world, humanity, and culture. Do I agree with them? No. Do I have to agree with their views to listen to them? No.
You must listen to viewpoints you don’t agree with. Your church culture won’t do this for you. Most Sunday mornings are glorified pep rallies. Just watch the head nods. Listen for the amens. Here’s what they mean. “Yeah, I knew that. Yep, that’s right. I agree with you.” People come to hear the preacher say what they already know.
To combat the pep rally culture, you must expand your horizon. Challenge your traditional thinking. Be open-minded. Learners will inherit the earth. Are you a learner?
4.) Engage in Christian community.
You weren’t created to be alone. Isolation fuels cynicism. Ironically, cynicism often drives people into isolation. So, there’s a dangerous cycle at work here.
How do you break the cycle? Christian community. Authentic, Christ-centered community removes poison from the veins of cynicism. It reveals, on a smaller scale, what is true on a global scale. Transformation is slow. Ministry is messy. People are broken. Growth comes through vulnerability. The mission of Christ is external. Suffering is inevitable.
You get the idea.
You can’t become the man or woman God created you to be if you aren’t plugged into Christian community.
Through the years, community with other Christians shaped my journey more than anything else. I decided to go into full-time ministry after a Bible study at a friend’s home. When I got the news about cancer, it was my community who prayed for me. I could on and on.
As much as it hurts, regardless of how uncomfortable it is for you, plug into a community of believers. It will transform your life.
5.) Be vulnerable and authentic.
Cynicism thrives in a culture where Bible memorization and church attendance are merit badges for your coat of external righteousness. Why? External righteousness isn’t about God. It’s about you. And cynicism begins at the line between selflessness and selfishness.
This is why authenticity is so important. It reminds you that you’re broken. And this brokenness reminds you of God’s perfection.
But, if your church culture is like mine, this isn’t the message you are taught. I was instructed to hide my sins. Good Christian boys didn’t have sex, watch pornography, or drink alcohol. And God didn’t like little boys who did those things. So, when I did them, you know who I told? No one. And it caused me years of shame and pride.
At some point, I decided the Christian game wasn’t very fun and I stopped playing. Regardless of the facade your church tries to sell, don’t buy it. Everyone is broken. Every person who walks in a church building struggles with something. If you think you don’t struggle with anything, you’re wrong.
You struggle with pride…and lying.
Surround yourself with Christians who value authenticity. The more you do this, the less you hide feelings of shame. The more you let go of yourself, the deeper you sink in the sea of God’s unending grace. Cynicism dies where God’s grace lives.
6.) By default, trust everyone.
Look, I get it. People hurt you. They hurt me too. But when you don’t trust someone, you throw up a wall to keep from being hurt.
If you don’t trust your spouse, you don’t give all of yourself to them. If you don’t trust your boss, you withhold information from them. And here’s the problem with not trusting people…you can’t point someone to God when there’s a wall between yourself and someone else.
Look, don’t run around like Mary Poppins. Understand people are going to hurt you and disappoint you. But don’t give up on people because they’re broken like you. Treat others the way you want to be treated. You want to be trusted, right? Even when you mess up.
And remember, Jesus will never give up on you. He believes you are good. He believes you are worthy of dying for. What if the Christian community embraced the mentality of Jesus?
7.) Don’t run from discomfort. Run into it.
My default response to conflict is to run from it. And while this response protects me from short-term pain, it creates more long-term pain. If you want to end your life with no friends and overcome with bitterness, run from conflict. Don’t lean into discomfort when it comes.
Don’t miss this.
Almost every promise of God is fulfilled through conflict. God promised Abraham he would bless nations through him. In the meantime, Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son, leave his family, and endure a host of other difficult events.
David was anointed king by Samuel, but he didn’t take the reigns until 20 years after his anointing. In the meantime, David ran for his life. He fought for his life.
And, of course, the reconciling of the world was promised in Genesis and fulfilled at the resurrection of Jesus. In the meantime? Murder. Divorce. War. And, ultimately, the cross. At the cross, God redeemed humanity through pain and discomfort.
This is one of the greatest lessons I have learned in ministry. If you step into discomfort, the short-term might be difficult. But the long-term will be more joyful. Don’t take my word for it. Look at how God rolls.
8.) Practice hopeful realism every day.
Hopeful realism embraces the dual realities of contemporary evil and forthcoming redemption.Andrew Byers
Hopeful realism, a phrase coined by Andrew Byers in his book Faith Without Illusions is the alternative to both unhealthy disillusionment and cynicism.
So, what does hopeful realism look like? Here are a few examples.
- Cynics believe the world is too far gone. Idealists don’t understand the magnitude of the hurt in the world. Hopeful realists look to the disillusionment that surrounds an empty tomb and engage the world with the Spirit’s power.
- Cynics turn their backs on the church in disgust. They sit in the stands, silently hoping the ship sinks. Idealists believe the church is without problems. Everyone should be happy and get along. Hopeful realists see the church as the bride of Christ, and acknowledging the church’s problems, refuse to give up on something Jesus died for.
- Cynics look at the youthful naivety and disillusionment of the next generation as a product of immaturity and inexperience. Idealists are more concerned with talking about changing the world and less concerned with faithful acts of daily obedience. Hopeful realists never lose the wonder and awe of God but also understand the power of daily obedience.
There is no faith without disillusionment. The central message of the Christian faith is that a man (who is also God) lived without sin, died on a cross, was placed in a tomb, and after three days walked out…alive. If you don’t believe in Jesus, the Christian message sounds more ridiculous than flying pigs.
At the same time, there is no faith without face-to-face, hand-in-hand service. Real Christian ministry is really messy. It’s really slow. And it’s really about people, not ideas.
Talking with a college student recently about this, he summed it up beautifully. He said his perspective is to think idealistically and live in reality.
It’s time to fight cynicism. Yeah, cynicism is easy. That’s why most of the world chooses it. But, Christians don’t serve a God who specializes in easy. Christians serve a God who specializes in taking something hard or difficult and turning it into something beautiful. That’s your mission as well.
It’s time to stop running from the church because of disillusionment. It’s time to stop simplifying the church’s mission to nothing more than programs and steps. It’s time to stop trash-talking churches because their name is different. It’s time to stop bad-mouthing church leaders because they hurt you.
As Jesus says, “You who are without sin cast the first stone.” Translation: if you have never hurt someone, then by all means, trash those who hurt you. Since you have hurt people, you have no right to trash others. But you do have a right to pray for them.
What if every Christian lived with hope and joy? Maybe I’m disillusioned. But if I’m disillusioned, it’s because of the cross. And I refuse to believe God can’t operate outside of my logic. In the meantime, I won’t stop working for the kingdom. I won’t stop writing. I won’t stop preaching and teaching. I won’t stop discipling the next generation. I won’t give up on the church.
I want to challenge you to do the same. God is up to something at your workplace. He is doing something in your family. Believe it. Until then, work hard. Love your family well. Engage in your Christian community. Serve your city.
I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!